Hastings CBD is widely thought of as the ugly sister to Napier’s art deco tourism glory, but it’s not. She has certainly faded from the boom times in the 1960s and 70s, when Hastings was the fastest growing town in New Zealand with a vibrant CBD, late night shopping and some of the best independent retailers in the country.

But it’s time for a change and it’s starting to happen.

There’s no doubt there are challenges. Hastings CBD has an image problem largely crafted by the media on perception rather than reality. Truthfully, the reality is mixed. We have a small minority causing issues with law and order, but so do many towns in New Zealand. A recent increase in the visibility of police, the Hastings Council Assist Programme and Mäori wardens on the streets are moves designed to reduce these issues. Time will tell, but I believe it’s working.

Hastings CBD needs serious refurbishing

Then there is the elephant in the room – the earthquake issue. We have a large number of older character and art deco buildings that do not comply with earthquake codes. The economic reality is that some buildings are going to cost much more than they are worth to meet code.

This can either be seen as a problem or an opportunity – Hastings has the chance to modernise the underlying infrastructure in the CBD, therefore increasing its value and attractiveness to new business, while at the same time managing any new streetscapes to ensure the character of the area is maintained and enhanced. Of course landlords have many years to complete remedial work, but if we want the CBD to thrive again, we must be proactive and encourage landlords and business owners to develop and be progressive. Otherwise, over time we will end up with pockets of untenanted, rundown buildings throughout the CBD.

The way people work, shop and entertain themselves has also changed. In many towns, both here and overseas, people are spending a lot of their discretionary time and income in community clusters either close to work or home.

Hastings has a strong core of professional businesses, but they do not stay in the CBD after work to shop, eat or be entertained. Visitors to the Opera House do not stay in the CBD to dine before or after shows and, although there are some lovely motels, there are no 3 or 4 star hotels to accommodate visitors within walking distance. We have a low density sprawl with no focal areas of high activity.

Challenge? Yes. Opportunity? Absolutely. So what are the positives?

Hastings is the economic hub of Hawke’s Bay. We have a strong professional base supported by progressive horticultural and agricultural businesses. We have a vibrant group of small independent food producers, artisans and retailers that attract interest and create diversity to support the national chain stores. We have a wonderful asset in the Opera House and its ability to draw people into the CBD for events. We have Civic Square which has untapped potential as a venue and gathering place.

We have a council that is highly supportive of rejuvenating the CBD and is demonstrating this through projects such as the Skate Park and their progressive draft CBD plan. We have an invigorated Central Business Association who are passionate about bringing the life back to Hastings through concepts such as the upcoming Twilight Markets. We also have Horse of the Year, recognised as one of the best equestrian events in the southern hemisphere, which brings in an enormous number of people and our iconic Farmers’ Market with a fantastic nationwide reputation.

What we need is focus on strategic density, bringing clusters of related businesses together. This has already started with the Opera House precinct as an arts and entertainment hub. And with the recent upgrade of the new Hawke’s Bay Today offices, that part of the ‘East’ is gaining momentum. For the first time, we have office workers back on Heretaunga Street interacting with the streetscape.

Michael Whittaker’s vision to replace the Albert Hotel

As a city, we need to continue to build more strong precincts to support this revitalisation of the CBD. High street shopping, hospitality, professional services, arts and entertainment. We need to reduce the sprawl and increase our inner city density – bringing people together. We want them to work, eat, shop and play from one car park.

That’s the vision I have for the Albert Precinct. The Albert Hotel has long been an eyesore and a hindrance to development in Heretaunga Street East. Its current state of disrepair means that it cannot economically be saved, so it will make way for an example of what the CBD can become – Albert Square. When all stages are completed, Albert Square will combine office space, cafes, restaurants, retail and open space in a character precinct. Although it will be relatively self-contained, it will draw people in from neighbouring areas to work, shop or dine and push them out to areas such as the Opera House, the movie theatres, restaurants and surrounding retailers.

I’ve seen many examples of CBDs that do or don’t work and many examples of struggling areas that have become amazing social hubs. Hastings has a far better starting point than many people realise. No, we don’t have the population to sustain something as large and diverse as Auckland’s Britomart or the New York Meatpackers District, but we can model ourselves on these urban communities and the way they draw people in and keep them in the area for a variety of reasons. And that is exactly what the development of these precincts will do.

It may sound ‘big-city’, but it’s not. It’s about developing a community, giving people an excuse to come into the CBD and many excuses to stay once they’ve arrived. If you’re planning drinks after work, don’t go to Napier or Havelock North, stay in Hastings. If you have friends in town for the weekend, bring them to Hastings for the day. It’s about attracting businesses with modern office infrastructure, great entertainment options and a pleasant environment.

But most importantly it’s about creating a concentration of people in all precinct areas for it to be vibrant, attractive and self-sustaining. Hastings CBD is on the move and there is an ever-growing, enthusiastic group of people driving the change.

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