Cooper and Company chief executive Matthew Cockram has some experience in turning unloved areas around: he led the team behind Britomart’s regeneration. Here, he talks about the past and future of Auckland’s central city, and how getting people back to work will underpin its resurgence.

JEREMY HANSEN We’re in a situation where much of the media coverage about the central city lately has focused on violence and a kind of ‘ghost town’ narrative. This made me think of how things must have been when you began the Britomart development, and this part of town was regarded in similar ways. Can you talk a bit about what it was like when you started out?

MATTHEW COCKRAM In the mid-90s, this area was an old bus station, and there were all these heritage buildings in various states of decline and decrepitude. The council specified the heritage buildings had to be preserved and repurposed, while selling the above-ground sites for development to help fund it all and to see the area rejuvenated, I suppose. So we [a group including Peter Cooper, Cooper and Company’s executive chairman] became involved in the competitive process around who could do that and what form that would take. The scheme that emerged has pretty much driven everything we’ve done ever since. Critical to that was the heritage work, and the basic mass and dimensions of the new buildings. 

I guess the key insights at that early point were around dealing with the safety concerns. We spent probably a year cleaning out buildings, getting them back to their bare bones. Most of them were habitable and as a result of that, we got tenants in. Auckland Theatre Company were down on Quay Street, and we had a lot of artists in the Customs Street buildings. We basically just got going with what we could, tidied everything up at ground level, and tried to make it safe. We put in a temporary pavilion, creating a focal point for events and activities. That was about getting people here, getting people feeling comfortable with the place. The lesson from all that is you can take something that was a bit of a pig’s ear and turn it into a silk purse with a bit of care, with a bit of thought, with a bit of thinking about what people want and need at a human level.

We started by looking at the corners, essentially. We started to get a little bit of life going in those spots like the Levy Building on Customs Street, and the Northern Steamship building on Quay Street. That was really the kernel of it, getting those corners going, and working from there. It’s analogous to what I would say about the central city issue today. You could fragment it into trying to solve every problem in every corner and nook and cranny in the city, but you won’t get the impact from that. I would advocate focusing and concentrating on highly visible areas where you can make some really meaningful change and build from there.

JH  Could you characterise your sense at the time of what the city centre was to Auckland?

MC I worked in the city from the mid-80s, and I’d come in every weekday. You didn’t really think about the city as a place you would come to in the weekend or spend time in beyond your working day, but it was busy. The places of character at that time were probably Vulcan Lane and High Street; they were where you got that sense of laneways and closeness. And the preoccupation with public spaces and widening footpaths, all those things, started to kick off at that time.

I’ve loved seeing how the city’s evolved. There’s a great sense of life in the evenings now too. I think the huge numbers of people who now live in the city have been a great thing in terms of giving it that true 24/7 energy that it didn’t have when I first worked here. 

One of the major changes that created Britomart, of course, was the railway station was brought in here from Beach Road. That brought about a change in travel patterns and people’s habits and helped the proposition of a bustling central city come together. I guess what we were doing concurrently with that, up on top of the station, reinforced that a bit. 

JH What do you think people need now from the central city?

MC I don’t know that they know at the moment. It’s just going to take a little bit of time. I don’t think needs have changed particularly; I think there’s that need for social interaction, to entertain yourself, either through shopping, or walking, or through attending arts and culture events and activities. I think from a work point of view, there is absolutely a need to be physically in the same room as others that you work with, and the collaboration and so on that comes from that. You might need different types of space, but the basic human need there is the same: we are social animals. Very few endeavours happen with a whole bunch of people operating in a disconnected solo way. We need to be welcoming and ready as people reconnect and come back to Auckland, and to be providing them with things that meet their needs and excite and interest them. The critical mass and capital invested in the central city means if it’s going to happen anywhere, it can happen here. The central city has been here for 200 years – and probably earlier – in some form for a reason: because of its centrality. It’s built its critical mass organically, to meet the needs of an expanding region and country. Why would you stop investing in that, or not try to turn it around?

JH How would you describe the scale of the challenge that you think the central city currently faces?

MC I think that’s a different story for different places, really. I think the story for us down here is to get people back to work and that’ll trickle down to the food and beverage and retail. But on top of that, we need the visitors. There are some New Zealanders who currently feel uncomfortable about coming here, so we need to address any safety and security concerns. I do think it’s a big issue and I think that it’s going to take a concerted effort to show and demonstrate safety and get people comfortable to come back. It’s just hideous to see the media coverage of some of the events that have occurred. We have had some undesirable things happen, but if we don’t arrest it, it could get worse. It’s a significant challenge.

JH You’ve been a managing partner of a law firm and you’ve run this organisation for a long time. What’s your personal experience of pandemic been like and how has that shaped your attitude towards the future of work?

MC There absolutely is a place for the office. It’s where an organisation builds its culture. It’s where you develop collegiality. You create a brand, a style, and it gives you a physical place to present yourself to and from. I’m a firm believer that everyone has a responsibility to build and develop those around them, and offices are the best places to do that. I’m not against flexible working arrangements, but it’s incumbent on leadership to foster that desire for people to come into work and collaborate and be with one another, because I think at the end of the day that is going to be what keeps your wheels turning as an organisation.

Click here to read the other interviews in our City Futures series.