Christchurch rebuild plan: a lot to like in the lolly scramble, but much to resolve

by Toby Manhire / 31 July, 2012
The government’s blueprint for a rebuilt Christchurch CBD has won approval, but there’s a mass of detail to work through before it can become a reality.

Someone said it felt a bit like a lolly scramble. Someone else likened it to Christmas morning. Lots of people described it as bold. Even opposition MPs thought it looked pretty good.

For one happy evening the crowd of dignitaries assembled in the Christchurch City Council’s lobby found cause to celebrate the vision of a compact, low-rise, modern city rich in civic amenities. The shopping list of fabulous new projects has been set, and questions about how much they will cost and how they will be financed are for the future.

Even with 200-odd people protesting outside in the rain at the failure of the insurance and EQC bureaucrats to make progress on the repair of their homes, those inside were toasting the fact that an important step had been taken towards restarting the city’s heart.

And there’s plenty to like about the plan. It envisages a city centre that embraces the meandering Avon River, whose banks will be enhanced into a river park. A new 2000 seat convention centre will face into Cathedral Square, where there will also be a new library. A stone’s throw away is to be a new performing arts centre (unless the damaged Warren and Mahoney-designed Town Hall on the edge of Victoria Park can be rescued). There’s space set aside for a Ngai Tahu cultural centre.

An enormous new indoor sports centre will be built a couple of minutes from Hagley Park, and the health sector will expand into a specialised precinct around the hospital. There’s a precinct for the justice and emergency services sector as well (including, it seems, a new court house), and Cashel St will be the central city shopping precinct.

All buildings other than hotels will have a seven-storey height limit.

The newly-tightened core of the CBD is to be hemmed in by an L-shaped green “frame” – a sort of urban design corset that will run along the eastern edge of the central city between Manchester and Madras streets, and along the southern edge between St Asaph and Tuam Streets to Hagley Park. It will be designated as green space at least for the next few years, with the expectation that it will be populated with medium density apartment-style housing.

But in trying to chart a path out of the destruction of the earthquakes, the designers may have created new grievances. Among the 800-odd landowners whose properties the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority will be seeking to acquire – whether by negotiation or compulsion – will be Roland Logan and Sharon Ng. And they won’t be going quietly.

Logan defiantly restored and strengthened their heritage building in the face of official threats to pull it down after the quakes. Not only is Ng’s beautiful and airy design store up and running from the building again, but they have made desperately-needed exhibition space available to the displaced Christchurch Art Gallery. It is currently hosting Michael Parekowhai’s spectacular red carved Steinway piano, attracting over 11,500 people through its doors in the last four weeks.

It’s one of the few heritage buildings left in the CBD, but according to the new rebuild plan, it will be in the way of a proposed 35,000-seat covered stadium that will occupy land bounded by Madras, Barbados, Tuam and Cashel Streets.

Logan is outraged no-one from the government’s Central City Development Unit – which oversaw the development of the blueprint – came to speak to him. “We’re going to fight it: a) because there’s been no consultation; and, b) what has the siting of a stadium got to do with earthquake recovery?”

Other property owners on the brink of having their claims settled with their insurers or preparing to redevelop their sites may also soon find their land redesignated under the plan, creating a new round of uncertainty and instability.

Fair compensation for compulsorily acquired properties is also likely to be a contested issue. The prices paid by the government are to be struck at the market price on the day the land is acquired, rather than on the basis of rateable value. But, given that there has been no functioning market in CBD land since the earthquakes, establishing a fair price won’t be easy.

The minister for earthquake recovery, Gerry Brownlee, is hoping most landowners will be prepared to negotiate a sale, or agree to a land swap. But, given the need to get the rebuild rolling, the “first steps of compulsory purchase” will start this year, he says.

Land needed for the L-shaped frame or anchor projects will designated soon, freezing any projects the owners may have had underway.

Brownlee is promising the government will get on with the rebuild of key Crown-owned facilities, such as the hospital and justice buildings. But funding for the ambitious civic assets has been left to the Christchurch City Council and private sector to work out. Only when hard numbers start to be put on these developments will we know whether the promised lolly scramble of amenities represents a vision or a fantasy.

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