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Too big for our boots?

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Phil Mackay

Dad used to tell me that the powers that be had let Hamilton’s Central Business District get too big in the 1970s and ‘80s.

I’m not sure I appreciated what he really meant during my teen years in ‘90s Hamilton, but it’s an idea I’ve reflected on often in the years since.
How much more vibrant would the city centre be if it extended no further north than London Street, for example? If the businesses and workers in those blocks between London and Liverpool streets were accommodated in the CBD further south, how much busier might the retail shops and cafes be?

What’s more, imagine how many people we might house in that same area, within walkable distance of the city centre, the river and sports stadiums.

More recently, I’ve been asking the question of what to do about it now. How do we make a big CBD small again? It’s not as though we can just pick up those northern blocks and drop them in the downtown area.

The last five to 10 years have seen significant re-invigoration and re-investment in the city centre – think Genesis Energy, Waikato Regional Council, and ACC, not to mention the regional theatre due for completion next year.
But there are still empty shops on our main street, and the area north of London remains low-rise, low density, and underutilised. A number of people or organisations have approached our practice with their concerns about the vibrancy of the downtown central city.

To their credit, Hamilton City Council planners have grasped this challenge – or opportunity. The current district plan makes the distinction between the core CBD, the ‘Downtown’ precinct, and what is termed ‘City Living’ to the northern and western fringe, the objective being to encourage more residential and mixed use development around the fringes of the ‘Downtown’ area.

However, in my view we could go a lot further.

The central city zone features maximum height overlays that enable more building up rather than out, but why not have minimum height limits as well, or explore other mechanisms to encourage developers to build up? It seems crazy that we would allow single storey development to happen anywhere in our CBD.

Likewise, if we view that it’s desirable to direct commercial activity to the core downtown area, we could limit commercial above ground level in the City Living precinct, to ensure that this area sees more of a residential focus.

Those are only a couple of ideas for starters, but it’s important that our city planners and elected members – and those of us who vote for them – are both brave and creative in thinking about how we can shape a better, more vibrant central city for the future.

  • Phil Mackay is Business Development Manager for Paua Architects.
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Phil MacKay

Phil Mackay is Business Devolpment Manger at Hamilton-based PAUA, Procuta Associates Urban + Architecture