St Kevins Arcade. Picture / K Rd Business Association.

TBT: Why St Kevins is an Inner-city Treasure

We look at the history of St Kevins Arcade, as the iconic building gets a new lease of life

St Kevins Arcade on Auckland's K Rd is imbued with memories – my first punk gig, first vintage T-shirt, first (and only) juggling class.

It's a counter-culture mecca, and vintage shopping heaven.

The arcade also offers an insight into Auckland's retail history. The original leadlight windows show how streets looked in the early 20th century, says K Rd Business Association historian Edward Bennett.

He is giving a lecture on the history of the building next Tuesday during the Auckland Heritage Festival, and I am lucky enough to receive a preview over the phone.

It is a fascinating story, which begins with a mansion in the 19th century, which housed multiple residents, including at one stage officers of the Royal Irish Regiment. In the early 1920s, the house was demolished to make way for an arcade designed by architect William Arthur Cumming.

The retail industry was booming and, as was the fashion in department stores, a cafe with a view was incorporated to draw customers in. Alongside the tea rooms, which were housed in the corner shop overlooking Myers Park (there have been tea rooms or a cafe in this space since the arcade opened), were two beauty salons, a furrier, and a number of dress shops and accessories boutiques.

Until the 1960s, business was prosperous, with only a small dip during the depression and war years. K Rd was Auckland's main retail centre.

In the 1960s, however, the suburban sprawl began to take people out of the city centre. This had a catastrophic effect on retail, but, silver lining or not, it offered an opportunity for the red light district to move in.

Business in the arcade slowed down, although it wasn't until the 1990s, when big K Rd businesses such as Rendells and George Courts closed, that the arcade became deserted. Thanks to businesses such as the cafe Alleluya, which opened 21 years ago, and a wave of vintage shops, the arcade was revitalised.

Now it is time for the next wave of change. The arcade has been purchased by developer Paul Reid (of Shortland St and Rubicon fame) and, amid rumours of it becoming the next Ponsonby Central, many tenants are vacating.

One of the biggest changes is Alleluya closing, with eighthirty rumoured to be taking its place. Owner Peter Hawkesby says he had been looking for the right time to sell and is “quite elated” to be taking the “opportunity” to move on, and hopes to spend more time on his other love — pottery.

The threat of gentrification to K Rd, one of the last places in the city immune to mass-culture, is scary. But, as Edward points out, this is the second wave of gentrification.

“Alleluya probably single-handedly revitalised St Kevins Arcade,” in the 1990s he says, adding that “it can be argued that the street is now returning to what it was in the 1950s.”

Peter agrees that it is far from the beginning, saying “people were worried [about gentrification] back in the 90s”. But it has been happening at a slow pace until now. “At the moment you can feel it accelerating.”

Preservation and restoration is the obvious upside to gentrification, and James Kermode of Match Realty, the new leasing agent for the arcade, says that the renovations under way have been “carefully considered to celebrate the age and architectural style of this beautiful building”.

This includes the restoration of shopfronts, repainting of the interior and exterior, and replacing of floor tiles. While James could not confirm who will be staying and who the newcomers will be, he says new tenants are expected in the upcoming year - and announcements will be made in the following weeks about who they might be.

• Edward Bennett will give a lecture on St Kevins Arcade during the Auckland Heritage Festival. Tuesday 29 September, 7pm, Otago House, 385 Queen St. Bookings advised, ph (09) 377 5086 or email heritage@kroad.com

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