Kid gloves on Queen Street

Council and contractor go to unusual lengths to try to keep the public and retailers onside during a tricky makeover.   BY GAVIN RILEY

Queen_Big.jpgIt is the busiest thoroughfare in New Zealand, as well as being the country’s pre-eminent street and the centre of Auckland’s economic and social activity. Each weekday about 50,000 pedestrians, 20,000 vehicles and 500 buses travel along its 1.8 kilometre length.

Merely thinking about carrying out a Queen Street makeover would be enough to give most contractors nightmares. Yet Dominion Constructors has been engaged in just such an upgrade since the beginning of last year – and weathering with aplomb the inevitable grumbles from an inconvenienced public and affected retailers. 

Auckland City Council acknowledged three years ago that its premier street was tired and a transformation was critical to the city’s future urban identity, quality, character and economic health.

In setting out to bolster Queen Street’s status as the country’s leading destination for business, shopping and entertainment, the council decided the key was to make it pedestrian-friendly.

Accordingly it drew up plans that featured wider footpaths, improved lighting, new canopies on the eastern side, new underground tree pits and trees (plus replacing some existing trees), three new signalised mid-block crossings, improved side-street crossings, and shorter waiting times for pedestrians at traffic lights.

The $41 million upgrade has been divided into four stages:

• Mayoral Drive to Wellesley Street (early January 06-late March 07).

• Victoria Street to Customs Street (late February 07-late March 08).

• Wellesley to Victoria Street (early January-late August 07).

• Mayoral Drive to Karangahape Road – awaiting resource consent with a possible start later this year and completion early next year.

Dominion Constructors has two site teams totalling up to 60 workers – one for stages one and three, and the other for stages two and four. The company has been tasked with laying about 40,000 basalt pavers (each weighing 48kg) and 4500 kerbstones (110-115kg each) – a difficult undertaking given Queen Street remains open to pedestrians, cars and buses, and businesses must continue to function. 

But Dominion Constructors isn’t fazed. Says project manager Richard Joseph: “We invested a considerable amount of time in planning prior to commencement of the works, plus we started work in the quieter section of Queen Street. So we’ve been able to take the lessons learned into the busier section by Customs Street to enhance how we manage the pedestrian flow, traffic and access to premises.”

Further, the city council and the contractor have each appointed an ambassador to handle complaints and queries from retailers and the public and issue information – a first for a streetscapes project in Auckland. 

Joseph says the idea came about during project planning when elements of risk and how they should be managed were identified.

“Information and co-ordination are major factors in this project and the role of the ambassador is to manage these. This works very well, with weekly update visits to stakeholders plus additional visits as and when necessary.

“We also have a 24-hour call centre dedicated to our streetscapes projects in case of emergency.”

The council’s group manager special projects, Jo Wiggins, says the council’s ambassador is being kept very busy.

“The key point for our ambassador is to ensure important messages and information about what’s going on in terms of the construction get out to retailers, and that he can relay any comments, complaints, compliments, questions or queries from retailers back to us.”

The ambassador idea is proving so successful it is likely to be repeated elsewhere. But it is not the only public-relations initiative in use on the Queen Street project. Dominion Constructors’ staff have been schooled in what can best be described as behavioural modifications.

“Normally construction sites are tucked behind a fence away from the public, where colourful and descriptive language is part of our industry,” Joseph says.

“On Queen Street the public are all around us constantly and our guys have to appreciate a revised way of working – and to date have been very successful.

“Due to the media interest in Queen Street, especially regarding the [controversial choice of] trees, some of the public have been fairly abusive to the lads. And credit to the lads, they have politely referred the public back to council. We also have to watch out for whistling, shouting and appropriate dress.”

Another measure undertaken out of consideration for the public is to cut pavers with a “whisper” blade inside an on-site acoustic booth. The booth was designed by Allan Roberts of Russell Bricklayers & Aotea Paving (an associate company of Dominion Constructors) and was a finalist in last year’s New Zealand workplace health and safety awards.

“The combination of the blade and the booth considerably reduces the noise generated,” Joseph says.

“Last year we were able to work outside the Copthorne Hotel all night cutting and laying paving without the hotel or its guests being aware of the works. Acoustic cutting booths are now being specified on other projects, such as the Newmarket upgrade.”

With up to 50,000 pedestrians daily on Queen Street, Dominion Constructors is also using a 1.2-metre orange barrier system instead of cones. The barriers’ highly visible, consistent appearance improves public and vehicle safety and provides a secure working environment for the contractor’s staff.

A mild and dry autumn meant that at the beginning of July tasks such as tree-pit construction and kerbing were up to 12 weeks ahead of schedule, and even critical path paving was about four days ahead.

“This gives us a buffer for unexpected items such as relocating underground services,” Joseph says.

“Some of our paving is protected by the building canopies, but our set-out point is from the back of the kerb, which is weather affected. If the concrete screed is wet we cannot lay pavers, so the winter will be an interesting period.”

The Queen Street upgrade inevitably has meant considerable disruption to the retail heart of Auckland, and it’s not over yet. But will the end justify the means – will Aucklanders eventually have a Queen Street they can be proud of?

“We’re on track to have the entire project, including stage four, completed in March 2008,” says the city council’s Jo Wiggins.

“The vision for Queen Street is about putting pedestrians first and reducing the dominance of general traffic. The upgrade is creating an avenue of liquidambar trees and nikau palms, widened footpaths, new street furniture and reduced clutter to give Queen Street a Pacific flavour and identity that Aucklanders can be truly proud of.”

Richard Joseph says a considerable amount of the value of the project is below ground and people may question the cost against what they see.

“What they won’t see are the 100 different paving samples constructed and driven over 9000 times by a truck to simulate 50 years’ lifetime usage of the footpath by street-cleaning equipment. Nor do they see the large, buried 10 cubic metre tree pits that ensure the new trees have the best possible environment to mature within an urban landscape.

“What people will see is high-quality design and construction that they can be proud of – and we hope they respect it by not tolerating rubbish and graffiti that mar so many New Zealand streets.”

Contractor Vol.31 No.7 August 2007

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