Precinct Properties’ Scott Pritchard reveals impact of Covid-19 on Commercial Bay retail

Retail in Auckland’s new $1 billion Commercial Bay was expected to be trading up to 20 per cent ahead of what it is now, its owner says.

Scott Pritchard, Precinct Properties’ chief executive since 2010, addressed the Property Council’s conference today and said although 1 million people visited the waterfront property in July, Covid and shut borders had taken a toll.

He was asked how far behind expectations retail was.

“If I’m being honest, we expected trading might be 15 to 20 per cent higher than it currently is – no international visitors. We’re seeing domestic levels of sales quite a bit higher than we first anticipated. When we get back to a normal environment, whatever that is, we expect international spend will be higher.”

Asked about what overseas architects might say of the project, Pritchard said: “My expectation is people will come from offshore and go ‘wow, you guys nailed it’.”

He was joined by Blair Johnston of Warren & Mahoney and they talked about aspirations for the site when the project was planned.

Pritchard said the initial focus was on a commercial office tower.

The attributes of the site are its location in the midst of public transport, on Queen St and the waterfront. On challenges, Pritchard said: “There was all this talk at the time about the City Rail Link and we didn’t know if that was going to go ahead at the time, so we needed to get familiar with the Public Works Act.”

Working with Auckland Council to “unlock” the site was designing above and below-ground works for the CRL and office tower.

Aspiration changed from a focus on an office tower as plans progressed, Pritchard said.

Columns that hold the tower up needed to be placed according to where the CRL ran beneath the site, he said.

He showed images of alternative towers considered for the site, honed down to a shortlist of three. Option two “that prioritised all the benefits for the occupiers on the site”. A pyramid-style scheme was the third one but didn’t prioritise putting the tenants at the top of the tower.

Johnston said he and Pritchard had been on “a nine-year journey” with Commercial Bay.

Master-planning was important and all the key decisions were made at that time.He referred to Precinct’s purchase of Queen Elizabeth II Square, saying the area “had a lack of edge activation dominated by buses”. Buying that site from Auckland Council had led to “enhanced public outcomes” and the creation of laneways at Commercial Bay.

“Commercial Bay is transformational for Auckland City because it enabled a major infrastructure project in terms of the City Rail Link,” Johnston said.

New public laneways enabled the relocation of buses and new pedestrianised civic space, he said referring to the recently-opened Te Komititanga between the ex-Central Post Office and Commercial Bay.

The aim in designing those lower areas of the project was to create a seamless extension of the city “so there is no front door”, Johnston said, referring to the main lobby to offices some floors above ground.

“The traditional shopping mall turned inside out” was another objective “and we turned the shopping mall upside down,” he said referring to where food and beverage were located on upper levels of the retail areas.

“Urban and textural rather than slick” was another key objective, Johnston said.

Laneway entrances break down bulk and scale and a magnetic location had been created.

Pritchard said one year on with Covid, “never did we imagine we’d be opening in a pandemic like what we’ve faced. The CBD had been impacted more than suburbs”, he said referring to a relatively low residential population in the CBD “but that’s a discussion for another day”.

The centre had attracted 12 million visitors so far, “more than what we expected”.

His hope is that once again, cruise ships will be in the bay and that Commercial Bay will be lauded by visitors and impressed by what Auckland has to offer.

“We set out at the start for it to be different and unique. Since March, we have seen a significant increase each month,” he said showing foot traffic of one million in July.

“One million visitors for us in July was really satisfying for us.”

For Commercial Bay to be seen as the inversion of a traditional mall was also satisfying, he said referring to a Spinoff article.

The tower was fully leased on an average lease period of more than 11 years.

“We’ve also launched our own Commercial Bay Club. It’s a bit like a loyalty programme and that has proven to be really popular – a world-class service to match a world-class building”.

Te Wananga on waterfront and Te Komititanga had been incredibly well-received, although were disruptive while being built, Pritchard said.

Asked if he would do anything different, Pritchard said that would be only minor and around the margins.

“We’ve asked ourselves that on a number of occasions. We spent many years and hours just figuring out exactly lane width and dimensions and site lines and all that detail. There might be a few things you might change but we’re incredibly happy with the end product.”

Asked if they ever considered residential, Scott said: “We certainly did, we considered a hotel and residential. It came down to trying to retain a level of simplicity. This is a highly complex project and mixed-use with public transport, office, car parking and retail so we decided to not go there.”

On consultation with local iwi, Pritchard said Precinct had “engaged with all iwi in Tamaki. We also engaged iwi to participate in and design artwork in the centre. You’ll see cultural representation and that’s something I’m incredibly proud of. We’re looking at future projects to actually extend that engagement further.”

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