Cambridge on a roll


If Cambridge architect Antanas Procuta starts his day early enough, he hears not only a dawn chorus of birds but also the sound of an early-dawn peloton biking past his house opposite the tennis courts. The young athletes are on their way out for a training loop in the countryside, and it’s a welcome sound for Procuta as they chat to each other on their way.

Cambridge is getting younger and the early morning whirring of cyclists’ tyres is one sign of it.

The change is welcomed by many, including Procuta who has lived in the town for much of his life.

These days you are likely to rub shoulders with elite sportspeople in the supermarkets and town centre, as Karapiro and the Avantidrome play their part in attracting the cream of the country’s rowing and cycling elite.

That is also welcomed by Cambridge Community Board member Philip Coles. “Having our Olympians and world champions around here, the kids love it.”

Adults, too, are enjoying the transformation as Cambridge sheds its previous image as a town of older people and rides a wave of growth.

The scale is dramatic, with a report to Waipā District Council in 2017 picking the town to grow to a 30,000 population by 2050. The report said that would represent an increase of 14,000, requiring another 7000 homes and 580 hectares of new residential land.

All of that makes it a far bigger town than the 7000-odd residents when Procuta went to school there.

Back then, Cambridge was a farming and horse racing centre surrounded by a generous town belt. Hautapu to its north boasted the dairy factory and a grocery store, and the Aotearoa meatworks dominated in the other direction, south of Leamington. It was also a dormitory town, feeding a daily commute into nearby Hamilton. That is still a fact of life, as is the dairy factory, but the meatworks has long gone and both Hautapu and the Aotearoa area are filling with new industrial development.

Those driving along the expressway can see earthworks underway, and rezoning of some land has seen a 56.7 hectare area northeast of the town established as Bardowie Industrial Precinct, with aluminium manufacturer APL to shift operations there from Hamilton.

Procuta welcomes their arrival as an owner-occupier with a green star building. It fits with his vision for Cambridge, which revolves around locals with a commitment to the town creating quality legacy developments. One of his frustrations with the district council is the way in which it regularly enlists design consultants from outside the town, rather than those who live in it, understand it, and have a commitment to it.

He also has strong views around growing vertically, rather than spreading out, which may not entirely align with the growth cells envisaged by town planners.

Those growth cells are positioned outside the current green belt like fire leaping a firebreak, and Procuta wonders how the town will redefine a new “edge”.

He points out the spread is into prime agricultural and horticultural land that is probably unique in the world.

“What has made Cambridge successful? I think a key element is really good surveyors at the outset in 1863. There was a new philosophy at that time of a green belt and public amenity spaces within,” he says. “And that really strong definition between what is urban and what is rural. It’s almost like a palisade but actually it’s just between two different activities. That green belt constraint I think made Cambridge fantastic.”

His concern is that current planning lacks the sense of a new green belt, a new boundary.

“There’s no indication there will be a limit somewhere. And that is the challenge.”

When it comes to future growth cells, each one needs to have its own identity, a sense of community centre, rather than just growing as an accretion of the town, he says.

Growing pains aside, for now Cambridge is whirring along nicely. Procuta says that has been helped by a council decision to invest in the centre. “When I came back to Cambridge [from the UK]in 1994 there were empty shops and people were worried about the future of Cambridge. Now there are no empty shops and people are looking for more space. But the Waipā District Council did invest in streetscaping and after that the building owners started spending more money and the shops got more confident.”

The main street boasts a mix of boutique stores, eateries and antiques among other retailers. Cambridge Chamber of Commerce chief executive Kelly Bouzaid says some of the food trailers around town are a story in their own right. That includes Hanoi Boy and Smoke Collective, the latter proving so successful it is opening an outlet in Carter’s Flat.

“It’s all part of the ambience,” Bouzaid says. 

Meanwhile, Destination Cambridge chief executive Miff Macdiarmid highlights Homebrew Coffee and Ivy Florist at the south end of Victoria Street.

“That’s quite fun because retail is creeping a bit further out, and nice funky retail,” she says.

The variety is appealing, and shows no sign of abating.

“It has that village feel, it’s got a lot of energy and there’s a real cool factor sneaking in,” Bouzaid says.

She says there are some “very cool” businesses operating in Cambridge, with a number of international businesses also looking to base themselves there. “There’s a great appeal from a location, safety and a lifestyle point of view.”

Insurance broker David Cooney, who has an office close to the town centre, points out the IT industry has a developing presence. “Some of these smaller businesses are establishing themselves on the world stage.

“Out of that comes a stable workforce. A lot of people in the town actually work here.”

Coles also sells lifestyle real estate and says he gets a cross section of buyers, including overseas.”They see Cambridge as a great central spot, close to Hamilton and Auckland and to the beaches on the east and west coast, the lakes in Rotorua, Taupo. And then the mountains aren’t far away, plus a university and good hospital nearby. It ticks a lot of boxes.”

The town is also becoming a visitor destination, bringing day trippers from Auckland to stores that would be equally at home in Parnell. Even with the expressway bypassing the town, the streets quickly fill up and parking is one of the town’s challenges, often remarked on.

It’s a delicate business, given how deeply embedded is the rural tradition of, as Bouzaid puts it, going to the bank and being able to park right outside.

The solution may partly come back to making it more obvious there is parking behind the main street, and also from enforcement of time limits, with employees playing their part by parking further away. The feasibility of carpark buildings is being looked into.

Bouzaid points to the need for an improved bus service within and between Cambridge and Leamington, as does Procuta.

And there is talk about creating a transport hub at the top end of town, with rail, buses, park and ride capability and cycleways.

Meanwhile, a new bridge looks to be off the agenda for now. “We just don’t yet have the population to justify [a new bridge],” Bouzaid says. “Where they are looking, which is a great idea, is a western bridge down the bottom of Vogel Street. The width of the river there basically takes it from a $35 million bridge to a $55 million bridge.” 

For Procuta, who has thought deeply about Cambridge’s development, part of the answer lies in creating a more walkable town.

He envisages a radically different centre, surrounded by three to four storey mixed-use retail-office-apartment buildings. That would include bordering the town square, in his view.

Fortunately, he says, a lot of the property is owned by Cambridge residents who are interested in leaving a legacy for the town.

One of the things he likes about Cambridge is the sequence of landmarks, tracking from the water tower on Hamilton Road, to St Andrew’s Church and the “Pink Church” on the other side of Victoria Street, the town hall, the town clock, even the High Level bridge. “All these are important and well designed buildings that mark and make identity.”

Across the river, Leamington lacks such landmarks but he believes it will also grow in character. One impediment is Shakespeare Street, carrying trucks like an arterial route. “That needs to change. As long as you’ve got that knife cutting the two parts of the village in half, that destroys the flavour of it.”

But there is much to enjoy in what all those interviewed agree is a “fantastic” town to live in.

In the words of Coles, a fifth-generation Cambridge resident: “We have a phenomenal town here. It’s just a great place to live and work and do business and bring up your family. We’re lucky with all the good schooling here, both state schools and private schools in Cambridge and Hamilton. It has a great atmosphere.”

Making connections

Our cover photo for this issue was taken by Cambridge architect Antanas Procuta some 20 years ago when he realised it was possible to capture the town’s iconic clock tower and Maungatautari in a single image. Connecting the two landmarks was about acknowledging the Māori origins of the area. “There are things that are Māori that we aren’t recognising as well as we ought to. And the Waikato River flows right through Cambridge. When I lived in Cambridge in England, I pictured in my mind you could photograph the town clock and Maungatautari, a pou whenua,” he says. “I’m positive that in time there will be a change.” His firm, PAUA Architects, is designing the museum upgrade in Cambridge, which will stand alongside the old courthouse at the south end of the CBD, and more than double the size of the museum and its display, workshop and storage spaces. “That’s the opportunity to reflect the Māori history of Cambridge as well as that of the early settlers.”

Visitors pour in for events

The annual waka ama champs at Karapiro draw 10,000 people. Photo: Michael Jeans

Cambridge’s resident population is booming, and so are visitor numbers.

Some are drawn by the town’s proximity to major tourism attractions Hobbiton, Waitomo and Rotorua, some are drawn by the town’s intrinsic charms and large numbers flock in for events.

That keeps the town’s i-SITE staff busy. They dealt with 40,000 customer contacts in the past year, up about seven percent on the same time a year earlier.

“We tend to get an older demographic coming into our visitor centres,” says Destination Cambridge chief executive Miff Macdiarmid, who is based at i-SITE.

“They’ve heard about Cambridge, that it’s a nice place to stop, and has a village feel. Some people come for certain things, whether it’s antiques or autumn colours or the blossom festival. It’s also a nice place on the way down from Auckland if they’re coming straight from the airport.

“A lot of people are coming to Cambridge, basing themselves here and they’ll head off to Hobbiton or Waitomo or Sanctuary Mountain.”

In summer, a whopping 50 percent of their customers are international tourists, with 30 percent Cambridge locals and the remaining 20 percent domestic tourists.

Events are key, but Macdiarmid and her team are also marketing Cambridge in other ways. They are working on adding rural attractions, particularly for the Chinese market. And they promote the town’s centrality, to Auckland and Hamilton airports as well as to Hamilton Gardens, and the other major attractions in the region.

Events can bring huge numbers to the town and its surrounds, many of them based around rowing and cycling. The Maadi secondary schools rowing regatta, held at Karapiro every second year, attracts 10,000. That includes plenty of spectating grandparents, who are likely to stay in and around Cambridge. This year Maadi coincided with the town’s Autumn Festival. The annual waka ama champs also draw around 10,000, and a remarkably busy start to 2019 also saw the week-long New Zealand Cycle Classic in January, with riders from around the world competing in the country’s only UCI 2.2 event. On top of that, a week earlier the Avantidrome hosted a leg of the Track World Cup series.

Fieldays provides a further filip in June, but Macdiarmid and others are also working to boost events in the town during traditional downtimes.

Accommodation options include a range of hotels, from the Podium Lodge with its Olympic village vibe, to the Hamilton Airport hotel, due to undergo a refurbishment under its new airport owners, Lakeview Lodge at Karapiro and, at the seriously high end, the Henley Hotel, formerly Sania Park.

Macdiarmid says Hidden Lake Hotel, under construction at Lakewood and due to open next year, will be an important addition.

Air B&Bs play a crucial role taking the overflow during major events, and there is an increasing number around Karapiro, Macdiarmid says.

Meanwhile, she says, one of their biggest opportunities is making Cambridge a destination for Auckland visitors, including families taking a break “having a few days and just really enjoying it”.


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