Sunday, January 24, 2010

Avondale and the ‘50s bypass blues

 From NZ Herald 16 June 1959

A funny thing I find about looking back in the past, even the more recent bits: even though I wasn’t born when some of the truly bizarre ideas were being cooked up, I’m no less appalled. As if they were being proposed, right here, right now. Especially when it's about my home suburb.

Well, the 1954 Avondale bypass proposal wasn’t a “right now”, of course, but it was right here. If it had gone ahead, the Avondale I know and grew up in would have been changed.

It began, as is often the case, from much smaller things. The Auckland City Council had purchased land on Rosebank Road just after World War II, a couple of old villas, with the intent at some stage to demolish them and build a community centre. The community centre wasn’t to be until 1990, for various reasons. In 1948, the Avondale Businessmen’s Association, voicing a need for more parking spaces in the township, asked for permission to use the Rosebank Road site at the corner of Highbury Street for off-street parking. The request must have rattled around in the Town Hall for a while, gathering ideas to it like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Then, in 1954, with the change in zoning for much of Rosebank Peninsula from residential/horticultural to industrial, the city planners saw that there was another, greater need in terms of the city’s infrastructure. They saw a need to try to route traffic from Penrose’s growing industrial centre via Mt Albert through Avondale towards the then-new North-Western Motorway and on to Te Atatu, as well as a way of getting traffic from the city, via Pt Chevalier, and towards the growing suburbs of West Auckland. What was in the way of all this free movement was a chokepoint: the Great North Road, where Avondale’s central township had grown up along its sides. Avondale’s main street had been planned and laid out in the 19th century for horses and cattle, not cars. The planners considered what could be done which would solve that chokepoint problem, and even grant the ABA’s wish for more parking for their shops. The Avondale Jockey Club wanted to subdivide and sell their Great North Road frontage for more shops with off-street parking around that time -- this appears to have been the catalyst for municipal decision.

The solution? Bypass the shopping centre completely. Put in a bypass road, starting from near Victor Street-Great North Road intersection, blaze through properties to Rosebank Road (diverting an intact Highbury Street’s intersection with Rosebank just a tad), go straight across and through the eastern-most part of the racecourse, cutting off access from Elm Street and Racecourse Parade (they later relented, and suggested a flyover from Racecourse Parade – a flyover going across a bypass …), through the racecourse’s mile-start (again, more negotiating; they ultimately put forward the idea of tunnelling under the mile start, see below), then through Wingate Street, cutting off the eastern end, before curving into Great North Road and heading west, cutting off the road from the five-roads intersection. On top of all that, they wanted to have a link from Chalmers and Ahuriri Streets with St Judes. That link with the new bypass would have carved through the St Ninians Cemetery, and come close enough to the church to cause real concerns among the parishioners.

Great North Road through Avondale would have become little more than a series of cul-de-sacs.

The chairman of the Council’s town planning committee, Dr. Kenneth Brailey Cumberland (b.1913), was all in favour of the idea. He felt the proposal they put to a public meeting of Avondale residents on 4 May 1955 was a solution for the congestion in the shopping centre, and the lack of parking. Dr. Cumberland was later Chairman of the Auckland Regional Planning Authority, and a patron (as at 2009) of the Auckland Volcanic Cones Society, which spoke out against the carving up of the volcanic cone Mount Roskill for the State Highway 20 project. On top of that, as a leading geographer, he put together and narrated the telly series Landmarks. He became Professor Emeritus at Auckland University.

Another Auckland University luminary, Dean of the School of Architecture, was architect Cyril Roy Knight, who tends to be best known for his work on books about New Zealand ecclesiastical architecture, such as the Selwyn Churches of Auckland. He was co-opted onto the City Council’s town planning committee at the time.

“We have been doing something very silly in this country,” he was quoted as saying (Star, 5 May 1955), “building highways as fast as we can, but expecting them to fulfil two functions … As soon as a highway was built, someone wanted to erect a shop or a garage on it, interfering with the highway’s main function.”

I note that the bypass project wouldn't have done much good for Avondale's oldest piece of ecclestiastical architecture though, our St Ninians church. Did Mr. Knight ever consider that?

The project, as drawn up, was budgeted to cost £110,000 (nearly $5m today). Almost instantly, it ran into sustained opposition from locals: the residents, the shopkeepers (although the Avondale Businessmen’s Association had the embarrassing situation where by a majority vote in a poorly-attended meeting they resolved to support the project, although their own members attending hearings in opposition), the Avondale Bowling Club, the Avondale Jockey Club, Suburbs Rugby Football Club, and St Ninians Church.

The Council doggedly continued and, with City Engineer A. J. Dickson’s backing, refused to let the project die. Public meetings were called, said to be among the first in the city to use projectors to display maps and plans for those who attended. Residents who bought Rosebank Road property alongside the bypass route were told, too late, that no building permits could be granted. Their land was taken over by the Council as reserves. The Jockey Club’s concerns about the carving up of their mile-start land was answered by the tunnel proposal. This didn’t win the Club over. “Horses standing at the mile start barrier might be disturbed by traffic passing underneath them,” they said to the planning commissioners. (Herald, 15 June 1959)

Back in 1955, Auckland City Council stated that the only other option to their bypass plan was to widen Great North Road – and demolish all the houses and shops along the western side. Predictably, this wasn’t favoured either.

Eventually in October 1959, after hearings, petitions, media attention and due deliberation, the Council planning commissioners decided against adopting the bypass proposal into the District Plan.

But, the idea never died. It simply changed tack.

A report by a Mr. Leith at the end of 1963 proposed a new scheme: widening not just Great North Road, but also New North Road, Victor Street and Blockhouse Bay Road to arterial route standard, semi-close upper St Judes Street to form a bypass past the problematic level crossing to link up with Chalmers Street (which also has a problem level crossing, but they seemed to not be too worried about that one), St Georges, and then into Great North Road. I haven’t seen the plan for that proposal yet – possibly St Ninians, the cemetery and Memorial Park would still have been in their sights. The 1963 plan was expected to cost about ₤800,000 (over $29m). It didn’t get off the ground, because the Auckland Regional Planning Authority recommended a deferral in April 1964.

The bypass idea wasn’t resurrected until the 1970s. The present-day Ash Street extension, this time going along Ash Street behind the racecourse, and linking, with a new bridge over the Whau River, to Rata Street on the New Lynn side, is the result. Houses were bought up and demolished, the Bowling Club had to shift its entrance and lost land, but it has had far less of an impact on the landscape as the 1954 proposal would have had.

Traffic still travels along Great North Road through the Avondale township. It still gets clogged and jammed and congested, and people have a bit of a moan. But, at least it wasn’t cut off and left to wither, and we still have the 150-year-old church building, its cemetery, and the Memorial Park used every year for Anzac Day services.

NZ Herald
Auckland Star
Auckland City Archives files: ACC 219/822y pt. 1, ACC 339/37

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