The reincarnation of eat street

The Wharf street think tank – from left public spaces advisor James Jacobs, urban planner Doug Spittle, and Travis Wooller, landscape architect. Photo: Daniel Hines.

Wharf Street - tacky and dilapidated. A hodgepodge of recycled wooden pallets and planters, the occupants of most, long dead.

A shambles of an eat street where traffic remains intrusive and grapples with diners, imbibers and pedestrians for occupancy rights.

As one punter told The Weekend Sun: “I don’t want a side of soot with my food thank you”. 

But one man’s eyesore is another’s empty canvas.

“I don’t hear that criticism and I am an inveterate user of the street,” says a mildly defensive Doug Spittle, Tauranga City Council public spaces man.

Then a concession. “I wouldn’t call it tacky, but it’s certainly not as refined as possible.” And that’s his job – transforming the junkyard into a jewel, re-programming Wharf Street.

What we are seeing in Wharf Street right now goes much deeper than shabby street furniture, one-way traffic, dumplings and IPA. “What it really is, is a good example of tactical urbanism,” says Travis Wooller, a landscape architect with the integrated design studio Isthmus and part of Doug’s Wharf Street team.

“For not a lot of money and not a lot of construction at all, they have been able to test the street over a few years on how to make it work as a pedestrian oriented space, as opposed to a vehicular one.”

So “the tack” we are gazing on today is a trial run – to see what businesses wanted and didn’t want, what worked and didn’t work. Now Doug and Travis and business owners have it sussed and the Tauranga City Council is investing $5.56 million to ‘re-programme the space’ – transforming Wharf Street into a true dining destination, a quality people place, sans l’automobile.

“Wharf Street hasn’t been hitting all the high notes it should be,” says Doug Spittle. “But this will take it to a new level.”

They have good raw product to work with. The street is as a street should be. “It has the right hospitality-based businesses, active frontages along its entire length,” says Doug. “It has solar orientation - the sun hits it from the right direction morning and afternoon – and it has weather protection.”

You wouldn’t find another street in the CBD that ticks all those boxes and is book-ended by all the other developments in the emerging civic precinct – including being smack-bang in the middle of the Strand dining precinct.

The design man Travis Wooller says there will be “a couple of conceptual drivers” underpinning the new Wharf Street design. One is history – the fact Coronation Pier used to run off the end of Wharf Street. So the new concrete paving will be patterned like wharf timbers. And the furniture will be of heavy hardwood timbers – no pallets.  But the aesthetic approach will be what may well have been sitting on the wharves at the time they were built. “Picking up on that slight industrial wharf feel,” says Travis.

Now slam your imagination into overdrive because the second conceptual driver will be reflected in what Travis calls his “dynamic ceiling”.  It is a lit catenary system. “So tension cables between poles and on those cables are strung series of lights which are ambient, relating to the immediate surrounds, and all talking to one another and programmable.” In other words they turn on a show.

RGB lights - red, green and blue LEDs, which combined produce millions of hues, different colors and shapes moving up and down the street at night time as an attractor, a magnet. “Makes sure the street is fantastic during the day but also just as fantastic in the evening,” says Travis.

He’s sitting in the sun outside Dry Dock Café and he nods skywards to the clouds. His dynamic ceiling is picking up on those clouds, or nature’s ceiling. “The clouds often gather on the shoreline as the land and sea play off one another with warming and cooling. This is a sort of metaphor for people gathering in this space.”

Like any work of art, the beholder will take what they will from it. Others won’t see beyond the light cast on the head of their beer. But no-one will be immune to the mood the “dynamic ceiling” creates. It’s about ambience, about pulling in the punters.

Wharf Street has become somewhere quietly special for the urban planner, the spaces man, Doug Spittle. It’s his backyard. “I come here every day because I work near here. In the future more people will work near here, a lot more people will live near here, this will be a meeting place and an eating place.”

There’s a lot riding on him to make it work because there’s a tsunami of naysayers ready to wash up Wharf Street given the slightest provocation. “It will be difficult in terms of being on the back of other council projects that have left people frustrated and wanting different outcomes,” says Doug. “But I think local people will really connect with this place. It has all the ingredients of a great place.”

But not quite yet, because right then a young male nuisance factor revs an orange motor scooter and barrels off down Wharf Street. Conversation is drowned, eating and drinking is paused, eyes roll. Enjoy the moment nuisance factor, enjoy the ride, because you are about to be history.

Since 2015, there has been a very fluid back-and-forth between the TCC Wharf Street planning team, business owners and landlords on the development design. One thing they have all agreed on from the outset are the barricades which are going up at both ends of Wharf Street.

It will be shut off to all vehicular traffic including that damned motor scooter. Good riddance. Pedestrians, diners and imbibers are reclaiming Wharf Street, they’re taking the street out of Wharf Street. That will go down well. Perhaps it should be renamed - Wharf Way?

So a futuristic new Wharf Street but the same old fare, same old beer. “Excuse me??” That got a rise out of Doug Spittle. “Have you been to Pho Vina?” A new Vietnamese joint on the strip and obviously Doug’s current haunt. “I have had the pork and wonton, I have had the chicken and wonton with the spicy sauce. And just seven seconds for the mung beans. Damn! I could go on.”

He insists every one of those joints down Wharf Street – food or drink – is world class. “I love it here, that’s why I come so often.” 

Works starts about next Easter and should be finished by November 2020.

Then we will have reason to join Doug.