OPINION: Waitangi Day this year I spent in two very different places: during the day I was in Queen St, Auckland, New Zealand's busiest street in the heart of New Zealand's busiest city; and that night I walked through Hamilton around Victoria, Hood and Alexandra streets, and came to the realisation that what Hamilton really needs isn't a hero, a strong leader or even an accountant to save it - it needs a waterblaster and someone to clean the streets - which aren't exactly the same thing in this context.
In Queen St, the ground is perpetually dirty and dark, overshadowed by the colossal skyscrapers towering above it, the street level lives in constant shadow. It's not uncommon to see the homeless sleeping rough on park benches or street corners and, over the years, the Auckland City Council has tried many times to instigate something known as urban renewal - the act of fixing up streets and parks to make people feel better about the place they live, and safer as well by removing undesirable elements. Sure, Auckland kind of goes for the timeless grey brick look every time. It's something it does well, and it's much easier to clean grey grime off it or leave it and no-one will really notice. Here in Hamilton, though, we're a bit more out there, we stand out a bit more and like to do things a bit differently.
Well, we did.
Garden Place's recent upgrades have started to incorporate the bland grey stone look as well but a walk down Alexandra St should remind the people of something a little different if they look at their feet. The bricks are red. Well, red plus the grime of 15 years' urban sludge.
We probably don't notice it much these days. After all, it's not a particularly busy street any more, with so many empty shop frontages and lights down there being almost horror-movie dim. What this sector needs, though, to be rejuvenated isn't a lot of work - in fact, it's a few new bulbs and a waterblaster.
From the corner of Alexandra and Caro, where Garden Place finishes, all the way down to Hood St, it needs a decent clean. Take out the dark grime of time and refresh the look of the red cobbles in a pretty simple way. It's not a task that would take long for the teams at Hamilton City Council and it's far more cost-effective than completely repaving the entire area. Maybe look at that if the cobbles were actually deteriorating, but they're not.
The next step would involve the lights. Those light fittings have been in place since Collingwood Apartments housed Excite - they're dull and serve only to highlight the shadows instead of really light the street. If that area was better lit, it would also showcase how nice the newly cleaned cobbles look.
It may not seem like much but making an area more aesthetically pleasing will help draw businesses to it. Why would a new business choose to move into an area that looks rundown and unloved?
A successful urban renewal will create an interest and demand in the area and, in many ways, North Alexandra could easily become a creative hub for the city. With Creative Waikato already there, why not find ways to attract other creative-sector businesses to join it? While there's an apparent refocusing of the CBD to be more centralised, with upgrades to Centre Place and Ward St, the key to rebuilding the CBD isn't to rely on one area alone but to build and grow others as well, because, to quote the movie Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come".
Sure, parking will always be an issue while the council refuses to allow free parking in the area, even on weekends, but people will pay to park if they see value for what they're getting and experiencing. At the moment, they don't.
Of course, the other issue that needs to be sorted is the homeless living in the area. That night I was asked three times for change (and once for my soul) and, while I can understand that poverty is an issue that is far more complicated than a single street washing can fix, it raises issues about how safe people feel in the CBD.
To rebuild the CBD, we need to combine the effort we put into it in the past with the potential it has for the future - only then will we really see it bounce back.