You may know Nat Cheshire from Cheshire Architects as the designer behind some of Auckland City’s most character-defining developments, such as City Works Depot and much of Britomart, or as one of our Most Creative winners. As 2018 draws to a close, Cheshire has debuted a new development with his name attached to it called Morningside. But instead of being a masterpiece he’s created for a client, this time around, it’s his and his friends’ own money on the line. Here, he talks taking his vision for Auckland into the suburbs, tapping into the culture of Kingsland and where he’s casting his eye to develop next.
The precinct, Morningside, has just opened in Kingsland and is home to a diverse selection of businesses shoulder-tapped by the developers, including a bridal atelier from designer Juliette Hogan, a cider bar, a hole-in-the-wall dumpling house and a 450-square metre glasshouse events space. These new additions join the pre-existing businesses such as media outlet The Spinoff and the community-orientated café, Crave, in the hub.
The site is owned by Common Projects and the team behind its inception includes Cheshire and his father Pip of Cheshire Architects, Britomart Hospitality Group’s Rod Ballenden and Nick McCaw, as well as investors Jeremy Priddy, Blair Wolfgram and Paul Gibbard.
All have worked together on different elements of the development of Britomart previously, and a friendship between the group blossomed from that. However, none of them have direct experience in creating their own project from start to finish – and Cheshire says this is why they decided to put their money where their mouth is and make themselves the client.
“Most often, we’re the delivery boy or girl for someone else’s ideas and at best, you get to reach into that person’s ideas and manipulate them a bit, have a thrash at it and reshape it into something that responds to the world a bit more intelligently. Seizing the problem or opportunity at its root – that’s a completely different game,” Cheshire says.
“All of us have slightly different motivations. For me, it was really important to step out of the marshmallow space of consultancy and see what we put clients through in these projects that cost $50 to $100 million, or a quarter of a billion dollars, without having ever being in their shoes.
“The other part is, fuck it, we’ve spent 15 years trying to reshape this city, I think we’ve learnt some things and have some tools that almost nobody else has – let’s use them.”
Morningside for life
They kept their eyes peeled for an opportunity for a couple of years, before someone spotted Morningside for the first time. Originally a farm estate that was subdivided in 1865 for housing lots, the suburb is home to a light industrial zone that is flanked by a train station, Eden Park and various villas.
Cheshire says in particular, what struck them was the sense of community that had been borne out of the for-good business café, Crave.
“Crave had started as a hole-in-the-wall social enterprise and had gone bananas with two-hour wait lists on a Saturday morning,” he says. “That was all the proof we needed and rammed it home that the demand was there – it was a community without a hub.
“The site is kind of incredible, it’s four blocks from my house. It’s an anomaly in the fabric of the city – low-rise industrial sites surrounded by a sea of villas and bungalows filled with people like me, in their thirties and forties, with young families who maybe aren’t dancing at 1885 in the morning, but haven’t graduated to staying at home, reading books every Friday night – so they want to find somewhere in the middle.
“We thought in a Netflix/Uber Eats environment, there’s a whole chunk of people that live in those suburbs and have disposable income and have a desire to be part of some part of community and want the delights – they don’t want to put town shoes on and come to Ponsonby.”
Rather than take on Crave café as competition, it was the first to be consulted about the precinct and has since been joined with a second café outpost called Kind on the opposite corner. Other occupants from further afield in Auckland who’ve come to the table include Miann, a dessert store based in Britomart, Electric Chicken, a former pop-up store in Mercury Plaza, and Bo’s Dumplings, a spin-out of Top Café off Karangahape Rd.
Cheshire describes it as a community of operators who work in sync together and are being empowered to do their best work, rather than being a show-offy beauty pageant.
“A good little example of working in synergy is the smallest tenancy at the end of the lane: a cupboard-sized cider place and a dumpling dispensary that’s a hole-in-the-wall. Everyone who orders one gets the other. You couldn’t have turned up in Morningside and opened just one, but if you put them together, they feed off each other, and if you put them together with five to six like-minded businesses, they all start to feed off each other.”
Born of culture, not aesthetics
In terms of timelines, ownership was taken over in February and the team worked around the clock to get the $6 million development finished in time for opening in mid-November.
Cheshire says Morningside was treated like a side project, so he’d set his alarm for 2am or 3am to work on it before moving onto Cheshire Architect’s other projects, such as Catalina Bay in Hobsonville and Britomart.
The fact the Morningside development is smaller than Cheshire Architects’ usual projects is a reflection of the group’s resources, he says.
“We don’t have millions of dollars of capital at our disposal, we’re a bunch of kids trying to have a stab at it, start at a scale just big enough to count, learn a lot of lessons very quickly, then leverage that and scale it.”
As for its design, Cheshire says they didn’t want to run the risk of overcooking it or trying too hard. Instead, they wanted to make Morningside feel as if it had grown ad hoc from what was already there.
“It was a mix of run down buildings used for curtain manufacturing, accreted over the wrong half of last century. But rather than build it and start again, we wanted it to feel like it had grown authentically out of that place.
“There have been some tailoring and careful decisions, but it was pretty ad hoc and improvised and very little detailed design work. We hacked our way forwards and the result feels like if you’ve been a stay-at-home Mum or Dad, haven’t been out in a while and aren’t quite socially comfortable to hit Ponsonby or Britomart, you can turn up in jandals with a pushchair.”
The overall vision for the precinct is that it isn’t a finished state – instead, it’s constantly evolving and changing with the landscape around it. Cheshire says all good retail and hospitality developments should have the ability to be adaptive in this day and age.
“Fragile is strong, and strong is fragile,” he says. “We wanted something fragile enough that when one aspect is not so successful, we can shrink it and change it, and when it’s successful we can seize on it. That’s the logic behind having broken this property into lots of small parts of varied sizes – there are tenancies that are 12 square metres.
“What that means is they’re the opposite of monochrome, not just one big Esquires coffees house. There’s a diversification of offerings, and someone who starts small has the opportunity to grow quite big, and someone who starts really big might start chopping themselves into small pieces.”
He also says changing modes of transport are now opening up more freedom when it comes to city design, as when the Morningside development was pitched to Auckland Council, there was no additional parking noted as part of the proposal.
“If we made this project a year earlier, we would’ve been required to have 50 carparks,” Cheshire says. “What we discussed and agreed with the Council was the world was changing – there was a train station next door, but also we’ve entered an Uber age, one of our tenants was Parkable [the app] that was changing the way people drove and parked. In the process of building, Onzo appeared and a month before we finished, the Lime scooters appeared.
“Fuck knows what it’s going to look like in five years.”
Nat Cheshire. Photo: Adam Bryce
The future of Auckland
Cheshire has never been shy about vocalising his aspirations for Auckland, having previously said it needs to lose its inferiority complex and aim higher. It's the reason why the firm he heads up, Cheshire Architects, has deliberately focused all of its energy and impact on developing the city, rather than opening spin-outs in Wellington or Christchurch.
Which begs the question – now that Cheshire has strayed away from the inner CBD into the suburbs, is there is ample opportunity for straying even further?
Yes. When asked what neighbourhood might be next on the horizon in terms of development, Cheshire is coy on the matter, but says working with Morningside’s ‘60s and ‘70s buildings has opened his eyes to the potential of other locations that didn’t look so impressive initially.
“All of the shitty leftover half pie buildings that are dotted through the city – such as in Parnell and Morningside – they start to look like a resource rather than a liability,” he says.
“Ash felt parking spaces look like a resource waiting to be used. Having gone all in on the idea in Morningside, we look around the city and see it everywhere, and we end up breathless because the scale of the opportunity is much bigger than you can fit into one lifetime, we can turn in any direction and head there.”
Watch this space.