Gerry Brownlee

This isn’t about the Christchurch Town Hall.

Well, obviously it is. But I suggest that the recent reemergence of the future of the Christchurch Town Hall in public conversation isn’t about the Town Hall.   There is a short and a long explanation to this:

Short Explanation.

There is no real doubt about the future of the Town Hall. The Christchurch City Council owns it.  They know pretty much it is going to cost to:

A. Repair the damage,

B. Mitigate against future quakes by fixing the land, and

C. Bring it up to current building codes.

It is not especially cheap to do this. But it is costed, and budgeted, and the council is diligently working toward this after the Councilors voted unanimously for this last November.   It’ll open sometime in 2017.  It is a crucial building in the life of the city, it is one of the nations most significant pieces of architecture, and internationally it is widely recognized as one of the great acoustic spaces. If you don’t believe this read some of the testimonials here from architects, musicians and acousticians:

‘The interior of the main hall is an acoustic wonder.’

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Professor of Fine Arts

‘It might not be too far-fetched to assert that, assuming the conductor knows his business, the hall acoustic afforded by the Lilburn Auditorium is little short of miraculous.’

Sir William Southgate

‘If demolished, it is unlikely to be replaced with a new building which possess the same qualities: architects of Miles Warren’s calibre are few and far between.’

Letter signed by Tony Van Raat signed on behalf of 20 architecture staff and 127 students at Unitec in Auckland.

 ‘Buildings are at one level physical artefacts, at another they are the repositories of our memories, places of celebration and commiseration, and the stage for life. The Town hall is exemplary in every respect and an inspiration to the whole of New Zealand and beyond. It is perhaps though as a symbol of renewal that it could be even more important now than it ever has been before. The opportunity to for it to be that awaits your decision. The like of it will not be seen again.’

Patrick Clifford, Past Pesident New Zealand Institute of Architects

 ‘I firmly believe that Christchurch Town Hall is of such architectural and cultural significance that every effort should be made to ensure its survival. It is perhaps one of only a few works of architecture in New Zealand that have had an influence on other buildings around the world, its acoustics much appreciated by famous international musicians.’

Barry Bergdoll, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design.

This is the short answer.  In principle that should be the end of the story.

Long Explanation.

But as we are living in a post-earthquake city with extraordinary complex planning and rebuild decisions to be made, of course it is not this simple.  If only. With the short explanation in mind you may well be asking yourself: If the decision to keep the Town Hall has been made, why is the minister in charge of rebuild, Gerry Brownlee writing in the media that it should be demolished?  It is a good question!

To answer this we need to step back a few steps and look at the broader context of the government city plan and the current negotiations about who is going to pay for which bit of it.

As you all know in the months after the February 2011 quake the Christchurch City Council was asked to develop a draft city plan. To do this they did some very broad (over 100,000 people were involved) and not very deep citizen engagement. Which is exactly what they should have done at that point. Exemplary and award winning.  A plan was developed, which was to some extent based on the work done before the quake with Danish firm Jan Gehl Architects. (an extremely highly regarded firm internationally who have worked in New York, Melbourne, London, Copenhagen and many others). This plan was put out for public feedback, revised and submitted to minister Brownlee for consideration.  For around 5 months over the summer of 2011/2012 there was silence about this plan as the Minister considered it. Around March 2012 the Minister largely rejected the plan and to set up his own group of design experts, we have no knowledge what led to the decision (but plenty of rumour). These experts included lots of local and some international figures. They were are professional and well regarded bunch who were given 100 days to work together with other government agencies and some members of the Christchurch City Council to come up with a new revised plan.  So far, so good. A bit strange rejecting the first plan, but we all know here that we are all making this up as we go along, so change is ok.

100 days later our prime minister comes to town, launches the new city plan, expensive videos for international investors are shown, the bubbly flows, everyone looks smug and all the property owners and business leaders smile.

The new city plan has a lot of lovely things in it.  A new big stadium, a convention centre four times the size of the old one, a new city library, a justice precinct, a new hospital, a sports centre, a new river park, a performing arts precinct, (remember this one) and lots lots more. Seventeen Anchor projects in total. There are a couple of things to note here:

Firstly, all these projects were put in the plan because the government had decided they should be in there, not because the 100-day plan came up with them. The 100 days was basically an exercise in placing these projects in the best place possible, not an exercise in working out what the city needs.  While saying that some new projects were introduced in the process such as the important east and south frames.

Secondly, the Minister may claim that the Share an Idea campaign and the previous council plan informed the new design, and he may claim that this constitutes public consultation.  In some respects he might be right, but we have to take his word for it as the entire process has been secret.  I don’t like taking ministers’ words on things.  Perhaps he could answer: What methodology did you use to sift through 100,000 ideas and turn it into a workable framework?  Did you check to see if the resulting framework was true to the ideas of the community?

As this process was happening there was, as with many hundreds of other buildings in the city, some concern about the damage to the Town Hall, and a lack of good information about it.  The council had a due process to slowly go through its building stock and do proper engineering reports. Which in regards to the Town Hall are available here.

The damage assessment by Holmes Consulting Group in August 2011 says:

‘In general terms, the building has been relatively undamaged by the shaking’ and that ‘the Town Hall has not sustained damage that would be considered substantial,’ and,

‘In summary, we do not consider the damage resulting from the earthquake to pose a significant structural hazard in relation to the occupation of the building.’

Ok, so the building is ok, but what about the land? The geotech report states:

‘Once excess pore water pressures from the 22 February 2011 and 13 June 2011 earthquakes and aftershocks have dissipated, it is likely that the strength of the soil underlying the buildings will return to the pre-earthquake levels.’

Additionally the original acoustic firm Marshall Day have had a preliminary look at the auditorium and commented in a report that: there is no visible damage to the auditoriums acoustic fabric”.

If I can risk paraphrasing these two reports on the structure and the ground I’d say:

1. The building performed well in the quakes, it is sound and stable.

2. However it has settled unevenly, so the floor level is not even through the whole complex.

3. The building needs to be brought up to contemporary building codes.

4. The land is prone to liquefaction and lateral spread, so while the building is in good condition it may again become uneven in events in the future.

5. There are a number of ways to mitigate this which are been explored.

These reports were published in August 2011 and to the best of my knowledge there has been no major change.

So it was with some surprise when the new city plan was launched with a complete  absence of the Town Hall.  In the visual document a green lawn has replaced the Town Hall. The only mention of the Town Hall in the document is in the section about the Performing Arts Precinct which is:

 ‘proposed to offer facilities for music and the performing arts, and to act as a catalyst for recovery. The precinct will embrace different sites and will support co-location of organisations as far as is possible.’ Then there is a very important sentence that says:  ‘The precinct designation will be sufficient to provide for a range of facilities in the event that the Town Hall cannot be repaired.’ (All this can be found online here:

This is a strange comment that assumes the building isn’t repairable, and only makes contingency for this scenario.  There is no mention of what happens if the Town Hall is repairable.

A FAQ on the CCDU website reiterates this position here and says:

‘Why is the Town Hall not shown on the Blueprint Plan? There are still some decisions to be made as to whether all or parts of the Town Hall can be repaired by CCC. If it is not able to be repaired, a performing arts centre containing two auditoria of 500 and 1500 seats respectively will be built in the Performing Arts Precinct as shown on the Blueprint Plan.’

Keep the key words ‘If it is not able to be repaired’ in mind.

Another side story, for reasons unknown to me the Council was underinsured on a number of buildings including the Town Hall and instead of insurance covering the $129 million dollar bill, only $70 million is coming from insurance.

The next part of this story is that Bob Parker asked the council staff to look at demolishing everything in the building apart from the auditorium (which is recognized as the most significant feature of the building). I don’t know where Bob got this idea from.  The council staff ordered heritage, and architecture reports to be made in response to this.  In general the feedback from experts was that this partial demolition makes no sense and the building was designed as a complex so needs to stay that way. Strangely the Council staff ignored this commentary and advised the Councillors to adopt the ‘destroy everything but the auditorium’ strategy.  The Councillors on this committee rejected partial retention recommendations and put this recommendation to the full council.

At this point Minister Brownlee seemed to get very frustrated and vented his anger at the decision to keep the building in a number of media. Including this interview with Mike Yardley.  I responded by rebutting his points in this article on the 19th of November

A few weeks later the full council voted unanimously to support the full retention of the Town Hall, and it was put in their budget to pay for it.  Remember the phrase, if it is not able to be repaired.  Well it is able to be repaired, and the CCC will pay for it.  The CCDU blueprint is part of the recovery plan and this is a legal document so while Mr Brownlee has extraordinary emergency powers powers he can not break due process and if he did try to over-rule the council there is good chances he would be  challenged under judicial review. Hopefully we don’t have to find out.

So the next question is: If we have an amazing building, of great value, that is repairable then why does the minister still want to demolish it? Again, another good question.  When I say this isn’t really about the Town Hall it is because it is the $70 million of insurance money that is really at stake here, and this comes back to a very hard ball negotiation happening between the CCC and the government at the moment.

In the first draft plan by the CCC the community was consulted on what they wanted and they proposed a number of buildings at certain sizes. The sizes of the buildings were also the scale (both in a business and urban sense) that the council staff thought was appropriate for Christchurch.  The new government-led blueprint, bravely or foolhardily, upscaled the convention centre and the stadium significantly and added other projects.  They have fronted for some of this money, and the council has too, but there is apparently (again its all secret so what would I know) a gap between the two.  The CCC has the advantage because they have the moral authority to argue for the smaller versions and it is also prudent of them not to end up having to maintain large expensive items like Stadiums and Convention centres.  The government has however bet the bank on the BIG blueprint and don’t want to lose control now. Negotiations continue. (announced next week!) Now some would suggest that Minister Brownlee’s quite verbose media presence in regards to the Town Hall and the consenting problems in the last week is less about those actual issues and more about putting pressure on the councilors during negotiations.

There is a report from Council staff to the councilors due in the next few weeks which outlines more precise costs and plans for the Town Hall. I don’t think any of us can really comment this until it this is made public. We will know more then.

I would like us to not get caught up in the framing that Minister Brownlee is making of this.  It is only the CCDU that has set up this weird choice that either we have a Town Hall or an Arts Precinct.  Or as he puts it, ‘You can either have your old broken run down past it used by date Town Hall, or you can have a new state of the art shiny fantastic arts precinct.’  To which I’d reply ‘You can keep your world renowned Town Hall that has served the city so proudly for the past forty years and has some of the best acoustics in the world or you can have an uncosted sketch of an idea with no details, no business case, or no idea of the desired quality.’

The 100-day plan came out almost a year ago, and at the time I wrote that it looked ok but that more details were needed to really understand it.  Almost 300 days later and we still don’t know what is planned for the convention centre, stadium, arts precinct, or any of the anchor projects.  It’s extraordinary. So we are meant to support the demolition of one the most important buildings in the country without any knowledge of what might replace it? Because that is what the minister is asking us. Really this is what he expects us to do.

Now I completely accept that some arts and cultural groups in Christchurch might be really excited about the new arts precinct.  I respect that.  But until we get some idea of what the government is actually proposing this is a false argument.  As a guide though there is a rule of thumb that very high quality auditorium spaces as we have with the Town Hall cost around $20,000 per seat. That puts the Town Hall at around $300 million dollars.  A similar building (based on the acoustic design of our town hall) in Paris has reached almost half a billion.  Now, do you really think that the government is seriously looking at that sort of money an arts precinct.  And if not why would we not spend $50 million to protect the town hall we already have.

Some suggest (Link to article on rebuilding Christchurch) that the $70 million is needed to not only help get the arts precinct going but a business plan is also linking this into the convention centre too. So in a twisted way the construction of the CCDU’s big convention centre is based on the need to demolish our best live arts space.  I don’t know if there is any accuracy to this, because, you guessed it, the whole process is being done in secret.

The other thing to mention is that the proposal is for the demolition of an Town Hall and replacement with an performing arts centre. Town Hall’s are fundamentally civic in nature and performing art is about well, performing arts. If we keep the Town Hall we get both, if we demolish it we lose the civic aspect.  When people say ‘we need a new Town Hall’ they misunderstand that this isn’t what is proposed.  In fact we don’t even know who would own the new one, or who would run it.

The most frustrating thing about this is that this public battle now means that the government and the council aren’t talking to each other and the plans to keep the Town Hall are not being considered as part of the city rebuild.  What we really need is:

A. Some information about what we need as a city, what can we actually support.

B. More information from both the CCC and CCDU about what their plans are for the Town Hall and performing arts area.

C. A short and in depth consultation with the relevant parties to see what great and creative solution we can come up with.

It’s completely irresponsible to talk about demolition when all the options aren’t even on the table yet.  This is banana republic stuff.

Call me naïve, but why can’t we just have all the information in front of us and have a serious grown up conversation about what to do. I suspect we still might be able to come up with a plan that means we all win.

How about a smaller and more flexible arts precinct, keep the Town Hall, fix up the auditorium, re-invent the James Hay, and have all this facing into the victoria Square with the new Ngai Tahu cultural centre. Can someone in power explain to me why this can’t work?

Dear Gerry and Roger pt I

[This is an open letter sent to The Minister for Canterbury Earthquake Reconstruction, Gerry Brownlee, and the Cera CEO, Roger Sutton]

Dear Gerry and Roger,

Re: Red Zone Decisions.

I am writing to express deep concerns about critical aspects of decision-making in Christchurch since the September 2010 earthquake. There are two areas in which your governance is failing. They are both difficult, but history and international precedent tell us they are critical to good governance. The two areas are transparency and vision.

Transparency is critical to the healthy functioning of democracy; it enables people to see why decisions are being made. In one of the most successful and well governed cities in the world, Vancouver, all council and planning meetings are held in public, filmed and archived. Deals between land-owners, councils, and governments are made in public, and are subsequently made in favour of public good.

I accept that decisions like red-zoning properties are not taken lightly, and that the motivation to protect residents in these areas is a noble one.  I also appreciate the incredible amount of detailed engineering expertise that is constantly contributing to our understanding of this very complex situation.

The people who work at Cera are, in my experience, very hard working and act with the utmost care and respect. I can only imagine the emotional toll it must take to announce night after night to communities that their homes and neighbourhoods are going to be destroyed.

This is, however a political issue, and the processes which have been created to work through these issues are, in my opinion, deeply troubling. There are much more complex and difficult situations in developing countries where the informal residents, who don’t own land, are accorded more respect and greater legal rights than the residents in the Christchurch’s red zones at the moment.

In its decisions to remove entire neighborhoods, the government has followed a course that has involved no real public or community engagement. Information is not shared with communities until a final decision has been made. For some residents, this vast chasm in communication has extended over a year now.

The decision to red-zone land is a complex one that necessarily draws on knowledge about geotechnical information, land use, property prices, and re-insurability. While there is undeniably a technical aspect to this work, the complete absence of community engagement in the decision-making process is paternal in nature and suggests a deep fear of or disrespect for the citizens who live in these places.

While it is obvious that there are complicated issues surrounding the liability of EQC and private insurers, the government should not permit this complexity to obscure the accountability of its own processes. Indeed, this complexity should encourage transparency of process. The “offer” to buy out houses cannot be presented as such if its refusal entails the withdrawal of both services and insurance. What is really on offer here is a forced removal from the land. The government knows well that the latter would call for  consultation, transparency, and for rights, such as the option of first refusal (if the land is resold at a future date) to be extended to residents. In its present terms, the government is offering a Claytons choice that illustrates cowardice in the face of the incredible bravery shown by the people here in Christchurch over the past 18 months.

We ask that you start to engage with residents before decisions are made. Tell them what is going on. They have lived through the past 18 months, why is there a need to keep information secret from the public? This invites rumours and gossip. There are two types of information at play here; that which is not of the government’s making: the land condition, the engineering reports, people’s insurance contracts etc. We understand that the current government is not to blame for the immense difficulties with these issues. Then there is another type of information which the government is responsible for: the communication, the decisions since the earthquake, the amount of money currently at stake. Acknowledge that people are mature enough to make the distinction between these. Let the sunlight in.

Please consider extending the offer on red-zone land. Five years seems a more appropriate timeframe. If you want to leave now then great take the offer, start afresh in a new house. If however the residents want to know what is happening to the area, if they think there might be a review process, if they are worried their land is going to be a park or a condo, then give people 4 or 5 years to work this out. There is a housing shortage in the city. Why force people out of perfectly good houses for no immediate reason? Time and some sense of stability are the fresh air that people need in Christchurch right now. It is your job to give them this. Not to pressure them into decisions without full knowledge of their situation and in order to conform to timelines that have no apparent logic.

At the TEDx conference in May 2011 one of the speakers talked about Christchurch becoming the place that people in the rest of the world will refer to as exemplary: “let’s do what they did in Christchurch”. Coming only a few months after February, this was a generous comment that recognized the city’s potential to pave a way for others.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing us in this vision. Your relationship with the community is paternal rather than constructive, your timelines are slow and opaque, and your power structures are vague and unarticulated. The unseemly haste to demolish the heritage of the city is at odds with the long political delays in decision making in the red zones, planning, and other areas. The people of Christchurch understand the need to make decisions based on economics and supply of capital. You need to understand that while the heritage of the city does not have a direct financial value, it does have an immense social and cultural worth. It is the government’s role to protect this worth, not expedite its destruction with false excuses of haste and cost.   There are dozens of examples both residential and urban, such as the Avon loop neighbourhood and the Anglican cathedral respectably, where there is no need to make decisions yet, time can be used in our favour.

Slow decision-making is fine and often better if the decisions are careful and people are made aware of the processes and information as to why it is taking time and what may happen. The ponderous decision-making currently emerging from Cera is unacceptable because critical decisions, like housing support for those still homeless one year after the event, are late and ineffective. The country continues to embrace the idea that no one should be left ruined or damaged by the events of the past 18 months. The hundreds of families living in cold garages, the elderly living in housing unfit for humans, the people who are soon to be forced out of perfectly good houses, and the lack of appeal or review process all illustrate your lack of ability, or will, to accomplish this.

Gerry and Roger, you are failing to give people a vision for the future, and by doing so you are extending their suffering and sense of powerlessness.  You made the peculiar decision to separate the planning of the CBD from the rest of the city, asking the City Council to create a plan for this central area, but not the rest of the city/  Through the dark times of last year they created a remarkable process and a visionary plan, that was not without problems, but that did give vision to peoples voices and much needed hope to this city.   You then sat on this plan for endless months, only to finally accept to the vision but reject the process, as if the ends can be separated from the means to achieve it.  Once again transparency was removed and powerful decisions were made behind closed doors with out any sense of logic or honest agenda.  They appointment of professional teams to work on the city offers some hope, but again there is no communication about how they were appointed, what they are doing, how they hope to achieve it, and by what criteria their success will be judged.

Soon after the February 22nd quake extraordinary legislation was passed that gave you power to do what was needed to assure that people were protected in this city. At the time, many legal experts were worried at the scope and breadth of these powers. Dean Knight of Victoria University expressed concern that the Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act 2010, “gives ministers vast and untrammelled power to change laws in the name of earthquake recovery – without adequate checks and balances and that this legislation violates basic principles within our constitution and upsets our democratic infrastructure.” His concerns were echoed by others in the legal community. These are concerns which still need to be voiced.

In an abstracted sense the earthquake legislation was concerning and dangerous, but we held our noses and let the extraordinary legislation pass as a response to the extraordinary times in Christchurch. Now, 12 months later, the practical impact of poorly considered legislation is playing out in Canterbury. The last remaining traces of democracy are being folded into Cera’s reach, as if the problems and delays were being caused by a lack of centralized power. Gerry and Roger, you of all people must understand that with power comes responsibility. You cannot demotivate, disempower, and demolish communities without taking on the responsibility to care for these people. Saying that “there is no problem” or that “the market will sort it out” or that we “are being hysterical’ or that you “can’t do anything about it” is simply an abdication of your power. The best that can be said of the Cera legislation is that is sets the conditions for a benevolent dictatorship. The key part of this contract between the government and the people of NZ is a benevolence that is lacking with frequent references the people must continue to suffer until the market responds to their needs.

Gerry and Roger, you have remarkable power in your hands. Please show some humility and change this short-sighted, opaque and ill-timed decision-making. Please engage with the people of Christchurch. If you are not capable of reflection and change, and if you are not capable of articulating, or even enabling a vision for this city, then perhaps it is time to open up space for those who can.

Yours Sincerely

Barnaby Bennett