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The secret life of Auckland's CBD: The good, the bad, the ugly

Auckland Police area commander Grae Anderson talks about the changes that Central Auckland has gone through, and the realities of policing in the area. Video / Dean Purcell

Auckland Police area commander Grae Anderson talks about the changes that Central Auckland has gone through, and the realities of policing in the area. Video / Dean Purcell

As part of the Herald's series on Auckland's city centre, reporter Adam Pearse takes to the streets to see what life is like for downtown residents, workers and visitors.

Wednesday, 2pm-3.30pm

Walking down Victoria Street, it doesn't take long before we are approached by a man with alcohol on his breath.

Seeing the photographer's camera and my notebook, he stops us and explains he has a friend in need of some cash.

He walks us on to Queen Street to meet a second man. Two tall cans of Godfather beer sit beside them - a beverage renowned for its strength at 6.8 per cent alcohol by volume level.

We talk about life on the streets. One man, holding a sign asking, "Any spare change," says that's been his reality for the better part of two decades.

The other references the mental health challenges he faces. His friend is adamant that hasn't been an issue for him.

The conversation veers towards a request for beer money in return for information and introductions. We decline and move on.

They are two of about eight men begging or drinking publicly on Queen Street or neighbouring side roads.

Only one other stands out from the crowd - a man first seen rambling incoherently.

When we pass by him a second time, he's belting out the chorus from Flo Rida's signature hit Low.

Still far from closing time, Queen Street is busy without being bustling. Students from Auckland Girls' Grammar hurry past shops, most quiet.

It's impossible to miss the increasing trend of those closed for good, For Sale signs plastered on their shopfronts.

The occasional waft of food momentarily masks the generally unpleasant city centre smell on a cooling afternoon on the first day of winter.

The flashy storefronts of Dior, Prada, Bulgari and the like are closed - monitored by security, there to vet those willing to try their luck at entering.

The velvet rope barriers outside such stores are a weak attempt at luxury and one that stands in great contrast to their surroundings.

Chief among the drabness are the cylindrical planter boxes spotted through the streets. With a grey and rustic exterior, they seem far from their objective of beautification.

The same goes for the designated outdoor area down Fort St.

Surprisingly new, the area's faded green turf matches the tired seating arrangement begging for a re-design.

Billed as the cultural, historical, commercial, professional and retail heart of the city, it sure doesn't feel like it.

Like anything, the city centre cannot be judged on a handful of streets.

The Viaduct, Britomart, Commercial Bay - all are examples of vibrant city living in well-designed spaces meant to enhance a person's visit to Auckland's hub.

It should be noted that these are the observations of a cynic - someone who rarely enters the city centre and feels more at home in pasture than the hustle of rush hour.

But a fresh set of eyes is just as valuable as an experienced set.

It's clear some areas of downtown Auckland sit neglected, but there are pockets that offer a vision of its future.

The likes of High Street and Vulcan Lane give a snapshot of a pedestrian-focused central business district, one that allows vehicle access but with the priority firmly placed with those on foot.

As with any city, Auckland's centre can and will be great but a piecemeal approach to development is doing it no favours.

Friday, 7am - 8.30am

A cold, blustery, early winter morning brings with it predictable scenes of Aucklanders walking briskly to work with coffee in hand.

I'm joined by locals: city centre residents group head Antony Phillips and Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick. It's a markedly different experience.

Our conversations regularly stall thanks to passers-by who greet Phillips, or vice versa.

Swarbrick, the people's representative, is just as popular - waving to those nearby, flashing an electable smile.

It's a unique but reassuring feeling seeing the connections they have with the hordes who roam the city centre.

While greeting a stranger along the footpath might be commonplace in small town New Zealand, many find it rare in our biggest city.

Too many have places to go, people to see - absorbed in their latest playlist or podcast.

It forms what can be quite an unfriendly reality for city living, one where you're surrounded by people but feel very much alone.

However, Phillips' and Swarbrick's familiarity with their city centre neighbours is a nice surprise.

It is to be expected - to perform their roles well, they must know those around them and be tapped into local connections. But it shows another side to the city centre, a window to the 40,000-odd people who call it their home.

For visitors to Queen Street, they assume the people around them are workers or shoppers.

Phillips and Swarbrick are predictably proud of their patch.

Suggestions of an unliveable city centre are met with raised eyebrows, followed by a volley of reasons marketing their digs.

Bring up the drab planter boxes, they pivot and recognise the great opportunity it represents for young artists to make their mark.

The constant headache and inconvenience of City Rail Link construction is inescapable, even for the city centre's most fervent advocates.

However, Phillips and Swarbrick see it as a price to pay for a brighter future. For there to be gain, there is often pain.

They, and any other resident, will tell you city centre living has been unique in recent years.

With Covid clearing the streets, foot traffic fell by 95 per cent and the concrete jungle became a ghost town.

While many relished ownership of their backyard, Covid rules were not made with apartment dwellers front of mind and they suffered as a result.

Now, seeing more Kiwi feet back pounding Queen Street by the day, you can understand being caught up in the hope for downtown Auckland's vibrancy to return.

Saturday: 11pm-1am

Unfortunately, visions of bustling bars and congested clubs aren't quite realised.

First stop is Karangahape Road - known for its colour and variance.

The night still appears in its infancy at 11pm, as a fairly subdued atmosphere emanates from the footpaths.

Kids are still lining up outside Bangkok Rolled Ice Cream, eager for a late night treat.

The 10 police officers stationed down a side street indicate the potential for activity. Fortunately, their services aren't required prior to midnight.

It may be the long weekend, but the crowds on K Road seem underwhelming for a Saturday night.

The usual buzz and flair, normally found in abundance, are missing - contributing to a fairly depressing picture more commonly associated with scenes witnessed much later in the night.

Not discouraged, we head towards the water - aiming for Queen Street.

Aucklanders with longer memories will all too easily recall the golden days of old - when you could barely move through the crowds as boy racers burned through fuel up and down the main drag.

The Queen Street we find couldn't be further from the mayhem of the past.

Even rough sleepers have vacated the area. It is seemingly being used mainly as a thoroughfare.

In search of life, we go to Fort Lane, the home of Sapphire and Roxy.

That presents more familiar scenes - long lines of impatient club-goers, alcohol-fuelled jeering and laughter filling the air, bouncers looking unimpressed.

While it's reassuring to see activity, the location is less than flattering.

Due to the steep buildings lining Fort Lane, the alley appears dark and uninviting.

Areas like Vulcan Lane offer a stark contrast and a much better option.

As a well-lit and wider street, it seems to be a much more pleasant - not to mention safer - space to host Auckland's partygoers.

What this indictment of city centre nightlife ignores is the appeal of the Viaduct.

Head to that part of the waterfront on any weekend and you're likely to find healthy crowds.

Nevertheless, it's sad to see the legacy of Queen Street reduced to such a state.

One can only hope plans for its development can see the area return to its former glory.