Inside story: How the Queen St battle went to court

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When talks broke down this week over the future of Queen St, sources on one side of the dispute claimed the other side had been deceitful, dishonest, untrustworthy and inconsistent.

“They’re all over the place. They keep changing their story. We don’t know what they want,” I was told.

Then the other side said exactly the same thing.

Then different people on both sides did their best to assure me the discussions were ongoing, everything was constructive, they were very hopeful of good outcomes.

This is not a pretty dispute. What’s remarkable is that both sides use much the same language to describe the Queen St they want. High quality, largely pedestrianised, an appealing place for people to come to, shop in and spend time in. A destination. The heart of the city.

But despite agreeing on all that, they seem unable to agree on almost any specific proposal.

I spent an hour with Andrew Krukziener of the Save Queen St Society (SQSS) last Friday. It was very intense.

“He’ll do 75 per cent of the talking,” I was warned, and that was true. Property owner Krukziener is the driving force of SQSS. He presents as a man with a swarm of bees in his head, who has to talk to let them out and who keeps barging along because he expects to get his own way and he usually does.

I have some sympathy for council officials trying to deal with him.

But then, I know that some of those officials – not all, but some – are very good at saying nothing concrete, hiding behind jargon and “process” and remaining obstinately resistant to new ideas. They appear to think no one understands a problem or could resolve it as well as they already do. End of story, talk to the hand.

I have some sympathy with Krukziener dealing with that, too.

In our meeting on Friday, he assured me, repeatedly, that his group does not want the street reopened as a four-lane road for all vehicles.

“That’s not what this is about,” he said.

But, I said, he had empowered the people who want all the cars back, so why hadn’t he made it clear he is not on their side?

I reminded him that if the street reverted to four lanes, that would encourage more traffic and, therefore, heavier congestion.

“I can be very clear about this,” he said. “We do not want the cars back.”

Yet his billboard campaign, quoting angry people wanting more room on Queen St to drive and park their cars, also seems to contradict that. And on Wednesday he went to court seeking to stop all council work to develop Queen St, and to have it restored to how it was pre-Covid.

He lost, but it’s likely a substantive hearing will follow. If Krukziener had won, that would have meant at least four lanes, end to end, for all traffic, with more car parks on the street too.

I pointed out that SQSS had complained a lot about what’s there now, but produced nothing to show us what they want instead. Why hadn’t they focused on doing that?

I invited him to produce a visual or concept plan, so we could see what they were talking about. I suggested that should be his next step and if he took it and produced a good plan, I would support it and advocate for it.

On Monday and Tuesday this week, Krukziener’s Save Queen Street Society sat down with senior officials from Auckland Council and Auckland Transport. They talked for many hours on both days.

A council source told me Krukziener was demanding not only the restoration of the street to its pre-Covid state, from Shortland St on up, but a 10-year moratorium on all other work not approved by SQSS.

In return, they would accept the pilot project of a new street design on the bottom block, from Shortland St to Customs St. Oh, and in that block, or any other such area where SQSS agreed to allow development, they wanted the list of “essential vehicles” allowed in to include limousines.

The negotiations broke down late on Tuesday and the next day the two sides presented their cases in court.

But in a phone conversation that evening, Krukziener told me most of my information was wrong. Negotiations didn’t break down, he said. They reached agreement.

“But,” he said, “the officials took the deal upstairs to get it approved by [mayor Phil] Goff. They came back after 10 minutes with crestfallen faces and said it was all off.”

Why did that happen? “I don’t know,” he said, “Only Goff knows.”

Krukziener said SQSS had “acceded to every one of their requirements. We agreed to two lanes, one in each direction. That 10-year moratorium, we deleted that.”

So, I asked him, what did the council reject? He said his group had proposed a dedicated lane for bikes and e-scooters, and more parking bays for buses and loading zones.

He said mana whenua did not seem to be represented in the council plan, so he had offered suggestions from mana whenua consultants involved with SQSS. He also said the group had offered a major piece of sculpture on a five-year loan from one of Auckland’s leading art galleries, the Gow Langsford.

When I took those claims to Goff, he flatly rejected them.

I talked to others on both sides of this dispute, too. What really happened? And why?

Did Goff veto an agreement?

“To be completely clear,” said a spokesperson for the mayor, “the mayor did not ‘veto’ anything – he was informed that negotiations had broken down post-fact.”

I asked Barry Potter, the council’s head of infrastructure and lead executive on this project, what they’d told Goff. He said he couldn’t tell me that.

Did SQSS agree to just two lanes for traffic?

“This is untrue,” said the mayor’s spokesperson. “The proposal put forward by the lobby group would have required incursion into what the council sees as public space, to create dedicated space for short-term car parking and other uses. This was not acceptable.”

The issue here is that SQSS believes buses should have to pull off the road when they stop (it’s called an “indented” stop), so other vehicles can get past.

I asked Potter about this. He said the big problem was not “public space” – it’s all public space, after all – but how traffic behaves.

Council proposes “inline” bus stops for lower Queen St: that’s when a bus stops on the roadway, to pick up or set down passengers, so all vehicles behind have to stop as well. SQSS points out that this clogs up the traffic and creates a real problem for emergency vehicles.

“We’re still working through this,” said Potter. “But Auckland Transport’s modelling shows buses cause quite an issue for traffic behind them, especially when they come out from an indented stop into the roadway.”

Also, you might think, buses waiting to use the same indented stop have to wait on the roadway anyway.

In other words, AT agrees inline stops hold up the traffic behind, but says indented stops on streets like Queen St do too.

Also, SQSS says council plans don’t include enough loading zones.

SQSS member Matt Blomfield told me on Wednesday the indented/inline dispute is one of the two issues on which the two sides couldn’t agree.

You read that right. Apparently talks on the future of Queen St foundered on the technical issue of bus stop design.

Is there even a solution? Yes, but it has little to do with the stops themselves: to reduce congestion, the amount of bus and other traffic needs to be further reduced.

As it happens, both sides agree that non-essential buses, along with non-essential cars, should be removed from Queen St. Krukziener says take the buses out now. Council says it can’t be done until the City Rail Link construction is finished in 2024.

What's the other stumbling block?

Blomfield said the second unresolved issue was the date on which the rest of the street would see some improvement. For everywhere not included in the pilot in the bottom block, SQSS wants the council to say when the plastic sticks and other temporary materials will be removed.

Potter says they can’t put a date on it yet, because it isn’t budgeted. But the 2021/22 budget will be approved next month and then they’ll know.

You also read that right.

Did council reject a dedicated lane for bikes and scooters?

“This is not true,” said the mayor’s spokesperson. “The council put forward a proposal to accommodate bikes and scooters based on concerns raised by the lobby group and aligned with our vision. This was rejected by SQSS, who instead proposed indented bus stops that would take up the space for a cycle/scooter path. Agreement could not be reached between the two parties on this and other issues.”

That’s revealing. In those high-powered negotiations, it seems they’ve been trying to do detailed street design on the fly.

As for the specific issue of a dedicated lane, was the problem merely that they couldn’t agree where it would go? Seriously?

The mayor’s view of the value of a dedicated bike and scooter lane is new. The pilot scheme doesn’t have one. For Queen St, no council plan has ever shown one. They’ve never seen the need.

It’s possible they still don’t. Potter told me, “It’s something that’s being looked at.”

“The problem,” he added, “is that we want Queen St to be a slow-traffic zone and AT believes a dedicated lane will encourage people to go too fast.”

What about that moratorium?

“They did withdraw it and council welcomed this withdrawal as a positive step,” said the mayor’s spokesperson. “Our view is that one lobby group cannot control what happens to a public street for a decade.”

In fact, council is required by law to consult on all proposed future developments anyway. SQSS won’t control what happens but it will always have an input.

What about mana whenua representation?

“We have no objection to having the discussion,” said the spokesperson.

Was the large public sculpture rejected?

“Not true. Interest was expressed in pursuing this. However, for SQSS it was part of their total package deal, which was not acceptable. The council also has concerns with the proposal from the lobby group to simply have the Gow Langsford Gallery manage this public art function, as opposed to following council’s established and transparent process for the installation of public artworks.”

Is there another problem?

More than one. The lower Queen St pilot is being funded through Innovating Streets, a fund run by Waka Kotahi, the Government’s transport agency. That money needs to be used soon or it will expire.

That gives opponents of the council’s transport plans an obvious motive for drawing out negotiations.

Another issue: I’ve spoken to half a dozen people associated with SQSS, and every one of them, including Krukziener, has made a point of raising the politics.

They say some people in the group think the promotion of public transport is part of a left-wing conspiracy. Some believe the council is run by anti-business lefties. And some just want to see Phil Goff gone.

But, the people telling me this usually say, they personally are not like that. Their motive is purely to get a better Queen St.

It’s very clear there’s a political dimension to this dispute.

And it’s a rock and a hard place, with the public stuck in the middle. Andrew Krukziener wants to get his own way. Some council officials won’t be told what to do. For some of the key protagonists, it comes down to that. It’s personal.

The city deserves better.

Now what?

SQSS went to court to stop the council, at least for now, from doing anything more to Queen St, and failed. But a substantial hearing will be sought. And according to Barry Potter, no one has walked away.

“We’re still talking,” he said. “We have good grounds to keep going with that.”

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