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Once prosperous precinct springs back to life

Early morning before Dunedin's heritage warehouse precinct gets busy. Photo: www.stwstudio.com
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Vision, creativity and private investment are combining to rejuvenate Dunedin’s heritage warehouse precinct, which is more than 120 years old.

On a sunny but cold September Saturday morning, car parks are scarce and cafes are alive with people meeting and relaxing. The district stretches from Queens Gardens south to Police St.

At the award-winning Vogel St Kitchen cafe, baristas and chefs are busy. Sun lights the painted ochre brick of a beautifully restored building opposite.

Vogel St Kitchen (VSK) owner Riah McLean says that in the late 1880s, when Dunedin was New Zealand’s “first city”, companies and merchant stores filled this area.

However, by the time she started looking for premises in 2013, the precinct contained grungy student flats; empty, old neglected buildings and some intermittent established businesses.

From printing to coffee

Riah didn’t want to rent in the central business district and spent six months actively searching for a suitable space. Then heritage developer Lawrie Forbes showed her 76 Vogel St. She says it was one of the street’s most dilapidated buildings, yet had potential.

I just fell in love with this building,” she says. “I walked in and felt that this could be the cafe.”

The building was constructed in 1896 and for decades housed the printers John McIndoe. After Riah signed her lease, she learned her great-grandfather had worked there as a printer in the 1930s and 1940s.

“So that felt serendipitous.”

Riah McLean at Vogel St Kitchen, one of two cafes she’s started in Dunedin’s heritage warehouse precinct

Restoring and fitting out the building took 10 months. Building owner Lawrie collaborated with Riah. She says he’s a steel fabricator and engineer by trade, has a great team and understands heritage buildings.

Although the warehouse precinct was fairly devoid of people, Riah thought she could create a “destination cafe”. If she designed a warm, casual atmosphere, she believed people would come.

After hours: an impressive staircase leads to a loft containing more tables at Vogel St Kitchen. Photo: www.stwstudio.com

At that time the only other restored building was the ochre one opposite, home to ADInstruments and its 70 employees.

“I thought, ‘There’s 70 people on my doorstep that would like coffee’. If that wasn’t there, I may not have taken that leap of faith,” she says.

Rejuvenating the precinct

Since VSK opened in 2014, the warehouse precinct has been springing into life.

Riah says former Dunedin City Council heritage policy planner Dr Glen Hazelton had a vision for developing the area in a modern, user-friendly way, and worked with landlords to achieve this.

Building owners and landlords have contributed the bulk of investment, and tenancies have attracted people to the area, she says.

The council has funded improvements to the streetscape, drainage and future water infrastructure.

Dunedin’s warehouse precinct combines heritage with modern sculptures, paving, street furniture and new businesses such as Heritage Coffee on the left. Photo: www.stwstudio.com.

Landlords, the Dunedin Street Art Trust and donations have paid for the large painted murals which form a Street Art Trail, especially popular with tourists. While murals are scattered throughout the city, they are concentrated in the warehouse precinct, Exchange and Stafford St.

“Aside from the fact that I love them, they’re actually a really good investment.”

Discussing the rejuvenation, Riah says the 123 Vogel St redevelopment was completed a year ago. This building blends historic character with an airy three-storey atrium. It houses a sizeable law firm and a smart business hub/collaborative work space called Innov8HQ.

Tech start-ups and more cafes have arrived in the area and a vegan/organic grocer will open soon. Inner-city apartments have also been developed.

“It’s turning into a place where people can come.”

Second cafe builds on success

VSK’s broad clientele includes businesspeople, students, families with young children, retired people and tourists. The cafe is particularly busy at weekends. When singer Pink performed in the city this month, the VSK chef cooked 600 meals on Sunday alone.

Almost a year ago, Riah opened another cafe along the street, Heritage Coffee. She says its building was the worst in Vogel St and the landlords spent three years renovating it.

Historic beauty: a small part of Dunedin’s warehouse precinct. Heritage Coffee in a renovated former Otago Harbour Board building. Photo: www.stwstudio.com.

Between the two cafes, Riah employs 37 people, or about 18 full-time equivalents. VSK has 150 seats inside and 30 outside; Heritage Coffee has 50 inside and 50 outside.

VSK won the Emerging Business Award in the 2016 Westpac Otago Business Awards. Riah says applying for this award helped her clarify what she was doing in terms of strategy and business.

From the vibe nowadays, strategy and business are indeed being restored to Dunedin’s warehouse precinct.

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For further information:

About Dunedin’s heritage warehouse precinct, click here

About the Otago Business Awards, click here

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