Richard Swainson: Garden Place no Field of Dreams

There is nothing progressive about turning  Garden Place  into a car park.

There is nothing progressive about turning Garden Place into a car park.

OPINION: There is some kind of ironic synchronicity at work in central Hamilton. As a new play by a local playwright opens at the refurbished, freshly strengthened Meteor Theatre, so plans are mooted for a development a few hundred metres up the road. One Hill of a Fight, the play in question, is about the debates and political machinations that saw the construction of Garden Place in the late 1930s. Coincidentally, the proposed development also involves Garden Place. Some within council – principally Mayor Andrew King – have suggested that the space could be better utilised as a parking facility.

As I write this, I have yet to see the play. I suspect, though, that the focus of playwright Michael Switzer will be somewhat more on the engineering genius of Rupert Worley, the World War I veteran who planned the excavation, than the first usage to which Garden Place was put. Politicians and engineers alike had the vision to level the land, but the notion that it could possibly function as Hamilton's town square eluded them for the best part of three decades. Despite its name, the original Garden Place was a car park. It was only in 1967 that grass and trees were laid and it began to resemble the recreational public space we know today.

To turn back the clock by half a century and have Garden Place revert to its former status is not exactly a progressive idea. Given the two distinctive time periods involved, you could consider such thinking more in line with the Great Depression than the Summer of Love. If the levelling of Garden Place had the hallmarks of a public works programme, providing much-needed employment in the dark years of the 1930s, the enlightened decision to give the city centre a focal point was in keeping with a philosophy that put community before commerce, or a least before car fumes. It has been argued with justification – if at times monotonous regularity – that the Hamilton CBD is depressed but a 1930s solution to the problem is no solution at all. Mayor King's "back to the future" policies bring to mind another minor cinematic classic, Field of Dreams: if we build the car spaces, they will come.

Things are not that simple. Parking has become something of political football, with the free space on offer at Chartwell and The Base deemed a crucial determining factor in the flight of both businesses and their patrons from the central city. There's some truth in this, but it hardly tells the full story. Is parking, for example, the reason the IRD has decided to relocate?

If you do determine that parking is the be all and end all of the matter, though, it follows that if you make it more plentiful or cheaper, the people will return. If you do that, however, the city council loses revenue. A solution offered by the new council is to levy both CBD businesses and the general ratepayer to, in effect, subsidise inner city parking.

As well intentioned as this plan may be, I fear it is flawed. For a start, in terms of the major retailers, the horse has already bolted. Moreover, no halfway house concessions, especially ones which inherently limit parking duration and the times of day you can park, will ever compete with the totally gratis regimes of Westfield or Te Awa.

As a very modest entrepreneur myself, with 10 years' experience in the least busy, northern end of town, I remain unconvinced that the proposed changes in parking fees will result in a sufficient upturn of trade to justify or even cover the costs of a rates increase. Those who patronise my business tend to do so in spite of the parking options outside, not because of them. We are a destination, niche-market store, the type of small-scale operation that many argue the world needs in the 21st century, especially as more and more folk elect to reside in inner cities.

If I personally resist paying a dedicated parking-subsidy rate, it goes without saying that I would not expect my fellow Hamiltonians to do so, either. In these environmentally conscious times, when obesity is endemic, we need solutions that don't revolve around the consumption of fossil fuels. Sadly, a mayor whose day job was once that of a used car salesman, who has been known to wax lyrical about "New Zealand's love affair with the motor vehicle", is not the one to provide them.

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