Garden Place set to make comeback

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Is Garden Place about to make a big comeback to its glory days? Are all the signs there for a major renaissance?

Yes, according to some commentators who say a mixture of new development and a plan to stage a series of events in the much-maligned square are at last a sign of real momentum.

Others say it’s going to take a more fundamental shift.

But there are certainly some promising signs. A range of decisions and developments in the last few months have coincided to provide impetus for the civic space.

Matt Stark’s redevelopment of the CML building on the Civic Square corner of Garden Place, which he is turning into co-working space with a roof-top bar, is exciting because of his track record in creating quality buildings throughout the inner city.

The new look Panama Square, complete with a new canopy and new windows, should transform the prominent corner of Garden Place.

Creative Waikato’s move into Garden Place and the much-anticipated re-opening of the have added to the momentum, while the other big shift has been in attitude.

In December, Hamilton City Council shelved plans to support a private redevelopment of Garden Place proposed by Stark and Steve McLennan, which would have made the area a shared zone and put in car parking. The council was responding to a public backlash about the prospect of more money being spent on Garden Place after previous upgrades.

The council instead agreed to provide Hamilton Central Business Association (HCBA) $100,000 a year for a three year “activation plan” to bring more events into the CBD’s four main spaces: Garden Place, Civic Square, Victoria on the River and Embassy Park.

HCBA general manager Vanessa Williams has wasted no time getting some action. On September 1 there was a two-hour celebration in Garden Place to launch and mark 10 years of the LGBTQIA community’s Pride Week in Hamilton.

This is being followed up on September 21 by PARK(ing) Day, where the New Zealand Institute of Architecture Waikato/Bay of Plenty branch will set up temporary parklet spaces in Garden Place, aimed at raising awareness of the important role public open space plays in quality of life.

November’s Round the Bridges will feature an event in Garden Place on the Saturday, the day before the race when registrations are taking place.

Vanessa says more is on the way.

Helping all of these events gain some life is a decision made by the council last month to bend its rules a little so mobile food trucks could be allowed into Garden Place whenever events take place. The last council had stuck with the somewhat rigid bylaw after pressure from businesses who felt mobile traders were unfair competition.

The new decision in effect authorises the council to use discretion and to disregard the bylaw when significant events were taking place.

The CML building on the corner of Garden Place is being redeveloped by Matt Stark into a co-working space.

The CML building on the corner of Garden Place is being redeveloped by Matt Stark into a co-working space.

Vanessa, who pushed for allowing food trucks into Garden Place, welcomes the move which she feels will make the prospect of bringing an event there more enticing for potential organisers.

But does all of this add up to a rejuvenated Garden Place?

CBD Association member and NAI Harcourts managing director Mike Neale thinks Garden Place is on the “cusp” of real change. He points to Stark Properties’ development, Creative Waikato’s move and the re-opening of the library. That and HCBA’s activation plan could make a real difference, he says.

“I’ve always said you need a mixture of these things to come together to create a bit of momentum for change,” he says.

“I’m pretty positive about it. There are some design elements of Garden Place that probably need to be added but the key is to get some momentum and it’s going to come through that mix of capital expenditure and activation of the space.”

Hamilton Mayor Andrew King says the activation plan is a great start but more is needed to turn Garden Place around.

He says the private redevelopment of Garden Place, which would bring in some traffic and parking to the square is still on the council’s books, provided it can find private funding for the whole project.

And he emphasises getting parking back into Garden Place is important.

He says on a recent trip through Europe he visited a number of cities of similar size to Hamilton and all had public squares in the centre that allowed parking but could be bollarded off for big events.

Andrew says Garden Place’s success comes down to getting quality buildings and quality tenants.

He says Garden Place should be the home of the city’s “blue chip” bars and cafes which are currently spread around other parts of the CBD. That should be the ultimate aim.

Meanwhile Matt Stark, whose company is redeveloping a crucial building in Garden Place, isn’t ready to predict Garden Place’s future. But he thinks his plans will certainly contribute.

“I don’t know about the big picture, all I can do is focus on my plans there. And I think if you bring in 100 sophisticated people into our new building to work then I believe we are moving in the right direction.”

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Geoff Taylor

Waikato Business News editor Geoff Taylor. Email: geoff@wbn.co.nz