George St facelift set to fly or flop?

The Dunedin City Council’s preliminary concept design for a one-way southbound George St aims to...
The Dunedin City Council’s preliminary concept design for a one-way southbound George St aims to give increased priority to pedestrians and cyclists. Image: DCC

An urban designer says the plan to pedestrianise Dunedin's main street needs to be bolder. Some retailers say any change would be disastrous. But who really knows? Will the $28 million George St upgrade kill the heart of the city or breathe more life in to it? Bruce Munro takes a look.

"I seem to remember that it wasn't a straight-forward operation ... But then, on any construction site, nothing is straight-forward."

Margi Robertson, co-owner of the NOM*d fashion label and Plume retail shop, is recalling the George St infrastructure and urban design upgrade of the 1990s.

Along the length of Dunedin's main retail street, pipes were dug up and replaced so that stormwater and sewerage no longer gushed into Otago Harbour. Footpaths were contoured, trees and seating were added and grey asphalt was replaced with terracotta brick paving.

Three decades on, the Dunedin City Council is planning another pipe renewal project and a radical facelift for the city's historic and enduring retail high street.

Margi Robertson, ONZM. Photo: Linda Robertson
Margi Robertson, ONZM. Photo: Linda Robertson
Robertson is one of a small number of retailers in George St who were present during the earlier upgrade.

"As far as any disruption to trade goes, I wouldn't say we had anything that was noticeably detrimental," she says.

"And I seem to remember that a lot of the work was done in the evenings."

The final result was a distinct improvement.

But when it comes to the next round of main street refurbishments, Robertson does have reservations.

"The feel of an urban city is the sound of cars going past. People walking don't generate much energy," she says.

"At the moment it's not a bad area for retailers. So, if it ain't broken, you don't need to fix it."

What is broken and what isn't, what needs to be improved and whether it will be an improvement, whether it is a bold step or a step into oblivion are now burning questions.

Since early June, when the draft design for the $28 million, new-look George St was unveiled, opinion on the plan has become increasingly divided.

The plan, as it stands, will tip the balance in favour of pedestrians over motor vehicles.

Proposed changes include restricting traffic to one-way travelling south between Frederick St and Moray Pl, installing a counter-flow cycle/scooter lane and a paved carriageway between Hanover and St Andrew Sts, where cyclists and pedestrians would have priority over motorists.

A two-way "slow street" environment would be created in the block between Frederick and Albany Sts.

Kathryn Ward on Vogel St. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Kathryn Ward on Vogel St. PHOTO: PETER MCINTOSH
Native trees and plants, street furniture, public art and smart technology would be placed along George St to make the area a more attractive place to visit.

About 25 parking spaces for mobility card holders, delivery vehicles and drop-offs are included in the plan.

Before the above-ground work starts, ageing underground pipes will be replaced. The infrastructure renewal is separately priced at $18.3 million.

None of the work is due to start until 2021. It is expected to be completed by the end of the following year.

The George St revamp is one half of a $60 million upgrade of the central city that will include makeovers for Princes, Lower Stuart and Bath Sts.

In their report, Dunedin City Council urban designer Kathryn Ward and transport group manager Richard Saunders said the aim of the George St redesign was to increase vibrancy, improve safety and accessibility and enhance the overall experience of the street.

The George St vision has been widely supported. That was evident in feedback on the city's 10 year plan, in which 70% of submitters supported the $60 million option for the central city upgrade. Strong support is also clear in an Otago Daily Times online survey that asks "Do you support the new George St design concept?". Of the 6326 respondents to date, 70% say "Yes".

But there are those who think the plan does not go far enough. And others who think George St is already perfect.

George St business owner Brent Weatherall is angry about the proposed changes to George St. PHOTO...
George St business owner Brent Weatherall is angry about the proposed changes to George St. PHOTO: Gregor Richardson
George St jeweller Brent Weatherall has been one of the most vocal opponents.

He is angry about the proposal, which he fears will turn the central business district (CBD) into a ghost town and lead to the opening of "satellite malls" elsewhere in Dunedin.

"We've got character in spades in Dunedin.

"We need to preserve our main street.

"If they want people just to sit on park benches and smell the roses; I'm sorry, the CBD is for doing business, convenient business."

Weatherall says other independent retailers and building owners he has spoken to are "all against it".

Next month, he plans to organise a petition opposing the plan.

"I'm saying no, we want to preserve what we've got.

"People are either going to be with me or against me. But I'm not afraid to speak up."

Dr Crystal Filep. Photo; Supplied
Dr Crystal Filep. Photo; Supplied
Seeing things differently is Dr Crystal Filep.

This year, after working in the University of Otago School of Surveying, Dr Filep took up a job as an urban designer at the Wellington City Council. She believes Dunedin needs to unleash a bolder plan for George St.

The main street should be completely closed to most traffic, most of the time, Dr Filep says.

"I would totally do it.

"I don't really see the benefit of [making several blocks of George St one way], to be honest.

"I think you'd want something a bit more bold and a bit more gutsy than that."

She says there is growing evidence pedestrianisation is good for retail shops.

"If you are walking past some windows and having an experience, talking with your friends, you're much more likely to notice something in a shop window and pop in."

Dr Filep is a fan of retractable bollards that would allow service vehicles to enter the area in the early morning, a limited amount of public transport through at other times and general vehicles through in the evenings.

She cites the 2011 pedestrianisation of Kongresni Square, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where over-sized golf carts provide free public transport throughout the pedestrian area.

Others ask if we yet have enough information to really know whether the plan is good or bad.

Prof Nathan Berg says a rigorous examination of benefits and costs needs to be undertaken before the George St pedestrianisation takes place.

Prof Nathan Berg. Photo: ODT files
Prof Nathan Berg. Photo: ODT files
"Debate over how best to invest the $28 million in Dunedin's CBD should be welcomed as an expression of our residents' civic-mindedness," Prof Berg, the recently appointed Chair of Entrepreneurship at the University of Otago, says.

He says there is a buzz up and down the country about good things happening in Dunedin, "for which many city leaders and council staffers deserve sincere acknowledgement".

This will attract entrepreneurs.

"Entrepreneurs are ... attracted to places that attract other people, enabling ideas and physical things to move flexibly."

But he adds that an in-depth, rational cost-benefit analysis is an important part of due diligence when undertaking a large investment project.

"Competing proposals about how Dunedin's economic development will unfold should inspire us - both proponents and opponents of proposals now under consideration - to collect relevant information, evaluate both benefits and costs and make refinements after honestly considering how those benefits and costs are to be distributed."

Prof Berg says there are tools available to identify and weigh up direct and indirect costs.

Issues he believes need to be examined include the cost of longer travel times, reduced car access and fewer car parks.

"A rough calculation suggests Dunedin residents could lose at least a million dollars worth of time - lost leisure and wage income - for every two-minute increase in the average CBD visitor's transit time. "When you think about jobs or the private investment spending required to deal with the ecological challenges we face, we need Dunedin's retail sector to be strong and play a constructive role.

"Rather than pretending pedestrianisation and fewer car parks will have no effect on foot traffic and the number of CBD visitors, we need to carefully measure those potentially negative effects.

"Then we can rationally weigh those costs against ecological and public health benefits.

"The onus is on us to use evidence-based metrics to demonstrate to ourselves which will be the smart investments."

In response to questions by the Otago Daily Times, city councillor David Benson-Pope agreed a cost-benefit analysis should be undertaken.

Cr Benson-Pope, who is chairman of the Planning and Environment Committee, says an analysis plan is being developed by the project team as part of the design process for the Central City Plan.

Council staff and elected members concede the design is a still-evolving process and that it faces some significant challenges.

The first consultation on the plan was eight years ago, DCC urban designer Ward says.

This year, there have been 25 stakeholder workshops, 43 public roadshows, several paper surveys and online information.

"The preliminary design presented to the council is an initial `look and feel' for George St, of how it may look in the future," she says.

A team of designers, planners, architects and contractors are reviewing and developing the design, based on information from the consultation.

David Benson-Pope
David Benson-Pope
Cr Benson-Pope says those working on the project include a small, in-house, city council design team led by Ward, plus staff from Christchurch construction firm Isaac Construction, national urban designers Jasmax and multi-national engineering firm Aecom.

Ward says the scale of what will be a "transformational" project is challenging.

"One of the biggest challenges DCC faces is co-ordinating the work with other major projects happening across Dunedin. DCC and the project team are working alongside project managers from the hospital, [Otago Regional Council], [New Zealand Transport Agency], and other city organisations to co-ordinate construction works."

Dr Filep says key challenges will be creating a distinctively Dunedin pedestrian area and ensuring there are always "eyes on the street".

"If you want to really lift the game, a good pedestrianised area will also help tell the story of the place.

"How can it be done in a way that ... is uniquely Dunedin?"

What must be avoided at all costs is creating a "dead zone", Dr Filep says.

"You want a certain kind of life that is happening throughout different times of the day.

"It shouldn't always be the same kinds of life."

This will add vibrancy and, with the "eyes on the street" it brings, it will help ensure the area remains safe.

Otago Chamber of Commerce chief executive Dougal McGowan says in-depth planning will be critical.

"It's about how we create continuity plans for those businesses, and ways for people to engage and not change habits," McGowan says.

"Dunedin is unique in still having a very strong main street retailing sector," he says.

"We've got to look at what has worked elsewhere, look at what works here, look at what hasn't worked elsewhere and make sure we don't make those same mistakes."

Cr Benson-Pope says that lines up well with the council's vision for George St.

"I understand some business people are apprehensive. They don't know what's going to happen.

"But we treasure a really successful central shopping street. The central part of Dunedin hasn't been destroyed as other towns have been by big suburban malls.

"The city has actually played quite a role in that."

The council can afford the cost of the upgrade, Cr Benson-Pope says.

"And it certainly couldn't afford the consequences of not doing anything.

"It would be ridiculous to dig up the road and do the other infrastructure work and not take the opportunity to improve the centre of our city."

Cr Benson-Pope was a city councillor during the 1990s, when the last George St upgrade occurred.

He takes heart from the opposition there was at the time.

"Last time ... I got various letters from people who `die-in-the-ditch, you are going to destroy my business, the end of the world is nigh'.

"Most of them had the good grace to admit they were wrong and that the improvements were a substantial help to their business because more people came and the environment was more attractive.

"I've got absolute confidence that that is exactly what will happen again."

Broadway Arcade, 1931. Sievwright James Nichol and Stark Records, Un-029, Hocken Collections.
Broadway Arcade, 1931. Sievwright James Nichol and Stark Records, Un-029, Hocken Collections.
Dunedin's Broadway Arcade was the city's original pedestrian shopping precinct. It was also the "wildest place in town" during the gold rush. It began, in 1861, as a narrow passageway of planks linking High and Maclaggan Sts, with rough wooden shops on each side, 54 in all, plus a hotel.

At the height of the gold rush it was a boisterous unruly part of town, especially on Saturday nights. In 1866, the thoroughfare was widened, the shops were rebuilt in brick and it was renamed Fleet St. A roof was added 20 years later. By the turn of the century, its importance as a shopping and entertainment area had declined and it gradually fell into disrepair. In 1931, the buildings were demolished and 32 new shops were built. The official opening (pictured above) was attended by a large crowd.

Now called Broadway, it continued to be a privately owned retail street for another 30 years. It was kept as pedestrian-only until a petrol station was added in the 1950s.


Making the road safe for cars

George St looking south in 1969. The road was for cars. Photo; ODT files
George St looking south in 1969. The road was for cars. Photo; ODT files
For 100 years, roads have belonged to cars.

It was not always that way.

Until the early 1900s, roads were the shared domain of pedestrians, cyclists, horse-drawn carriages and, latterly, cable cars as well as the odd, new-fangled horseless carriage.

The development of roads and the advancement of the motorcar, however, brought a convenient synergy that hastened change. Automobiles were fuelled by gasoline, a by-product of distilling kerosene from petroleum. Another by-product was bitumen, good for making roads.

Better roads and more cars meant

more accidents. Pedestrians were being injured and killed in alarming numbers.

Or, as historians of the Smithsonian Institution put it, "When automobiles entered ... a century ago, their first trick was to start a war between humans and machines: They drove people off the streets."

By 1925, in the US, two thirds of all deaths in cities were caused by auto accidents.

In New Zealand that year, there were 103 road deaths. That was out of a population of 1.4 million. As a proportion of the New Zealand population, it is equivalent to the annual road toll of today - 377 in 2018 - but caused by just 82,000 motor vehicles, compared with 5.3 million vehicles today.

Motor vehicle manufacturers and owners in the US became concerned public opinion was turning against car drivers. Car sales began to fall in the early 1920s. They came up with a plan.

"Hayes and his car-company colleagues decided to fight back," Smithsonian historians say.

"It was time to target, not the behaviour of cars, but the behaviour of pedestrians. Motordom would have to persuade city people that, as Hayes argued, `the streets are made for vehicles to run upon' and not for people to walk.

"If you got run over, it was your fault, not that of the motorist."

They coined the term "jaywalker". A "jay" was a slang term for a country bumpkin. The aim was to convince urbanites that crossing roads wherever they pleased was unsophisticated. Cars also carried signs in their windows, warning pedestrians to be careful when crossing streets.

In New Zealand, motoring organisations used similar strategies, right down to warning signs in car windows.

Excerpts from New Zealand newspapers show the changing attitude.

In the Dominion, in March, 1913, complaints about speeding "joyriders" in Auckland resulted in the police saying they would "keep cars in the Epsom district under observation".

Opinion was more divided by 1920, when, in the Otago Daily Times, in April, a dangerous driving court case prompted, "Who does not upon occasion feel the vials of his righteous wrath stirred to their depths at the spectacle of a motor vehicle driven at a reckless rate to the possible peril of the unwary pedestrian or anything that it may encounter; For every accident that is occasioned by such a cause as this there are a hundred narrow escapes ... But nobody is more interested than the motorcar owner himself in securing the firm repression of a manner of driving that makes our roads unsafe ..."

By 1930, opinion was firmly in the motorcar's favour. Comments from a Court of Appeal case, quoted in The Press, in October, stated, "A pedestrian who holds up a motorcar and gets out of the way nonchalantly at the very last minute is by no means an infrequent phenomenon. Whether or not it is that they resent other people having motorcars I don't know, but a great many pedestrians simply will not get out of the way until the last minute."

It had worked.

For the next century, the streets belonged to motorised vehicles.


Five of the world's best pedestrianised roadways

Stroget, Copenhagen. Photo: Getty Images
Stroget, Copenhagen. Photo: Getty Images

This walking retail area is one of the longest pedestrianised streets in the world. The 1.1km-long stretch of historic inner-city Copenhagen has been vehicle-free since 1962, making it one of the forerunners of modern pedestrianisation. Today, its mix of high-end and affordable shopping, restaurants and street entertainers means it is a drawcard for Danes and international visitors.


An alleyway, foot traffic-only street full of unusual shops and innovative restaurants. Cat Street is tucked between the main streets in the Harajuku and Shibuya fashion districts of Tokyo. It is a quirky area that is renowned for those wanting to do some serious window shopping and people watching.


This small European city was named European Green Capital of the Year in 2016. Key to that was the renovation and pedestrianisation of the historic city centre in 2011. Only walkers, cyclists and glorified electric golf carts, which provide free transport, are allowed in the square and across its distinctive triple bridge.


Buchanan St has become the hub of Glaswegian shopping since vehicles were banned in 1978. Its range of budget and boutique stores, street performers and what some consider the best examples of Victorian Scottish architecture have made it a premier pedestrian-only retail area.


One of the oldest pedestrian streets in the world, Qianmen St has architecture that dates to the Ming Dynasty, which ended in 1644. Rebuilt in 1965 and upgraded ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it is a popular mixture of historic and contemporary Chinese culture, couture and cuisine.





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The key is free public transport that is easy to use and reliable. Dunedin had trams... a modern version such as the glorified golf carts that are hop on hop off and free to use would be great.

If George St is to remain the heart of the city it.s planning must be synchronous with other parts of the city. Stopping big box development and car accessed retail in areas such as Crawford St will be necessary.

No way, we need more retail away from cbd that can provide accessible and free parking. Thats one of the major attractions of big box or outer cbd shopping. It’s absolutely impossible for a family or elderly to get a park even close to where they want to go in terms of shopping in town. Even if you’re willing to pay, you have 30 mins to one hour to complete your shopping at best (farmers of course are way more generous- you can stay in the car park as long as you need at $4 per hour) Also, It’s not realistic, close enough to home or affordable for all to get the bus in. Keep George Street and meridian for those working in the cbd, students and tourists and please provide a shopping mall away form town and all its madness for the average family and elderly.

It's fashionable to argue that having a little less car traffic in order to have a little more foot traffic is a desirable tradeoff. The more likely reality is that we'll actually have less of both.

It's astounding that no cost-benefit analysis has been undertaken. But beware of one commissioned by those pushing for change as the outcome will then be pre-ordained — that happened in Chch and as a result they've got unused and unusable cycleways running through their CBD.

Also need to balance new/revitalised commercial areas with population growth – Vogel St, Harbour Basin, South Dunedin…I think the horse may have already bolted!

1930: "A pedestrian who holds up a motorcar and gets out of the way nonchalantly at the very last minute is by no means an infrequent phenomenon. Whether or not it is that they resent other people having motorcars I don't know, but a great many pedestrians simply will not get out of the way until the last minute."

2019: Lime put swift moving scooters on the pavements.....

Someone is being a little disingenuous suggesting Dunedin is even remotely comparable to the four cities listed. Even Ljubljana is 3 times the population of Dunedin and is largely a flat terrain.

The DCC are simply anti car. DCC staff, the mayor and some others fervently believe the world will be better without cars and Dunedin is a good place to begin the process. If a few mistakes are made on the way and a few (or most) businesses go broke then that is a small price to pay. These myopic fools won't be risking or spending their own money, so there is nothing to lose.
All hail the end of personal cars! The mayor is so hypocritical he doesn't even use his own car, he just sponges off everyone else.

The winners of closing George St will be skateboarding Students. People with money to spend will simply shop elsewhere.

In my memory Dunedins main street spread from before the exchange to Knox Church. If in 5 years time the main street is vacant and shopping is only in the suburbs where people can still drive to, then so be it.

- Keep it a two way street.
- Slow traffic down to 15km/h.
- Put other traffic calming measures in.
- KEEP a number of 15-30 minute PUBLIC parks, and make them free...
- Repave the whole street so it's like Beach St in Queenstown (road and footpath on same level, separated by bollards etc).

Best way to go about this.

So here we have yet another biased article about the virtues of doing away with cars on the main street, all I read about were people extolling the virtues and one person (almost a footnote) against it.
How is this fair reporting.

If business owners in the affected area agree it will work, then I approve of it. If they are not asked and if they are coerced in any way, I am against it.

Dunedin is a dying city. Anything is better than nothing as far as making things better. That said, completely ignorant to think something like this is going to improve the CBD. Need some original thought instead of the "Same Old" dull ideas from the DCC braintrust.

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