This article first appeared at Nick Lovett’s blog and is republished with permission.
A number of months ago I tweeted a before/after photo of Christchurch’s Oxford Terrace following the An Accessible City street upgrade and the opening of the Riverside farmers market. The intention of the tweet was to illustrate the rosy retrospection that often clouds perception of ‘the good old days’. I felt the images perfectly illustrated the opportunity cost that exists in public spaces in our towns and cities. We hear from the business community that car parking plays a pre-eminent role in supporting social and economic exchange, but it doesn’t appear to be supported — even by casual observation.
What I didn’t know, was that this argument has been raging for nearly half a century. Recently I stumbled upon this Christchurch Star photo from 1977 showing the newly realigned Durham Street over the Avon river. Thanks to the help from the amazing staff from Christchurch Libraries I was able to uncover an eerily familiar story about parking and some little known history of small corner of the city. I thought I would write it down and share it.
The Durham Street Bridge realignment (pictured above) was part of the 1962 Christchurch Master Transportation Plan. The mid-century traffic plan was subsequently reviewed and the downtown elevated motorways never came to fruition. Instead the one-way arterial system was introduced and it largely persists today. Before these works, southbound traffic on Durham/Cambridge had to dogleg over the Bridge of Remembrance.
The plan called for the realignment of Cambridge/Durham Street with a new bridge. This necessitated property purchase and building demolition on the east bank of the Avon River between Oxford/Lichfield and Cashel street. You can see the whole site was nearly demolished but the Tudor-style building at 95 Oxford Terrace (more recently known as the Regatta on Avon) survived and still remains today.
Once the sight was cleared, the plan was to develop a central park for passive recreation on the balance of land. The Parks and Recreation Department described the plan as “Soft landscaping” good for “lingering and meandering, wandering from spot to spot with direction unintended”
However, the ‘Cashel Street Businessmen’s Association’ objected to the plan and said that it needed about 30 parking spaces to compensate for the loss of on-street parking. The Businessmen commissioned Warren and Mahoney to come up with a 36 space carpark and landscaping design and submitted it to the council for consideration — despite the Lichfield Street Parking Building being less than 100m away and had an occupancy rate of 45% throughout the year.
The businessmen found the ear of a sympathetic Councillor Bruce Britten (John Britten’s Father and former bicycle retailer/manufacturer) who said it would be a sorry day when council acts against business interests. It was a polarising issue among Councillors with Cr Britten saying “I can’t imagine anyone using this as an oasis with all the noise and smell of cars rushing past”. Councillor Vicki Buck said the proposal to wedge a carpark between two one-way streets was “illogical and stupid”.
Even the Christchurch Star which had long been an advocate for the lungs of the city came down on the side of business interests. On Monday the 18th of April 1977 they penned an editorial stating “To turn the triangle into an open space will not add measurably to the city’s well-being”.
The Values Party were staunchly opposed to the idea that business interests would “gobble-up” planned amenity and recreation space on the bank of the Avon River. The party organised a petition, picketed the Council meetings and organised a picnic on the gravel site to emphasise the recreation potential. They were criticised as being “emotive” and “anti-business”.
Thankfully the carpark proposal never went ahead and on the 23rd of April 1977, the Council Voted 13–7 to turn down the controversial parking proposal put forward by the Businessmen’s Association. The Chairman of the Association Mr R. F. Ballantyne criticised the Councillors who voted against the proposal suggesting they were “out of touch with reality”.
Friendship Corner was opened on 29 September 1979 next to the Bridge of Remembrance on the banks of the Avon River. The photo above shows that in the beginning it was little more than a patch of grass. However over the years several trees have been planted to acknowledge Christchurch’s sister cities.
The editors of the Christchurch Star argued back in 1977 that a carpark “would not have been detrimental” to the city’s well-being. This sort of reasoning fails to recognize the long-term opportunity cost of these types of decisions. Today the park is a noticeable and vibrant feature of the Ōtākaro Avon River Precinct in Christchurch’s city centre. It’s a relief to think we came so close to this park not existing and the generations of residents and visitors that might never have enjoyed the mature canopy of trees.
Undoubtedly no one would campaign for cutting down the trees and reinstating a carpark today. That is because the benefits of the counterfactual are so plain and obvious. But opportunity cost is virtually overlooked in the parking debates that still rage on till this day. When business interests demand valuable urban land to feed the insatiable demand for car parking, they are grossly overlooking the long term opportunity cost. I think stories like this one can help us illuminate the consequences of short-term decision making and the value of challenging the ‘wisdom’ of vested interests.