The long road towards a new New Brighton
New Brighton's beachfront is busy but its commercial area is struggling and is about to lose more banks. With public regeneration of the seaside suburb under way, what's ahead for Brighton? LIZ MCDONALD reports.
New Brighton is at its busiest since the earthquakes but the state of its commercial area is still causing concern.
The new beachfront playground, the outdoorsy weather, and events like Kite Day and World Buskers Festival shows are pulling in big crowds to the seaside Christchurch suburb.
Local shops are reporting brisk trade since the playground opened last month, and staff at the nearby Countdown supermarket say business has "gone nuts" since the opening.
But the look of the mall remains depressed.
The stretch closest to the beach has mostly vacant shops awaiting quake repair, and empty land where damaged buildings came down. At least one business shut up shop this month and both the Westpac and ANZ banks are about to leave.
While the public work intended to trigger private investment gets done, what is the future for the commercial area, which offers much needed services and jobs?
The colourful playground is the first project in the city council's $20 million New Brighton regeneration plan. Still to come is the beachfront saltwater hot pools complex, to be started this year for a 2019 finish, plus new landscaping with native plants, coastal protection, lighting and seating, possible relocation of the surf club, car parking, and improved streetscapes. The mall's roading layout may also be reworked under a master plan adopted in 2015.
New Brighton Business Association chairman Paul Lonsdale says the mall is in a state of transition as new businesses and developers wait for sufficient confidence to invest. He does not expect national chain retailers and bank branches to return, as they follow international trends of retreating to big malls and internet services respectively.
"It's just a reality for the banking sector. It's the way of the future."
New Brighton's future is with individual, creative or unique boutique-style businesses, he says, plus those that can complement the new public facilities, like a family restaurant.
"Leases are cheaper than even other suburbs, so there's a lower risk for new businesses starting up."
The mall is now home to about 80 businesses, and almost all mall shops able to be occupied have tenants. The few available spaces can be rented for about $300 a week, and some are for sale from $300,000 up. Two new businesses have recently started up and are trading well.
At 105 Brighton Mall a craft collective of small businesses is selling items such as upcycled furniture, handmade beauty products, and new and vintage clothing. Nearby Carnaby Lane has been freshened up with new murals over old graffiti, and businesses such as Switch Espresso and BearLion Foods are thriving.
BearLion Foods owner Alesha Bilbrough-Collins both lives and works in the area and says it needs more unique businesses such as theirs.
"We have a really good following and people find us. Brighton needs to be about quality, not quantity. The $2 shops aren't going to bring people here.
"Look at somewhere like [Woolston shopping centre] The Tannery, it works."
Big building developments have been long awaited but have not yet materialised at New Brighton. A $20m apartment and retail development announced for the corner of Marine Pde and Beresford St two years ago will not now go ahead.
Lonsdale says beachfront land may be slow to fill because the size of investment needed for developers to build, and existing owners to upgrade, requires a level of confidence most are still waiting for. Approaches to Chinese-based investors last year may yet bear fruit, he says.
"It is a matter of timing. Despite the big public investment, people don't know what the effect will be."
In the meantime, the business association is exploring temporary options to improve the look of bare sites, ranging from container shops to planting grass.
In time the mall will shrink, Lonsdale says, because post-quake rezoning and the flow of people off the beach will concentrate commercial redevelopment nearer the waterfront.
"Today, it's too big and too long, this is the situation we are in at the moment. Property owners need to be realistic. They have been waiting for this boom for years but if they are not realistic it may drag on and on."
Lonsdale says that with the public revitalisation under way, more property owners should be thinking about repairing, upgrading or selling. If the carrot approach of public investment does not spur private progress, the stick approach of forced aquisition available under rebuild legislation may be needed, he says.
"If some property owners are standing in the way, not wanting to be part of a revitalisation and not wanting to sell, then maybe that [compulsory aquisition] could be considered."
Coastal-Burwood Community Board chairwoman Kim Money says looking back to what Brighton has lost, both because of the earthquakes and changes in previous decades, is a waste of time.
"A lot of people hark back to the good old days. But we want to be better than the way it was. We want things for younger people to be excited about.
"We need to focus on what we have and the natural assets. We want people to be queueing up to move down here."
Money is confident that ideas, and investment, will come. As well as the foreshore redevelopment, this year's completion of the pools and recreation centre at QEII Park and new designs for the red zone river corridor will help.
"I'd like to think the regeneration will bring the confidence needed for investors to invest," she says.
"We have a lot to offer in the east, and it's only 15 minutes from town. Christchurch should appreciate the foreshore and beaches.
"Brighton has so much potential to contribute to the rest of the city that hasn't been tapped into. Anything that gets done will benefit the whole city."
Money says investment in the suburb will be repaid to the whole city in higher rates, and by helping attract tourists.
She believes banks and other businesses leaving have not thought long-term.
"Things are just starting to take off here. They might regret it now that things have turned the corner. The regeneration is happening.
"Everything is on track. This is going to be an very exciting year."
Both Lonsdale and Money say new development could have a domino effect once it begins.
Bilbrough-Collins says they have seen "lots of different plans" for the shopping area and believes progress is still too slow.
"They need to concentrate on getting people into the mall. We find when there's events on, it's awesome and we're especially busy. It's just about getting things happening in winter."
Lonsdale believes that will come. The hot pools will not only be a year-round attraction, but an evening one too, and hospitality outlets should follow, he says.
He believes news businesses in the neighbourhood will benefit a socio-economic range in residents that is wider than most in the city, and includes a sizeable creative community.
Local Ray White real estate agent Phil Jones says the waterfront redevelopment, and the new Haeata Community Campus school, which opened last year, are enticing more families to buy and rent homes in the greater New Brighton area.
Bilbrough-Collins believes New Brighton is "the place to be" and the city's most underrated neighbourhood.
"People go on about the coastal places around the world and we're not using our own coast to our advantage. Christchurch is a coastal city," she says.
"There's a very old-school mentality that writes off Brighton as a hole. They just need to get over themselves."