Victoria St, back on the map
One of Christchurch's best-known designer streets, Victoria St, is on the comeback.
A royal revival
With the shell of Knox Church at one end and the rubble of the Crowne Plaza at the other, Victoria St can seem like just another post-quake Christchurch thoroughfare. It's punctuated by empty sites left by demolitions and dusty-windowed buildings stand empty.
But take a stroll down the street and you start to notice pockets of activity between the empty spaces. People are drinking coffee, shopping, getting their hair cut and going about their day's work in one of the office buildings. Some businesses never left, some are returning, and others have just moved in. And they're all part of the revival of Victoria St.
"We're committed to staying here, whatever happens," says Rosie Austin, who has been running her home décor shop, Frogmore, in the street for 18 years.
After the quakes, Frogmore was closed for 10 weeks as neighbouring buildings were demolished, but its own charming weatherboard structure seems to have come through the shakes relatively unscathed. With typical post-quake resilience, Frogmore restocked with robust items, such as cushions, scarves, and melamine tumblers - all glued in place with sticky putty.
This change of stock, along with marketing efforts and a loyal customer base, has enabled Rosie to carry on trading through tough times. But, more than that, she admits: "It's given me a new vigour for the business. I've worked with the New Zealand Retail Association looking at stock, making sure I was increasing sales to remain viable - so you work smarter. It's actually been a growth period for me."
Rosie is equally enthusiastic about Victoria St and its future. While foot traffic might have dropped off, she believes it will return as new buildings are completed and office workers fill them. "I love it, because it's non-generic in the kind of people that shop here. I think it's going to be one of the first streets to recover. It's going to be really exciting," she says.
It's an optimism shared by Michael Fraser Milne, who owns Whisky Galore.
The business moved to more spacious, modern premises in Victoria St in June last year, after its damaged building in Colombo St was demolished.
"We'd always seen [Victoria St] as a good retail space," he says. The customers' reaction to the new premises has been very positive - after all, there's "more space and more whisky". As a newcomer to Victoria St, Michael has been pleasantly surprised by the level of foot traffic and how "people seem to be going about their business as usual".
The shop itself is reasonably busy, especially when it hosts special events. "We've never had as many people coming to our monthly tastings," Michael says. He believes this is due, in part, to the fact entertainment is scarce. "People are looking for things to do and are happy to come to town if you give them a reason to do so."
There is another reason to venture to the Bealey Ave end of the street. In the gleaming white Carlton Butchery building, restaurant Saggio di vino has reopened. Although co-owner Lisa Scholz is brimming with excitement, there is also a sense of the unknown, she says. "The Crowne Plaza is down, the convention centre is down ... and here I am reopening a place [that is] a third bigger than I used to have."
But she is heartened by the sense of progress and life returning to the street. It is a turning point she noticed months ago, when a few new retailers, such as the Court Florist, started moving in among the demolition sites.
Lisa is a Victoria St stalwart, having started her restaurant there in 1991. "There was nothing here then," she says. "It was all commercial - only banks, no retail, no hospitality."
The old brick building in which they originally operated was damaged in the September 2010 quake and was undergoing repairs when the February quake hit, finishing it off. Luckily, Lisa managed to salvage a lot of the furnishings and, most importantly, the restaurant's 20-year-old wine collection, which has spent the past 18 months in a temperature-controlled shipping container.
Like many business owners, Lisa struggled after the quakes, not least because finding the right premises in which to re-establish Saggio di vino was difficult. She looked all over town, including the new boom areas such as Addington, but found "the suburbs didn't really do it for me".
She was delighted to secure a spot in Victoria St close to where her original restaurant stood. "I think the idea to re-establish is to give people a bit of normality back."
Out on the street, fluoro jackets and heavy machines swarm around demolition and construction sites. Next to Saggio di vino is a building site that's adding something to the streetscape right now. From the outside it looks like many others, clad in scaffolding and tarpaulins. But walk inside Smash Palace and you'll find yourself in a courtyard bar. It has a typical post-quake Christchurch feel to it - an old bus forms the core and the whole place is completely mobile.
Owner Johnny Moore is no stranger to the world of hospitality. He previously owned the popular Goodbye BlueMonday bar that was lost in the February quake and wanted to be back near the heart of the city. Now, he is "big on the temporary thing" in Christchurch. While "the big, long-term stuff is great", he believes people need things to do and places to go right now. Ventures such as Smash Palace help fill the entertainment void. They add life to the battered city and they are a testament to the resourceful attitude of the people who set them up. "Just the activity enthuses people. I like Victoria St a lot. It behaves a little bit like a suburb, but in the city. It's got a lot of character," Johnny says.
But perhaps it's a little too like the suburbs sometimes. While Johnny has had great support from the public, a few nearby residents haven't been so delighted to have a bar in their midst and some have complained about noise. Johnny is philosophical about this and understands how people feel. There's a plethora of cafés and bars in Victoria St at the moment, but Johnny believes "hospitality will peak and move on".
He believes a couple of restaurants will remain, but the bars are likely to shift. In the case of Smash Palace, the plan is to operate for 18 to 24 months, depending on the landlord and the permanent rebuild on the site.
Despite the lack of enthusiasm for his bar from
some residents, Johnny believes Victoria St owes its character and vibe to its residents, because it's the people who live in an area who care about it enough to make a difference. "I really think that the strength is that people live on the streets behind it, and if you don't have people living on it, then it becomes a graveyard."
Simon Elvidge, a director at MAP Architects, agrees that central residential space is vital for a vibrant city. But he believes any new residential buildings in Victoria St will come after the larger commercial developments.
"I think residential stuff closer to town will follow the office space, because nobody is going to move into an apartment overlooking a building site."
MAP Architects are based in Victoria St and are also behind several projects in the street. Most of these new buildings will be for mixed use. "The trend is that you have retail and/or hospitality on the ground floor and then offices on the floors above," Simon says. There's already high demand for office space and the workers will provide a steady customer base for the retail and hospitality businesses in the area.
But the project Simon finds most inspiring at the moment is at number 148, next to Knox Church. "It's a really interesting project for us. The owner is rebuilding what was the BDO Spicer building and it's going to be a campus-style office space, so the office and retail will be around the perimeter of the site, with a courtyard in the middle, and it's set back from the church to give it space." It is in the early stages of design.
Another MAP project is at 83 Victoria St - a six-storey building with underground parking, retail space on the ground floor, and offices on the floors above.
But will people be keen to return to multi-storey buildings after the earthquakes? "You can design safe buildings that are taller," Simon says. Many owners and developers are now looking at exceeding building code specifications in order to offer prospective tenants extra assurance of safety, he adds.
A little further down the street at 134 Victoria St, architect Jasper van der Lingen, of Sheppard & Rout, has been working on a building with a very quake-conscious design. "It's a first in Christchurch - a commercial, multi-level, timber-framed building - and the way we're using the technology is also a world first," Jasper says. Tensioned cables running through hollow beams are designed to flex and give during an earthquake, then return to their original form. The technology was developed at Canterbury University and the wood used in the framing is radiata pine grown in New Zealand. "It's a very Kiwi, very local thing," Jasper says.
The building is scheduled for completion early next year, with retail on the ground floor and two floors of office space above.
Asked how all these new office buildings will affect the streetscape, Simon says: "It's a difficult one to comment on. I'm very aware of the public perception and some of the criticism that modernist forms can be a bit unfriendly in the city." However, he points out there are commercial realities to consider in building design and not everything can look amazing. "I think the important thing is that there are going to be some really key sites and that the right development happens on those key sites and corner sites, and that will allow for the potentially more mundane buildings."
With the Crowne Plaza hotel demolished, Simon sees an opportunity to link Victoria St with the centre of the city in a more pedestrian-friendly way. And he believes smart development around Victoria Square will make a huge difference, helping to get people out of their cars.
Long-time tenant Lisa Scholz agrees. "Now that the Crowne Plaza has gone, it sort of opens it up again. It was like a barrier there to Victoria Square and now it connects Victoria St back to
the city again."
Ultimately, however the street develops, one thing is certain - positive thinking and progress are the order of the day on Victoria St.
"I think Victoria St will be fabulous," Lisa says.