A rainy Christmas Day in Christchurch

Monday night last week was like Christmas Eve in Christchurch.

As the evening darkened, the presents – carefully wrapped and prettily presented by the best PR Christmas wrappers CERA could buy – were lain beneath the brightly lit Christmas Tree by the CCDU (Christchurch Central Development Unit).

There was Christchurch’s own Gerry Brownlee as Father Christmas, his elvish little helper John Key and Bob Parker doing his best impersonation of Rudolph, complete with fancy bridle and reins.

There was even a small group of carolers singing – a bit dischordantly – outside the warmly lit room that the most blessed of Christchurch’s little children (business people, politicians and hand-picked journalists) were let into.

Inside there were gasps, tears and, as the last of the big box-shaped Christmas presents was placed under the tree, the children broke into delighted applause as they bounced jollily on their little feet, hardly believing the mountain of presents tantalisingly waiting for their little fingers to unwrap.

As Senior Press journalist Glenn Conway described the occasion (not online):

Inside the comfort of the Christchurch City Council foyer the city’s well-known personalities clinked wine glasses, celebrating the launch of a new-look central city. But outside – almost fittingly in the gloom and drizzle – dozens of residents facing a less certain future vented their anger.

Inside, the atmosphere was positive, upbeat. There were even tears of joy spotted in the crowd as they watched a video presentation on the big screen, transfixed by the images and the scope of the plans for the new compact central city. It was an impressive presentation and there was loud, prolonged applause when it was over.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, Prime Minister John Key, Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker and Ngai Tahu’s Mark Solomon, who led the event, had satisfied, beaming smiles.

But;

Access to the council building was closely guarded by staff as protesters roared: ‘‘TC3 is misery’’ and ‘‘John Key, hear our plea, we need a road to recovery’’ and ‘‘I can’t get no satisfaction, my land is ruined by liquefaction’’.

There was anger in their voices.

And;

… as the city’s leaders feasted on shrimp snacks and drank wine, it was hard to find anyone not excited about what they been shown.

Until you walked outside, into the darkness, where the despair lingered.

Well, it was sort of like Christmas Eve. But, to be honest, I don’t remember that, as a little boy, I got a computer-animated flyover of my presents (I would have preferred the real thing, anyway).

And, in the Southern Hemisphere I always thought that Christmas came in summer? But Gerry Brownlee is now saying that Christchurch is having the big rainy day for which it’s been saving up its assets.

So apparently it’s a rainy Christmas Day in Christchurch.

But there is one aspect of the announcement of the Central City blueprint that does seem a lot like my childhood memories – that feeling you get almost as soon as you start to rip away the wrapping paper. Anticipation turns out to be much more than half the pleasure.

There’s a few tattered corners on the presents already so let’s carefully unwrap them, one by one.

The Frame

The part of the blueprint that seems to be most in keeping with the ‘vision’ in the Christchurch City Council Central City Plan – developed after the ‘Share an Idea’ weekend and other public consultation – is the green ‘frame’ that  is proposed for the South, East and part of the North perimeter of the new ‘compressed’ central business district.

The Green Party, via Eugenie Sage, is particularly pleased with this aspect of the plan:

The ‘frame’ concept for Christchurch’s central city is a strong basis for a more sustainable city, the Green Party said today.

Christchurch’s central city blueprint released this evening by the Christchurch Central Development Unit has been broadly welcomed by the Green Party.

“The Government’s purchase of land to the south and east of central Christchurch to ‘frame’ the city’s central core is sensible and a good move towards rebuilding Christchurch as a modern green city,” Green Party Christchurch spokesperson Eugenie Sage said today.”

“More people living in and close to a more compact central city will help create a lively and vital city, enable more efficient public transport links, and help reduce urban sprawl.*

*Someone hasn’t read the plan closely – see below

Once again, according to Eugenie Sage, while the Avon River Park does not go far enough, it is a good start.

The frame is also a large part of the appeal for Dame Margaret Bazely

Environment Canterbury chief commissioner Dame Margaret Bazley applauded the concept for the Avon and the frame.

“I think it is the best part of the whole plan and I hope there are trees everywhere.“*

*Someone else hasn’t read the plan – see below

In fact, for more people than Eugenie Sage and Dame Margaret Bazely, ‘the frame’ is the symbol of the sustainable, ‘green’ city that Christchurch residents said they wanted, the desire for which was expressed in the Christchurch City Council Central City Plan that the CCDU took control of in April this year.

In a Press Poll of its readers (n=507) ‘the frame’ received 89% support (only 5.5% actively opposed to it) and there was support for the Avon River precinct and green technologies (though an even split over the stadium and notable differences related to where people lived).

The aim is to have the ‘frame’ in place by early 2013 – very soon. Land acquisition will have to be rapid. Importantly, the east part of the frame is right next to the proposed Stadium (more on this later).

Sounds good – doesn’t it? Well, what, exactly, is ‘the frame’ and what is its principal purpose? An environmentally sustainable central city? Not quite.

The story of how we ended up with such a wide frame, especially in the east, is extraordinarily revealing. The planning team was led by Boffa-Miskell‘s Don Miskell:

Miskell says the problem for the old pre-quake Christchurch was the way the central city sprawled. While the west prospered because it was bounded by Hagley Park and the Avon, to the east and south the city dissolved into a mess of car yards, warehouses and empty lots[And a large number of light industrial businesses, last time I looked]

Miskell says the obvious design solution – if the Government was really saying there were no holds barred – was to create a clear boundary. Perhaps a new strip of parkland bought out of the public purse.

Miskell initially felt around Barbadoes St might be acceptable.

Then the team moved the green line closer towards Madras St.

We looked at the map and thought, well, Latimer Square is 80m wide. Let’s lengthen that all the way up to the river.

Hesitantly they put their suggestion to the CCDU and were astounded by the response. “They said great idea. But no. Not nearly wide enough. And that was their investment guys![Those ‘guys’ well known for their green credentials.]

Miskell says this is where the advantage of having all the experts in the one place really showed. Cera’s economics team could see angles that Blueprint’s architects and urban planners could not imagine[I bet!]

The economists said a much fatter park strip – one a whole 220m, or an entire city block wide – would have the double benefit of creating green amenity in that part of town while also mopping up the excess land.

CERA’s economists?

It’s hard not to think of T.S. Eliot’s famous line in his ‘verse drama’ Murder in the Cathedral. As Thomas a Beckett is repeatedly tempted he addresses the last temptor – who tempts him with martyrdom – and responds “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Don Miskell’s gleeful exclamation over such unexpected support for greening the city reveals a striking lack of awareness of the highly politically-charged nature of their task. After all, in the Christchurch CBD we are talking about an enormous amount of sunk capital held by property owners and developers – which is why, of course, the idea of moving the CBD was never going to fly.

Are planners taught nothing about these things? Time for a little scepticism – rather than bubbling naivety – about our 21st century ‘green city’, I think.

The Blueprint (p. 35) – in keeping with the concerns of CERA’s economists – says this about the frame:

The Frame in tandem with zoning provisions, reduces the extent of the central city commercial area so that the oversupply of land is addressed. It will help to increase the value of properties generally across the central city[Lucky landowners in the remaining 7% of the previous land area of the central city, I guess] in a way that regulations to contain the central core, or new zoning decisions, could not. The Frame helps to deliver a more compact core while diversifying opportunities for investment and development. The Frame allows the Core to expand in the future if there is demand for housing or commercial development.

This is quite an interesting ‘green frame’. To begin with, it is being proposed in order to correct for the ‘oversupply of land’ in the central city. That is, it is proposed in order to correct for the projected, prolonged nose dive in central city land values.

As I’ve mentioned previously, one of the reasons we have young Turks such as Tim Carter and Jamie Gough on the Christchurch City Council is because, prior to the earthquakes, central city land values were at risk from a deteriorating inner city. The Carters and Goughs have, unsurprisingly, large land-holdings in the central city.

But, who cares. Even if it’s being done for economic reasons maybe it’s still a really good ‘green’ initiative?

Well, have a look – closely – at the map of the frame (p. 36). The South Frame is primarily ‘fill’ around parts of the health precinct, existing buildings and new buildings. It involves:

  • Buildings in accessible, open- space landscape

Education, health, commercial and innovation activity centres

• Site of the proposed Health Precinct

• Lengthwise open space corridor for walking and cycling

• Develops over time

Retains some existing buildings with potential for use in the new central city

Retains some remnants of heritage buildings

It’s not exactly a dedicated park.

And that ‘innovation precinct’ has an interesting siting. It forms the ‘corner’ of the frame – where the South and East frames join. On the map it is heavily populated with buildings but, more importantly, that area represents what used to be one of the quirkiest retail areas of Christchurch.

For those who live here, it will be well-remembered as the area of Poplar Lane (with the Twisted Hop and Mitchelli’s cafe) and the stretch of High Street from Lichfield to St Asaph Streets (home to McKenzie and Willis, The Globe Cafe and numerous boutique, craft, bar and cafe outlets), a continuous length of some of the more interesting heritage buildings and facades in town.

In fact, the Christchurch Heritage Trust bought the England Brothers House building on the stretch of High Street south of Tuam Street. As Trust Chairman Derek Anderson explained earlier this year:

… the trust would spend $4.4m to secure the building, rebuild the interior and strengthen its facade to 100 per cent of the earthquake code.

The trust would then lease the building to tenants.

Anderson said the building was an important part of High St’s streetscape.

“Lower High St will be the city’s heritage precinct because there’s not much left otherwise,” he said.

“We are conscious of preserving what we can now. It’s one step forward and two steps back. We’d put in a lot of work to save things, and now they are gone we’ve really got to make a good job of High St.

Unluckily for what’s left of Christchurch’s heritage buildings, the area is now plonk in the middle of the ‘innovation precinct’.

What happens to this building and others in those blocks is now up for grabs (or, at least, hasn’t been made clear). Will those who wish to be part of the ‘innovation precinct’ want to squeeze themselves into these old buildings? Or will only the facades remain? Or will they just be bowled for more purpose built ‘innovative’ buildings to be erected?

The cafes, dress shops, book stores and the like that used to populate the street can’t really pass themselves off as ‘innovation’-centric.

A start has already been made on that block (where it borders Manchester Street): A government funded IT Hub was confirmed in April. It’s still being built. There was a lot of wood (wooden frame, wooden floors). Sadly, it’s now all being covered in jet black iron of a very similar pattern to the exterior of containers.

I can confirm that, despite being in the ‘frame’ and in the designated ‘innovation precinct’ the Alice in Videoland building will remain (at least that’s what the person behind the counter said). I suppose a video store is a little bit hi-tech?

But then there’s the East Frame, that’s going to be a park, isn’t it?

  • Street links through from city to east
  • Medium-density demonstration housing and long-term residential development

• Provides link to the stadium and potential fan zone

• Facilitates temporary events

The ‘demonstration’ housing is to the north of the East Frame, which is just as well because residential developments are not commonly sited under the shadow of sports stadia. The family playground also doubles as a ‘fan zone’ (presumably more rugby world cups are planned?).

And, the East Frame, too, will have some existing buildings left within it:

KPI Rothschild Property Group managing director Shaun Stockman said his newly-finished Westende House will remain in the green frame to the east of the city.

… Stockman said Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee had told a central city plan briefing that his building would be allowed to stay. Stockman understood the area would be sprinkled with commercial and some residential buildings.

As mentioned above in the quotation from The Blueprint, the clincher, of course, is that this building and development pocked ‘green frame’ turns out to be a gigantic, state imposed ‘gap filler‘ or ‘greening the rubble‘ initiative awaiting  future development and expansion of the CBD “if there is demand for housing or commercial development”.

‘Demand for commercial development’? Well, that hardly ever happens in city centres, does it? So the ‘green frame’ is safe for centuries to come.

More seriously, the principal reason for establishing it (shoring up land values) will determine how long it remains. Given the history of Christchurch City Council accommodating the interests of developers, I wouldn’t bank on my grandchildren experiencing much of a ‘green frame’ in the central city as adults – perhaps some open space in front of the stadium, if it hasn’t been co-opted for car parks.

The Core and the Convention Centre

The proposed Convention Centre lies in ‘The Core‘. The core is the remaining ‘central city’ that will incorporate a retail precinct, a new public library, ‘The Square’ (interestingly, no longer called ‘Cathedral Square’ in the Rebuild Plan – Perhaps ‘Convention Square’ in future?).

The Blueprint (p. 37) has this to say about what ‘The Core’ will achieve:

Historically the central city commercial area has been too large, with variable building quality and occupancy. A compact core provides better outcomes for businesses and investors.

If you want to join the dots, the “better outcomes for businesses and investors” is the flip-side of having ‘the frame’ – and, indeed, the vast Stadium – occupying large swathes of land that is currently commercially owned within Christchurch’s ‘old’ CBD.

What “CERA’s economists” termed the ‘oversupply’ of CBD land (what others might simply call ‘supply’) is radically reduced by ‘the frame’ and the Stadium. I’m no economist, but I assume the intent of reducing supply is to increase the cost of the remaining supply for the current ‘demand’. Simply, rents are set to skyrocket in ‘The Core’ and the lucky landlords left with property there, or the investors with enough money to buy there, are set to make a killing.

As Rod Oram, in an excellent opinion piece, has pointed out:

… there is excess land in the centre, the Government says.

To solve the problem, it will constrain the centre by creating large, open green spaces down the east and south sides of the central business district.

Coupled with height restrictions, [a 28m height restriction, with one category of buildings being a notable exception – see below] this will push up rents well above existing, modern and attractive office accommodation in Addington and near the airport.

It may distort the market to the point the city faces Auckland rents on Christchurch incomes.

One thing about the previous areas in the city centre with cheaper rents was that the kind of – poorer – tenant that gradually populated High Street with the kinds of ‘quirky’, artistic, entry-level ‘entrepreneurs’ was that it gave the city real interest and cheaper (but excellent) one-off dining and retail options. In other words, it gave an organic distinctiveness to the businesses in the CBD.

With higher rents (and far fewer older buildings) those one or two-person ‘arty’ businesses and small cafes won’t stand a chance of getting a foothold in ‘The Core’. The plan, in any event, is to replace them with retail opportunities in the gaps between the ‘anchor projects’. As the Blueprint (p. 65) states:

The anchor projects have been strategically located to encourage walking between them and other facilities or amenities. This will support the development of retail activity in between. Such new activities will in part replace the food and beverage services formerly available in High Street and the lanes.

I should add a caveat about the interesting evolution of High Street. Even pre-earthquake, the entry-level entrepreneurs (lower budget tenants) were being pushed out as the area became visited more and more (because of what those tenants offered!).

Second-hand fashion shops gave way to high-end boutiques. That process will now be accelerated in ‘The Core’ with only the high-end tenants able to get a toehold in the much reduced city centre (the Re-Start Mall in Cashel Street already is packed to the gunnels with just this kind of ‘high-end’ retailer, which leaves little beyond window-shopping for most of us).

For many of the less well-heeled in Christchurch, the city centre will become even less of a place that will appeal.

So, who will be able to occupy ‘The Core’?

How about “Christchurch’s richest man”, Philip Carter (father of City Councillor Tim Carter and long-time councillor himself)? Turns out he’s all for the recovery plan.

Which is interesting because the Carter Group owns the site of the condemned Government Life Building which, in turn, sits on a bit of the area that the new Convention Centre will occupy. The proposed Convention Centre will integrate two hotels into it. Carter was/is in the hotel business, having owned two central city hotels:

the investment [in the Convention Centre] held some appeal.

“Hotels is a difficult sector but it’s a sector we’ve had experience in and one I understand and we will look at it.”

But there is that 28m height restriction on buildings in the CBD??

Building height in the new, compact city centre would be capped at 28 metres – about seven storeys – but Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the limit would not apply to the two convention centre hotels because of “the economics of the hotel industry”.

The limit made sense, Carter said.

“Having just come back from Europe, where a lot of cities are only that height or lower, I’m supportive of that kind of height in principle, with the exception of some buildings like hotels, which may need to be taller,” he said.

“It’s good that they’ve allowed a sufficient intensity of hotels around the convention centre.”

Carter likes the 28m height restriction – in principle – but not for hotels. Owning a towering hotel in the midst of a height-restricted ‘Core’ will, of course, be good for rents. And, having a ‘state of the art’ Convention Centre will, hopefully, produce a steady flow of wealthy business visitors to fill the rooms.

Those with the money to invest in this new ‘Core’ have now found themselves a Government-edicted, ratepayer subsidised, brand new ‘gusher’ – with its bore hole right in the centre of Christchurch.

[Incidentally, the high ‘Core’ rentals will immediately result in pressure from second-tier developers for commercial opportunities to be consented in ‘the frame’. As we now know, pressure on council employees is not unknown – and can have disastrous consequences.]

I’d be pretty happy with the recovery plan, too, if I were Philip Carter.

Speaking of ratepayer subsidies …

The 2011/12 Annual Plan of the Christchurch City Council had this to say about a new Convention Centre:

Convention Centre – rebuild a larger, 21,000 square metre facility on a new Central City site with a request for financial assistance from Central Government. The Council will continue to work with Government to agree the final scale, location and procurement option for this facility.

The Convention Centre in the Recovery Plan/Blueprint will be 24,000 square metres (covering two blocks between ‘Cathedral’ Square and Victoria Square) and hold up to 2,000 visitors and potentially 2,500, all going well. It is tipped to cost about $220m.

It’s capacity, however, “will complement” the centre proposed for Auckland and “support” the proposed one in Queenstown (Blueprint, p. 67):

The convention centre will complement the larger 3,500-delegate facility in Auckland, and be supported by the proposed facility in Queenstown for 750 to 1,000 delegates. The result will be a concept unique among convention centres. The centre will be able to accommodate several events at one time, initially with space for up to 2,000 people in events of different sizes, and can expand to 2,500 people in future.

This “unique concept” presumably means that there will be no cannibalism between the three centres? I guess they know better than me.

It’s also reassuring to know that, even though everyone appears to agree that Convention Centres do not, in themselves, make any money, ‘overall’ they’re great. The Press editor, however, argues that not all of the benefits are “tangible”:

The matter is not, however, as clear as that. Convention centres and stadiums do not generally pay their way by themselves, but may be justified by other benefits, not all of them tangible, that they may bring.

Business cases do not apply to Convention Centres it seems. Instead, they are “infrastructure” – provided in this case by ratepayers – for other businesses.

‘Convention Square’ – newly greened – is expected to draw in the crowds, but not necessarily from Christchurch? The Blueprint (p. 67) again:

A key objective is to attract international associations to Christchurch and develop connections with new businesses and markets that will ultimately help grow the economic base of greater Christchurch.

Under the misleading sub-heading “A space for all“, the Blueprint speculates that:

It will be fully integrated into the surrounding area, providing a range of high quality public spaces and stimulating retail and commercial activity.

In short, it will help the area centred on the Square to complete its transformation from a place for locals to, almost exclusively, a place for tourists. Most likely, only when locals feel like becoming high-spending ‘tourists’ in their own city will they visit.

But there is a place for the locals in the plan – the new Stadium.

The Stadium

Strangely enough, the proposed 35,000 seat, covered stadium is the one ‘anchor project’ that has split the local population down the middle (according to the Press Poll of readers, at any rate):

People were most divided over plans to build a covered stadium, with 44 per cent in favour, 42 per cent opposed and 14 per cent unsure.

Despite Christchurch – according to the Prime Minister back in May – being “all about sport” this is the most resisted facility on offer in the Recovery Plan. It is larger than the 30,000 uncovered stadium in the Annual Plan for the Christchurch City Council.

It is also sited well within the old CBD boundary. As well as no doubt helping with reducing the “oversupply of land” in the new central city – irrespective of whether or not it ever gets built (so it will have achieved its prime purpose without ever coming to fruition) – it also would become a looming presence in the East Frame, onto which it borders. The ‘parkland’ area of the East Frame will, literally be in its shadow and the low rise restrictions mean that it will be visible from just about anywhere in the central city.

Typically, major stadia are not built in the heart of a city, for good reason. Few people want to live near them, meaning that surrounding areas are usually low income rentals or light industrial or wasteland (or a mix of all three).

Here’s where Perth will be positioning its major sports stadium – out on a Peninsula. Another famous stadium on a peninsula is Old Trafford (home of Manchester United), with the Manchester shipping canal on its northern boundary. The Old Trafford area is,

among the 10% most deprived areas in England, suffering problems of unemployment, poor housing and low educational achievement. It also has levels of youth crime well above the national average.

Then there’s Dunedin’s new stadium – styled in a remarkably similar way to the working drawings for Christchurch’s stadium –  once again as close to a peninsula as possible. And Wellington’s ‘cake tin’ is reasonably central, but tucked away on Waterloo Quay.

The current site of AMI stadium (Lancaster Park) in Philipstown never became a magnet for upper middle-class, hi-tech ‘green’ housing developments but, apparently, such developments are to be encouraged in the frame around the new stadium (presumably so long as they don’t interfere with the ‘fan zones’).

The proposed site has sitting upon it one of the few remaining heritage buildings – the Ng Building. Using no public or insurance money, its owners re-strengthened the Victorian Warehouse and have called the situation in Christchurch a “dictatorship“.

The compulsory land acquisition powers under CERA mean that, even if the stadium never gets built, their building can be bought, bulldozed and, as a pile of rubble, contribute to the reduction in the “oversupply of land” in the central city. A thriving artistic development and hub will have been destroyed but inner city property values will have been nudged up a bit more – mission accomplished.

The site also happens to be the old Turners and Growers site.

In 2006 the Council had sold the site to ‘Urban Winery’ a company with plans to develop an urban winery complex on it. In November last year the Council met to consider what to do with the site because:

The purchase contract had a clause allowing the council to buy back the land if it had not started development by October this year [2011].

Earlier this year, the council discussed plans to spend $4 million buying the site back, before allowing the company to develop a retail and residential project and buy back parts of the land by stages.

However, the deal was placed on hold after developers expressed concerns about the financial implications.

Apparently,

The Wellington company’s managing director, Ian Cassels, said the company had fulfilled all the conditions of the original agreement, but had been unable to develop a workable proposal.

Mr Ian Cassels is this chap. His dilemma over how to find a “workable proposal” is now resolved.

And the residents to the east of the city, who will face the rear end of the Stadium and suffer from the penumbra of the ‘graveyard effect’ of all major stadia, can take solace in the fact that they will, at least, be paying for it through their rates.

That’s because, as is now well known, Christchurch has been visited by a Father Christmas unlike any other Father Christmas – he’s asking for the children to pay for their presents that he has so generously commanded into existence.

Even with an additional $155m – over that budgeted for the big ticket items in the Council Annual Plan – pledged by the Council during talks with the CCDU, the total is still too little:

Council corporate services manager Paul Anderson said this week that the council had pledged up to an extra $155m  on top of what was already decided on.

That would bring its total commitment to $787m. The $155m still needed to be signed off by councillors.

But,

Key said yesterday: “The council at this point have agreed to put about $800m into the redevelopment plan.

“We’d like to see them put in more if they can.

“The $800m the council is currently proposing to put in probably isn’t enough for all they [?] might want to achieve.”

However,

Key said the council had options to finance the projects, including selling some of its assets, raising its rates or building less ambitious civic assets.

“Less ambitious civic assets”?? So, the Council doesn’t have to have the big versions of the Convention Centre and Stadium? Apparently not:

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) yesterday indicated there was room for negotiation on the details of the anchor projects, even though the land allocated would not change.

This last sentence makes the point of the whole glittering spectacle clear. At the end of the day, the Council can decide to ‘disappoint’ all those raised hopes and have cheaper versions of the ‘civic assets’ – and so avoid asset sales or rates rises that go through the roof.

But … CERA, and the Government’s, bottom line is that “the land allocated would not change“. If we don’t get our glittery presents with all their animated flyover seductiveness, no matter. The land will have been taken out of circulation anyway, allowing returns for the lucky, high-end investors to head skywards.

This entire exercise has been about one overriding priority – salvaging land values in the CBD and enticing high-rolling investors to be in on the gold rush.

This has not been about rebuilding a central city for the people of Christchurch. The ‘anchor projects’, and their positioning, all are focused on making the heart of Christchurch a lean business machine.

That is why the Government – via CERA and its offshoot the CCDU – took control of the process from the Christchurch City Council earlier this year. There was an important goal and the Council could not be entrusted to deliver with sufficient fixation of purpose on that goal.

Despite the application of some green highlighter to a city map, this Central City Recovery Plan is less about constructing a ‘City in a Park’ than it is about recreating Central Christchurch as a ‘City in a Business Park’.

More than ever, the central city will cease to be a place where all Christchurch people will be welcome and catered for. The centre will be a showcase for wealth and, because of that, those without the wherewithal will be less and less seen on the streets of Christchurch.

All those ‘messy’ parts of town – and those people who have passed the time of day there – will either be framed out of existence or squeezed like pimples from the remaining city centre.

In what must be one of the most deeply ironic parts of the Central City Recovery Plan, Mark Solomon of Ngai Tahu writes the following foreword:

At the heart of all our plans must be the people – we must continue to take care of each other. Today we have an unprecedented opportunity to design a cityscape that acknowledges our past, our shared experiences, and our common future.

I acknowledge the words of our kaumātua Aroha Reriti-Crofts: “Build the whānau and you will build the city.” I am optimistic that the unfolding of the city redevelopment can deliver this for all.

“Build the whanau and you will build the city” – so true. It’s just a pity that this plan inverts that sage advice.

So, Christmas Eve in Christchurch has turned out to be prophetic. To return to Glenn Conway’s account of the evening (not online):

… as the city’s leaders feasted on shrimp snacks and drank wine, it was hard to find anyone not excited about what they been shown.

Until you walked outside, into the darkness, where the despair lingered.

The central city envisaged in the Central Christchurch Recovery Plan is for the party-goers inside the civic offices, bathed in the warmth and the light of the virtual cornucopia on offer.

It is not for those standing distraught and powerless in the cold rain outside.

It’s not actually for the rest of us either – but, knowing what people are like and what magic time can conjur, I feel sure that we will make our reborn city,  somewhere else, on the margins and in the cracks. And we’ll make use of it in some other, unexpected, way than through ‘events’, ‘conferences’ and ‘big games’.

That will be the real centre of our city – and it will be ours. It won’t emerge from a plan or ‘vision’. It will come out of us living our daily lives together.

The real meaning of Christmas, after all, is not about the presents. They’re for the children.

Isn’t that what growing up teaches us?

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25 Responses to A rainy Christmas Day in Christchurch

  1. Janine Stagpoole says:

    Great article!
    You really covered what is happening here clearly.
    It’s all pretty sad news though.
    J

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Janine,

      Thanks so much for your comment.

      I know what you mean about “sad news” but it’s worth remembering that “there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip”, especially when it comes to grand schemes. Even if there’s no organised or systematic response to challenge aspects of the plan, it’s likely to stumble under its own weight more than once.

      The better option, of course, is to organise and respond. A group of people who have a pretty clear objective – no matter how apparently minor – that involves provoking a bit of a ‘slip’ in the grand plans – in order to make things better – can make a difference out of proportion to the effort.

      That’s not a vague hope, by the way. It’s how things happen. Not always predictably (even in terms of where you aim to make a change) but something is always going to happen as a result of the efforts people make.

      And it’s also worth remembering that there are lots of people feeling the same way – powerless, helpless, angry and sad, but also wishing they could do something.

      That word ‘lots’ matters. If people can connect with each other there’s all sorts of possibilities. There’s even some real enjoyment and fun to be had and that remarkable feeling of working together with others for something that makes sense.

      That’s partly what I meant by saying that, when we ‘grow up’, we realise it isn’t the ‘presents’ that matter. People getting together and seeing what they can conjur up is pretty much what being human is all about.

      Even if we end up with these enormous civic facilities, sold assets and a city centre unaffordable for most of us to buy a cup of tea in (and I don’t for a moment believe this will be how it turns out) we would also end up with a whole range of new connections between ordinary people. Like I said, you never know what can come of that.

      We have to think of the long game. In that game what will matter is the bonds we start to form with each other now.

      The rest is just Christmas decorations :)

  2. Extremely well informed article.
    The scary thing about CHCH currently is the thundering silence about this plan in the media. It’s like the Emperor’s clothes
    But ask anyone in the shops or pubs or your neighbours.
    A predominantly different view emerges.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Chris,

      That’s interesting that you say that. I’ve also noticed much more caution over these proposals than comes across in the media – at least in those first few days.

      I think I can honestly say that I haven’t talked to anyone who is 100% in agreement with the main elements of the plan – because of that, it’s actually quite clever of Gerry Brownlee/CERA/the government to present it as a single package (I was going to say ‘take it or leave it as a whole’ but, of course, we’re told we don’t have the option of leaving it). It forces people to trade-off things they don’t like against things they might like.

      I think that, in terms of public opinion, one of the problems for people like me (who are more than a bit sceptical) is that, at the end of the day, we’re boxing at PR shadows, vagueness and visual depictions of a lovely ‘clean, green’ central city that are virtually generated.

      By the time the reality of the ‘blueprint’ emerges on the city streets, inevitably, it will not seem so appealing – things always look better in the brochures and ‘ads’!

      Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      All the best,
      Puddleglum

  3. Vaughan Osborne says:

    Great article Puddleglum. I’m just about to return to Christchurch to live, work and help (grew up/spent 15 years there) and I’ve been following anything ‘Re-build’ related – so hard to find good critique online apart from the dribs and drabs on twitter. Most is rehashed/ill-thought crap from the ‘usual suspects’ – Thanks for writing this well structured and thoughtful piece.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks Vaughan. I’m glad to hear you’re coming back to Christchurch.

      This post came from me just trying to piece it all together – I’m always sceptical of of these sorts of staged, PR-managed announcements at the best of times. Given the enormous vested interests at play in what happens in Christchurch and Canterbury over the next couple of decades I have been particularly questioning of the decisions and processes followed since the quakes.

      There’s a lot of information that’s publicly available but it’s all over the show and has been emerging over a long period of time. I’ve tried to read a reasonable amount of the day to day reporting over the past year and a half. When you do that and apply a couple of assumptions (e.g., some people will use these events to push their interests) then you start to see patterns which make you follow more closely particular issues and events and dig a bit behind them.

      I’m glad what I wrote helped but the more people who try to make sense of the pieces and how they fit together the better. This is just my sense of what’s happening and why – and, of course, of what’s likely to happen, given what I think is driving it.

      All the best,
      Puddleglum

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Good to see someone taking this thing to pieces although god knows you will be hammered for being a naysayer, the new witch of the 21st century. The layers are unpacking awfully slowly in the Press etc and few people are making the connections.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      Yes, I’ve already been accused of being overly negative (on another blog site) – I guess that’s what you get for using a pseudonym like ‘Puddleglum’ :)

      But as I said on the other blog in response to the accusation, I actually support a lot of things happening in Christchurch. More precisely, I support (both in the abstract and, in some cases, practically) a lot of people who are trying to ‘rebuild’ this city in less grand ways (but from real concern or with that little bit of the city they might own).

      If you read letters to The Press, as you say, the standard response to people’s attempts to take back some control of their lives and their city is to say that they’re moaners, whingers, ‘naysayers’, etc.. By definition, CERA gets to look ‘positive’ simply because it is the only organisation that has any power – what it says, ‘goes’.

      Personally, I think resisting and criticising the kind of monolithic power being exercised in Christchurch is an extraordinarily positive stance to adopt.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Elizabeth.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

  5. Do note that not all economists are lining up in favour of the big plan either. Some of us think it’s madness to spend a half a billion dollars on a stadium and another 400m+ on a convention centre.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Eric,

      Absolutely agree and I think your pieces on this are invaluable – I was going to do an update linking to your bit on the latest costings the NBR picked up.

      [Here’s the link to Eric’s latest post: Christchurch Costs]

      The ‘big ticket’ items are just out of all proportion for Christchurch – if they’re needed at all. We’re pretty much in agreement on that and on this whole thing being imposed from above.

      Where we may differ is that I’d like the broad-brush decisions to be made locally and in a ‘thickly’ democratic way, and then let individuals and groups of people do what they will within that framework; you may prefer more of a market-led process even at the broad-brush level?

      So, apologies for me showing a bit of unfair prejudice in my asides about ‘economists’. I’ll be more careful in my wording in future.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

      • Smaller and more thickly democratic seems generally better than decisions imposed from far above; at worst, you then can shift to the next community over whose policies are more in keeping with your preferences. Small facilitates voice while also making exit more feasible as constraint. You’ll put more weight on the first working; I trust more in the second. But they both give the same advice: smaller is better.

        I worry that the sorts of policies that often draw broad democratic support and sound really good, like very extensive urban planning regulations, often wind up inflating home asset values for the middle class while making housing awfully expensive for poorer cohorts.

        • Puddleglum says:

          I worry that the sorts of policies that often draw broad democratic support and sound really good, like very extensive urban planning regulations, often wind up inflating home asset values for the middle class while making housing awfully expensive for poorer cohorts.” (Yes, and non-structural rust in car bodies failing warrants of fitness is just another salvo in the ‘class war’ :) )

          Democratic decisions will potentially be worse the further the decision makers (i.e., us) are from the consequences. People have less incentive to be wise, collectively – especially if the ‘decision’ just boils down to ticking a box for some political candidate. Wise decisions come from local, inclusive discussion and debate (have you heard the latest theory about human reasoning actually arising out of argumentative contexts? Interesting stuff. It helps explain a lot of the so-called ‘irrationality’ and ‘biases’ in the decision making literature – Kahnemann and so on.)

          That’s why large scale decision making is part of the problem.

          And part of the problem with that scale that I would particularly emphasise is the inordinate ability of ‘power’ to influence those broad decisions – and, in our ‘thinly’ democratic society, to package options in appealing ways as has obviously been the case with the announcement of the Recovery Plan.

          On the point about the cost of ‘exit’, I’m reminded of Schelling’s well-known work on segregated neighbourhoods – outcomes at the macro-level that reflect no-one’s preferences. Still, low exit costs apparently characterised hunter-gatherer bands. There was a reasonable amount of inter-band movement.

          Thanks for the comments Eric. They raise all sorts of interesting issues.

  6. ROGER says:

    The CBD was dying this is a sure way of shoreing up land values
    for Gough Carter and co a pity that the plan delivers little in enhancing
    a liveable inner city complete with higher density housing a on land
    that should be made inexpensive as there is very little other use .
    Convention centre most Hotels have conference facilities, Rydges
    can accomodate over 900 people no convention centre needed.
    where is a list of conventions that are liable to visit Christchurch
    that have over 1000 delegates ?
    Sports stadium build a facility at Addington raceway , harness racing
    can share Riccarton raceway nicely placed away from the immediate city centre
    Why covered satdium ? in England where the weather is seriously
    inclement for much of the year apart from Cardiff all stadia are uncovered
    even Old Trafford ! if the Rugby Union needs a covered stadium let them
    pay fees from there SKy revenues as Rigby is now a night game purely
    based on TV viewers .
    People before places , if we need foreign investment why not have tax incentives
    for industry not property developers .

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Roger,

      Those are really good points, especially about the proposed convention centre and stadium.

      I think it’s a very unwise strategy to make your city centre primarily a place to attract wealthy visitors. It gets things just about backwards. If you make it a place that locals want to spend time then you pretty much guarantee that it will appeal to a good number of potential visitors. Then, if we want, we could add some amenities for those visitors.

      As you say, start with making sure people are doing ok here then the rest follows – at a more ‘natural’ pace and scale.

      Thanks again,
      Puddleglum

  7. George says:

    Excellent article. As soon as the plan was published I instinctively thought that it was OTT. I can never get over the fact that the civic leaders of a small city like Christchurch always want to build these mega projects that are empty for the vast majority of time. I used to work in the city centre near the old convention centre and I noticed that it was hardly ever used. Does anyone have any statistics on how many times a year it was booked and for how many people? Didn’t the original management company go bust and have to be taken over by the Council?

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi George,

      Thanks for the comment (and compliment!). Those are interesting questions you raise about the previous Convention Centre and I might try to find out the answers.

      Of course, even if it were not performing well I can imagine that advocates of the even larger Centre might simply argue that it didn’t have enough business because it wasn’t big enough and didn’t have ‘state of the art, 21st century amenities’ in it …

      Once again, thanks for the comment. Much appreciated.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

  8. Tel says:

    Puddleglum, I found your superb post after it was linked to from Bernard Hickey’s interest.co.nz website yesterday. I have had the same sentiments as you from the day that the Plan was made public, and I am glad that your eloquently-written piece is getting a wider audience – writings like this need all the airing they can get!
    One other thing about Philip Carter, of course, is that his brother is a certain Minister of Agriculture.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tel.

      I didn’t realise there was a link to this post from Interest.co.nz. That’s good to know.

      On the Carters, I don’t have any objection to family members being successful and prominent but, also, I think that it is to everyone’s benefit – including that of the individual family members – that a reasonably vigilant awareness of family connections is maintained.

      That seems only prudent, given that interests of close family members are generally acknowledged to be something that needs to be ‘declared’ by MPs and Councillors, for obvious reasons.

      An interesting ‘twist’ here is that David Carter is now Local Government Minister, of course.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

  9. Amanda says:

    Hi Puddleglum,

    I like your dissection of the Plan – even it isn’t quite finished.
    It has yet to have it’s transport contingent placed within its boundaries.
    I talked to Don Miskell after a CCDU presentation, he seemed to be a different person once removed from the podium.
    I asked him, what demographic of population he’d been given to base his ‘urban plan’ on? His reply was interesting in that it referred to the CCC’s 20,000 by 2020.
    Though he speculated that he couldn’t see much past 15,000 by 2030.
    So those 65 residential demonstration units on the NE Frame edge are not much cop, considering dodgy maths works out we need 732 residents per year for the city centre to function/fund properly.
    He also wanted to put the sports facilities and the stadium together a la Melbourne. And open up some of the aquifers within the Frame.
    He was vetoed by those ‘economists’ belonging to CERA.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Amanda,

      That’s an interesting insight about how the process and ‘filtering’ of ideas went. Part of the issue for me (and I think others) is that because it all happened behind closed doors we don’t have any firm idea of how (and why) some decisions were reached. At what point do ‘we’ start to affect how things turn out?

      The question of a ‘resident’ population in the centre is crucial. A workforce is part of the answer but the more actual residents the more the city will have to develop in line with the wishes of those who live locally – and I think all of us in Christchurch would benefit from that because it inevitably provides a ‘pressure’ to make the central city truly a human place that has to respond to fairly ordinary needs – and preferences – of people.

      Thanks very much for taking the time to post this comment – really useful.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

  10. Richard Hamilton says:

    Hello Puddlegum.

    Thank you. Excellent and insightful piece. I struggle to find any socially responsible actions taken by this government. I can only believe they act for interests other than those of the people, and operate a system of smoke and mirrors to bamboozle the general population into thinking otherwise. Off the subject a little, but in the same vein of “what are they actually doing against what they claim they are doing?” , take the asset sales, this letter was submitted to, but not published by the Chch Press:

    The Government’s asset sale plan will move asset value and future earnings from the public coffers into private and corporate hands. For the people, it’s a bum deal. A small portion of the population, and many corporates, have cash in excess, and, as the Prime Minister points out, the NZ market does not have much depth. This means, for an investor with surplus cash, that a significant portion of a portfolio could be earning very little interest, sitting in the bank, because there is not enough stock on the market worth investing the surplus in. We are currently at the bottom of a deep slump in share market values. If there is a recovery imminent, this would be a good time to buy, but a bad time to sell. It is preferable to retain the continuing income and the growing asset value. In the market place, it would be a good time to buy solid, well performing, dividend paying stocks (which the market is short of) and to divest a portfolio of under performers (which may take years to recover or require a large investment of capital to do so). It is a bad time to sell, into a depressed market while prices are down, especially if selling good performing assets, to pay debt (or to fund tax cuts, where the Government is effectively giving the beneficiaries of the tax cuts the means with which to buy the country’s best performing assets). On balance, as a straight transaction, the asset sales at this time are greatly in favor of the financial interests of the private investment sector, individuals and corporates, and greatly to the disadvantage of the Government, whose first responsibility is to protect the collective interests of the people of Aotearoa New Zealand.

    • Puddleglum says:

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for your comment. The point you raise about the disconnect between what the government professes and what its actions ‘betray’ is a good one and is more general than any particular topic. I’d also say it’s more general than this government or, for that matter, politicians in general.

      I think most of us don’t know ourselves well enough to trust even what we say about our own motives. That’s why reflection on our own actions is probably the best way to understand ourselves (you know, ‘know thyself’ and all that). Not only do we learn best what ‘drives’ others by carefully observing what they do rather than take too seriously what they claim about their motives but, more personally significant, we learn best what drives ourselves by carefully observing what we actually do (rather than what we say about what we do). I’m always quite chuffed when I catch myself acting hypocritically (in comparison to what I claim I’m doing something for), because it means I get to know myself better and so have a better chance of acting in ways I really think are worthwhile.

      Don’t apologise about getting ‘off topic’, by the way. As you can see I’m happy to follow the connections that anyone makes from what I say …

      So far as asset sales goes, it’s not so far ‘off topic’ as you might think. When Gerry Brownlee talked about it being “a rainy day” he was, of course, referring to the possibility of selling off some of our council-owned assets. What he failed to follow through on with his metaphor was that, usually, you don’t use rainy day funds to buy a whole bunch of ‘nice to haves’. You use those funds to cover necessities, if they are used at all.

      Regards,
      Puddleglum

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