What the heck has happened to Wellington’s Courtenay Place?

June 30, 2023
6 mins read

Wellington’s historic Courtenay Place was once a proud part of the inner city but has become shabby and dangerous, writes PAT PILCHER.

As a Wellingtonian, I’ve long observed the drawn-out decline along Courtenay Place. What was once the jewel in Wellington’s hospitality crown has become a threadbare and shabby mess. For over a decade, we’ve seen countless media reports of alcohol-fuelled violence in the area and more recently it only seems to be getting worse. Nowadays, Courtenay Place is looking threadbare and tatty. Empty premises and homeless people sleeping in doorways is a dispiriting constant.

The famous thoroughfare’s woes are headlined by Courtenay Central, once a bustling cinema, theatre and food court. It was closed for several months after it was damaged in the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake and its car park was also deemed quake-prone and demolished. The complex briefly reopened following the demolition of the parking building but shut down again in 2019 due to further structural issues. It has since remained closed, with even its only McDonald’s store finally exiting. In the minds of many Wellingtonians, the empty Courtenay Central building has become a symbol of the decay afflicting Courtenay Place.

It isn’t just the run-down buildings and homeless people that give Courtenay Place a seedy vibe. Violence around the area has been an ongoing issue that has plagued the location for many years. Sadly it seems to be getting worse.

When it comes to reported assaults and sexual assaults over five years, Courtenay Place is in a prominent position, with RNZ reporting that it experienced a 10-fold increase in reported crimes, putting it amongst New Zealand’s more violent locations.

This was made very real to me last night when waiting for a bus to head home from an exhibition. I was body-slammed by a young guy walking past with his mates. He was clearly looking for a fight, and he’d decided I was a suitable target for him and his friends. I didn’t take the bait, not wanting to become one of the many statistics of Courtenay Place (or get beaten to a pulp). Sadly, this sort of thing has become common as the numbers of reported assaults continue to grow in and around Courtenay Place.

So, what can be done about it?

While much of the debate around what needs to be fixed centres on what can be done by the council, government and police, some issues require a long-term approach and behavioural/cultural changes extending well beyond 3-year local and central government political terms. People need to be put ahead of money. Sadly, it doesn’t appear that this will happen any time soon. The reality is that at the moment, crime in Courtenay Place and surrounding areas is an entrenched issue. Recently, Police Inspector Dean Silvester said the area around Courtenay Place is a hotspot for booze-fuelled violence, and that Friday and Saturday nights are most problematic.

Visit any of the many bars along Courtenay Place, and you’ll see a sizeable number of what appear to be underage drinkers. It also isn’t all that unusual to see drunk patrons wandering in and out of bars looking for opportunities to be served more booze. Maybe regular random police raids on the bars in Courtenay Place are needed, along with any establishments caught with underage or intoxicated patrons hit with alcohol license suspensions.


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While it is probable that many of the bars and pubs along Courtenay Place might be selling alcohol to underage and already boozed patrons, a 2016 article from Stuff reports concerns about the nearby Chafers New World supermarket. In the story, police called it ground zero for the area’s booze related lawlessness and violence. During the supermarket’s liquor licensing hearing, police showed CCTV footage of assaults, disorder, public urination and alcohol abuse around the supermarket car park – just 30 metres from Courtenay Place. Incredibly, after agreeing to close its car park (which afterwards continued to be a popular spot for drunken loitering), the supermarket got its liquor license, and booze-fuelled violence continued. The sad reality is that a sizeable chunk of Courtenay Place’s business involves making money selling booze, and this is unlikely to change.

While police face challenges trying to cope as Courtenay Place becomes increasingly feral late on Friday and Saturday nights, tough questions need to be asked about the liquor licensing decisions made in the area, given its growing reputation for violence and other undesirable alcohol enabled behaviour.

This is also reflected in some establishments along Courtenay Place blaming the cops for booze-related problems. In an RNZ story, some Courtenay Place bar owners accuse Wellington’s police of intimidating patrons and staff, saying that police entering their premises discourages patronage and that it might lead to violence. Could these businesses be lashing out at the police for simply doing their job, and be more concerned with the potential financial hit from patrons leaving their establishments than the safety of those in and around Courtenay Place? Either way, the comments made by the bar owners in the story seem grossly irresponsible and motivated by greed more than anything else.

Booze aside, the generally tatty state of Courtenay Place and its many businesses needs to be addressed. While Wellington City Council recently held a Courtenay Place clean-up day hardly anyone I mentioned it to knew it was happening, which perhaps highlights the current state of council communications with ratepayers. Worse still, heading into town the day after the clean-up, little seemed to have changed. Courtenay Place still looked grubby and tired.

The reality is that business frontages along Courtenay Place look worn out and shabby, and the pavements are often filthy. It isn’t unusual to see vomit slicks, and there is often a reek of stale urine on a Saturday or Sunday morning. Perhaps businesses need to be made to take a more proactive approach to maintain their frontages and clean pavements via regular council inspections, or face fines and publicity if they fail to adhere to decent standards of cleanliness? Increased video surveillance and harsher penalties for anti-social behaviour could also effectively deter anti-social behaviour. Unfortunately, the current economic climate, politics and cost of living crisis have seen many businesses in Courtenay Place struggling. Adding more pressure to their already tough situation is likely to be seen as politically unpalatable by the council. Meanwhile, the situation on Courtenay Place continues to deteriorate.

The many empty premises are also a growing problem, and one that could lead to a downward spiral, warns Hospitality New Zealand board member and bar owner Jeremy Smith in a recent RNZ story. He says that a domino effect is possible and that, “We can’t have too many more empty shops or businesses along Courtenay Place, or even other streets in Wellington…. as soon as too many of those pop up you start ending up finding it quite difficult to keep the vibrancy going.”

A possible solution could take the form of an empty building tax. It could be as simple as a rates multiplier based on the occupancy status of a premises. The amount could increase each month a place is unoccupied. This might incentivise landlords to keep businesses occupied and slow down rent increases, taking pressure off struggling businesses. For multinational building owners such as those who own Courtenay Central, sharp increases to their rates could finally force them to sort out what has become a gaping hole along the historic street.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the type of premises in and around Courtenay Place. As contentious as this is, there is an argument that low-rent establishments such as TABs, vape shops  and strip bars could attract undesirable patrons and should be banned from operating in the area.

Perhaps the most intractable and difficult-to-address issue plaguing Courtenay Place is the number of homeless people dossing down in doorways. While most of the homeless along the street are harmless, there is a strong argument that their presence adds to a growing perception of decline in and that they attract gang members and drug dealers into their orbit, adding to the edgy nature of the street. The growth in homeless people around Wellington CBD is linked to the increase in emergency housing, which saw backpackers and hostels taking in homeless people as tourism collapsed during the Covid epidemic. Might it be time for government to fix the emergency housing situation?

While no begging and no loitering laws might see some homeless people moving away from the entertainment precinct, the bigger issues of where to put them and why they are homeless in the first place need to be addressed. These issues are far too big for any local government to handle. Still, they are only likely to turn into political footballs within the central government during an election year, resulting in lots of posturing by various political parties at the expense of achieving useful and needed outcomes.

So, what can be done to fix the shambles of Courtenay Place? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.


+ The photographs in this story have been artificially generated.

Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.

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