Cover of Shopping Centre News, from 28th February, 2015

by Michelle Cramer
Shopping Centre News
28 Feb 2015
pp. 13-16

Spread from Shopping Centre News, pp. 13-16

“The Augusta Pro Golf Tournament nets three times the television sales as any other pro golf tournament in the world. With the same game, same length of course and same players, why is this so? Because the character and identity of the place is so distinctive.”

Paul Davies

Let’s call this the Augusta Effect.

Valuing place is a complex task but the notion that a place can have a quantifiable value as a consequence of its identity provides a framework to consider place consumption. In my recent articles I have been challenging that new economic models will need to emerge to value and add value to new style bricks and mortar retail environments. I previously investigated the ACT Government’s activation of Lake Burley Griffin’s shore with the Westside @ Acton Park ‘pop up village’ project. In this article, I look at the now established Britomart in Auckland, New Zealand, from the perspective of place consumption. While Britomart has been the subject of previous Shopping Centre News articles, it is worth considering the project from a place consumption perspective rather than merely a description of place. In this way we can determine how the project contributes to the evolution of place making.

As is well documented, Britomart is a retail-based destination on Waitemata Harbour in Auckland’s lower central business district. It occupies 6.5 hectares of waterfront, incorporating revitalised heritage buildings, new developments and a network of open spaces. It is located immediately adjacent Auckland’s main transport hub, the Britomart Transport Centre. After lucky escapes and heritage preservation orders, a proposal was developed for a mixed-use community at Britomart that would also preserve its special heritage, and in 2002 Auckland Council put the development contract up for tender. After an international design competition and a lengthy competitive bid process, the right to the Britomart development was won by the Bluewater Consortium. Consortium members Cooper and Company later took over responsibility for the regeneration and long-term management of Britomart.

According to the Britomart website, the master plan for Britomart includes the refurbishment of 18 heritage buildings and the construction of seven environmentally friendly new ones. Work began on restoring the old buildings in 2004, with many now fully refurbished. On completion, it will be the largest heritage restoration project ever undertaken in New Zealand. Charter Customs Building, the precinct’s first new building and the first element of Westpac on Takutai Square, opened in 2009. Two major new buildings, the Ernst & Young Building and the second element of Westpac on Takutai Square, were completed in April 2011. Opened at the same time was Atrium on Takutai, the covered shopping gallery running between the two new buildings. Medium-term retail developments include The Pavilions, a complex of designer boutiques, courtyard gardens and hospitality spaces in the centre of the precinct, which was completed in December 2012. The 1970s Seafarers Building on Tyler Street has undergone an interim refurbishment, though there are more plans for development in the future. In 2014 the Quay and Altrans buildings were refurbished. The refurbishment brings back past features that had been destroyed in previous renovation works and redesigns the spaces to suit food and beverage tenants on the ground floors and offices above. The Britomart Car Park Building was completed in April 2011 and provides essential parking facilities for the 4,000 people who now work in the precinct. This describes the project’s physical dimension. It is important to provide this visual reference before considering the additional place consumption elements of the project. As with many successful place consumptive spaces, Britomart is more than meets the eye.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Britomart as an urban retailing precinct loved and enjoyed by visitors today is a consequence of a much larger project, physically speaking. Behind the edgy landscape and designer boutiques lies a transport project. The $NZ204 million project provided a catalyst to bring trains back into downtown Auckland City for the first time in over 70 years, and created a public transport interchange for trains, buses and ferries on the harbour that service the CBD and, more importantly, the growth of the CBD towards the harbour. The re-opening of the Britomart transport interchange has stimulated patronage in the rail network across the region with rail patronage rising by around 30% since the station opened, with usage doubling from the previous rail station in the first year of operation. The catalytic investment and subsequent focus of people at the site cannot be underestimated. This investment took the first step in shifting the site from a derelict, unwanted waterfront to a place of potential …and potential value for developers, investors, governments, consumers and the community as a whole. The first stage of the Augusta Effect was in place.

Place consumption is all about relationships. The Britomart project, like the Westside @ Acton Park ‘pop up village’ project discussed previously, is founded on a public-private collaboration this time between the Britomart Group of companies and Auckland Council. Cooper and Company is the asset and development manager for the Britomart Group which holds a contract for the long-term ownership and development of the Britomart Precinct. Two elements are key regarding this relationship. In the first instance, Cooper and Company are interested in long-term asset holds and throughout their profile and discussion of Britomart often use language that includes “build long-term assets,” “partnerships,” and “legacy.” This of course means that their commercial assessments are based on a long term view and not a reliance on opportunistic exchanges of capital. The value of the place can therefore grow and consolidate under the guidance of one entity. And as it turns out, that one entity is more than financially invested. The second point is that Cooper and Company was founded by Peter Cooper, a Californian-based New Zealander with a vested interest in his homeland and a highly innovative and entrepreneurial approach with respect to business models through to energy solutions. Like the Westside @ Acton example, this new business thinking is establishing a relationship between identity and commercial value and paving the way to a sustainable and future-enabling place-based retail economy.

So while the day to day property, facilities and precinct management of Britomart is provided by Britomart Group Management Company, with Cooper and Company having responsibility for strategic asset management and property development, the approach is anything but ordinary. What would be traditionally understood as building leasing has been blown out to precinct leasing coupled with high quality public realm delivery. Same Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, different management strategy. It’s no surprise perhaps that this management style does not come from a shopping centre foundation. Rather, Cooper and Company’s real estate activities include facilities and hospitality for The Landing, a lifestyle, wildlife and adventure destination in the Bay of Islands, event services management for Vector Arena in Auckland, and a master planned Texas town centre called Southlake Town Square. With this diverse property and events knowledge, Cooper and Company are able to bring to Britomart a different business approach that is reflected in the place experience and translating into an Augusta Effect for Auckland

The place experience at Britomart is literally pulled apart. The most visual component of the Britomart development is the Britomart Central site. This is home to the retail and hospitality precinct called The Pavilions.

Set against the background of new and historic buildings, The Pavilions area is designed not as a building but as an ‘urban garden’ focusing on landscape initiatives.

Indeed, the designer Nat Cheshire of Cheshire Architects, described the development as an “anti-architecture” project, with a focus on linkages, greenery and signage rather than bricks and mortar. Connected by technology and wi-fi, rather than traditional mall structures, the retail precinct works as a collection of places to be explored, engaged with and viewed in the round. Linking the urban elements is the award winning Showcase structure. The Showcase is a structural steel-perforated black aluminium panel structure that is illuminated at night to contribute to the night-time economy. Public art is key to the experience with the central Sanctuary Garden showcasing Chris Bailey’s work Pou Tū Te Rangi, or ‘the standing posts that reach for the heavens’. This is part of a broader art strategy that contributes to the identity of the place. Together, these elements are contributing to a ‘new postcard’ image for Auckland’s waterfront and, in Augusta Golf Pro terms, suggests the potential for exponential lift in value compared to other mixed-use waterfront precincts or other areas of the city

A clear observation of the site today, is that Britomart Central is under scaled and under developed by metropolitan city making standards. It is therefore unsurprising to discover that The Pavilions at Britomart is a medium-term development located on a future development site. It is mid-development journey. Originally used for hosting public events, sporting activities, music festivals, art installations, community and cultural events, and a city farmers’ market, the area will again transform; eventually including mixed-use buildings of a scale commensurate with the Ernst & Young and Westpac buildings on Takutai Square. In doing so, the proposal intends to retain the identity and character established through both stages of the current development program and retain the ‘postcard image’ status of the waterfront. In this way, The Pavillions provide a future visual memory of what is to come, and what is to endure at the waterfront site. More importantly when considering the Augusta Effect is that rather than a fallow site awaiting market driven timelines, the project is facilitating its own project uplift. With each stage of development unapologetically investing in a unique and highly visual identity, the project is increasing its own desirability and therefore value in terms of land costs, rents and other calculable measures.

So proud are the developers of Britomart, they have written a book documenting the first decade of the precinct’s revitalisation, the people who made it happen and the challenges that they faced. Beyond the space of place, this is a true identifier of legacy, the desire to record for posterity the story of the place. As the project evolves over the next decade it is conceivable that the project could measurably match the Augusta Pro Golf Tournament in terms of competitiveness and attraction. In securing its place in Auckland’s urban waterfront as the ‘postcard’ for the city, the project has the potential to secure what can be known in the retail-based mixed-use environment as the Britomart Effect.

See Michelle Cramer‘s next article, ‘The rise of the creative in place consumption’

See Michelle Cramer’s previous article, ‘Retail as Public Art’