History of Porirua City Centre

"History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days."

- Winston Churchill

Image of State Insurance Building, August 1978.
State Insurance Building, August 1978.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.1d.21.

Porirua City centre did not simply grow out of the original village; rather, it exploded onto the landscape. Massive earthworks changed the contours, buildings were moved or demolished, the harbour was reclaimed and the troublesome stream was straightened. These radical works signified the end of old Porirua village and the beginning of a new city.

Porirua Harbour: forest covered slopes and fish-filled waters

The abundant natural resources of the Porirua Basin have long attracted settlers. For successive Maori tribes the forest cover, fertile soils and the harbour provided plentiful food supplies. The earliest written records note that dense bush covered the hill slopes and the Kenepuru valley.

Maori and early European settlement had limited effect on the landscape but a result of the organised European settlement during the 1840s the landscape changed. A long established Maori track from Wellington Harbour was widened and improved to open up a better land route. To protect the road builders during the conflicts between settlers and Ngati Toa over land, five stockades were built.

This included Fort Elliot, which was built to overlook the mudflats near what is now the junction of Titahi Bay Road and Lower Main Drive. In 1846 the area was flooded and the Fort had to be rebuilt on higher ground. By 1848 wheeled traffic could travel to Porirua and beyond. Settlement followed rapidly, converting the bush into agricultural land, with much timber being removed for construction and firewood.

The settlement at Porirua Harbour was originally called the Ferry

Image of Early Porirua village.
Early Porirua - village on left.
(see closeup photo of the main street below)
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref CD 19 AM_33.
Image of Porirua's main street, pre 1908.
Porirua's main street, pre 1908.
Large two storey building on left is Porirua Hotel.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.1d.43.

Following the arrest of Te Rauparaha the British Army left the Porirua area and merchants and traders established a settlement on the road nearby Fort Elliot. From the 1860s the new community was known as The Ferry, but it came to be known as Porirua village. Customers were local Maori based close by at Te Urukahika (now the Prosser Street area), the farming families of the area and travellers going north or to Titahi Bay, a popular picnic spot.

View of Porirua Lunatic Asylum.
Porirua Lunatic Asylum.
It was damaged during the Wairapa Earthquake - it was later demolished and rebuilt as Kenepuru Hospital.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref CD 21 Film 85 85_1.

Prominent features of Porirua village were Station Road zig-zagging over the railway line, the two-storey hotel and the Porirua Lunatic Asylum, established in 1887. With 2000 staff and patients by the turn of the century, the hospital had a major effect on the development of the village. For more information about the Porirua Lunatic Asylum that became the Porirua Mental Health Hospital please follow the link at the bottom of the page.

Developments during the early 1900s

By the early 1900s Porirua boasted three churches, a hotel, a railway station and at least one general store. The mudflats at the head of the harbour provided a course for occasional race days and for training horses from Prosser's stables. The railway provided connections with Wellington to the south and Manawatu to the north. The road hugged the bays around the harbour's edge.

By the 1930s a community of around 500 people supplied most of the needs of the district:

Image of Ryan's Store during one of the frequent floodings by Kenepuru Stream.
Ryan's Store during one of the frequent floodings by Kenepuru Stream.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.1d.7.
Image of Granny Benson.
Granny Benson.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref P.1.203
Image of Benson's store.
Benson's store.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.1d.55.

"There was Ryan's store, the shop in the hotel, Granny Benson's, the boot shop, drapery store…We'd never go to Wellington, our needs were very meagre and small…Shops didn't figure in our lives, we were self-sufficient." -Shirley Fussell, oral history archive, Porirua Museum

The transition from small village to residential centre

Image of Porirua 1953, during motorway construction.
Porirua 1953, during motorway construction.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.3.29.

In the 1940s land pressure in the Wellington urban area showed the need for new housing development within the region. The urgency of the demand required the central government to speed up planning and development. The government considered several options: Upper Hutt, Tawa-Porirua, Wainuiomata and Stokes Valley.

The advantages of Porirua for residential development

Porirua possessed several advantages over the other areas. Land prices were cheap: £50 per acre compared with £300 in the Hutt Valley. The framework to transport people and goods in and out of Porirua already existed with the electrified Main Trunk Line passing through the Basin. Plans had been drawn up for the construction of a new road between Johnsonville and Porirua. The natural topography and resources were adequate to provide services such as water reticulation and storm water drainage. For these reasons, Porirua was chosen as the best site.

Large scale residential projects changed the face of Porirua

Image of Elsdon 1954.
Elsdon 1954.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.10.5.

From the outset the Porirua development was highly planned. It was to provide housing, a regional shopping centre and some commercial and industrial employment opportunities. Initial developments for state housing in 1948 followed traditional lines with streets tracing the natural topography of the land. In the early 1950s, better equipment and greater knowledge allowed for earthworks on a large scale. This increased the cost of development but better returns made vast earth movements viable. The landscape of Porirua was changed forever. A later Mayor, Whitford Brown, commented about the 1950s:

"Those first few years saw unbelievable changes taking place. Porirua was alive with almost feverish activity. The air was full of the dust of earthworks as the contours of the countryside were dramatically altered to provide hundreds of housing sections for new families arriving every day."

The New Town Centre

Image of Mosaic of City Centre during construction.
Mosaic of City Centre during construction.
Porirua Hotel can be seen in background to the right.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.2a.28 and A.2a.37.

Porirua a dormitory city which needed a shopping centre

Although Porirua was planned as a dormitory city for Wellington, it was recognised that a regional shopping centre in Porirua was needed. The site adjacent to the existing railway was designated for the development and a cost of £1,000,000 was estimated.

Image of Straightening of the Kenepuru Stream, 1961. Image of Straightening of the Kenepuru Stream, 1961.
Straightening of the Kenepuru Stream, 1961.
Looking south towards Porirua Hotel (left); looking north towards inlet (right).
Photos from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref (left) CD 5 PM2_143 (right) CD 5 PM2_142.

The first schemes for the town centre were mooted in 1947, yet the final design was not accepted by the Makara County Council (the governing local authority at the time) until 28th March 1960. The plan required clearing away most of the original village on the western side of the railway, the diversion of the stream and the reclamation of land at the head of the harbour. As a result, properties on the flat land were purchased, and the buildings were demolished or moved. The Kenepuru Stream, which frequently overflowed its banks, was straightened and moved to provide an undivided expanse of land. The reclaimed land is that now bounded by Parumoana Street, Norrie Street and Titahi Bay Road.

The first earthworks began in the summer of 1959

Image of Porirua Harbour - reclaimed land formed during industrial land redevelopment.
Porirua Harbour - reclaimed land formed during industrial land redevelopment.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref CD 21 Film 92 92_20.

Work began in mid-1959 on a temporary shopping site, next to the then existing Porirua Hotel. The first earthworks began in the summer of 1959/60, using giant Euclid earthmoving equipment capable of moving 23m3 of spoil at 50 km/h. Work progressed through subsequent seasons and by the 1963/64 earthmoving season all cutting and reclamation in the commercial centre and a large part of the service industry land was complete.

From village to city

Porirua development followed a similar pattern to British new towns built to relieve pressure on larger urban areas. Administration, commerce, shopping and entertainment were focused in the town centre. The town centre layout allowed for free movement of pedestrians, separate from vehicle traffic. Ample parking was provided for the now common car. Sites for about 100 shops were developed. The first shop, "Fashion Court" on Lyttelton Avenue, was opened by the Minister of Lands on 17th October 1963. Major department stores James Smiths and McKenzies were attracted to the new centre.

Industrial Land

Providing work for Porirua's new residents

The government decision to centre housing development in the basin provided a large resident work force. However, many of the new residents had to commute to Wellington for employment.

Throughout the sixties, residential and commercial developments grew as planned but industrial development lagged behind. The reclamations had provided some light industrial land and this was gradually allotted to businesses during the 1960s and early 70s. The Porirua Borough Council recognised the need for more employment locally and appealed frequently to the Government for support for further industrial development.

In the mid 1960s many large industries established factories in Porirua

Image of Kodak processing factory.
Kodak processing factory.
Photo from Pataka Museum Collection, at Porirua Library ref A.1d.19.

Several major national and international companies were attracted to the city. It had available land, a local work force and easily accessible to transport routes. The General Electric Company was one of the first to establish a factory, in 1965. Other industries to set up included Kodak, Chubb, Ashley Wallpaper and W.R. Grace.

But the major influence on the Porirua landscape during this period of industrial development was the Todd Motors (later Mitsubishi) assembly plant. In the late sixties the Government decided to make available for industrial development 36 hectares of the Porirua Psychiatric Hospital's farm land. A deal was struck between Todd Motors and the Government to exchange the hospital block for some of Todd's land in Lower Hutt.

The arrival of Todd Motors meant more major earthworks for Porirua

The decision heralded another major change to the face of the city centre. The contract for earth movements was won by Earthmovers (Waikato) Ltd. The project required the movement of 770,000m3 of earth. An entire hill was removed to create flat land for the factory and other buildings. A large proportion of the spoil, 460,000m3, was deposited at the southern tip of Porirua Harbour to create a further seven hectares of land. The reclaimed land reached as far as Te Hiko Street.

The Todd Park development was a massive undertaking. The buildings alone covered 61,300m2 (8¾ rugby fields). Also, 12 hectares of sealed car parks and outside storage area were developed. The plant was officially opened on 29th October 1975, employing 1200 people. The development stripped the land bare of vegetation but to make amends for this a quarter of a million plants, grown in Todd's own nursery, were used to create a park-like landscape around the major buildings. For more information about Todd Park, please follow the link at the bottom of the page.

The Mall

By the 1970s overseas trends had overtaken the precinct type of commercial layout. Covered malls were becoming vogue and Porirua city centre rapidly became outdated. A plan in 1973 looked at covering the walkways to provide this type of undercover shopping, but it was never built. Porirua's residents began shopping elsewhere as malls opened in Lower Hutt and Wellington.

A central city area remained relatively untouched until the early 1990s when a large mall at the cost of $50 million was proposed. The site chosen contained the last area of inner city housing, Eastwood Avenue. These houses were either moved or demolished to clear the site. Development of the mall was beset by problems with the contractors, and the opening was delayed until November 1991 and named the K-Mart Plaza. The development provided an exciting new centre for retail in Porirua but the 1960s shops were visited less. In 1994 the covered walkway idea was resurrected to revitalise this area, and opened in 1995.

Continue to Sites of historical interest in Porirua City Centre, Elsdon and Takapuwahia or return to Porirua City Centre, Elsdon and Takapuwahia.