OPINION: It is time to face the reality that the Christchurch central business district (CBD) cannot be rebuilt.
Cities have many components, such as libraries, art galleries, council offices, theatres, halls and other public facilities. These comprise the indulgent element, paid for from the public purse. But they cannot exist in isolation and alone constitute a city. Rather, they emanate from the steady organic growth of a city's commercial activities in the form of shops and offices.
Prior to the earthquakes, Christchurch's CBD retail heart was already in trouble, with empty shops abounding, while those remaining lived off the office workers, now gone. This was a direct consequence of the construction of large suburban shopping centres, which killed off the CBD as a retail location, just as has occurred in many other cities throughout the Western World. Examples in New Zealand include Lower Hutt and now, increasingly, Hamilton.
It would be possible to build a new, smaller Christchurch CBD with high-rise office buildings to support a smaller retail base, if the office buildings were confined to a tight area. But while that is physically possible, it is absolutely not financially feasible for several reasons.
RENTS WILL QUADRUPLE
First, because these buildings would be new they would require rentals, on my estimation, at least 400 per cent higher than the pre-earthquake price level. Because of the earthquake factor, engineering costs would be significantly greater than hitherto, as would insurance costs, and on top of that would be a risk premium. At such rates, tenants would not be forthcoming and, therefore, neither would developers.
Aside from that, the investors needed to take the end product off the developer would shy away, and without such pre-commitment, banks would not fund their construction. Pre-earthquake Christchurch was deemed a poor office-building investment location by major professional investors for sound reasons, because its office market lacked rental, and therefore capital, growth potential. Thus, the city's buildings were owned by local hobbyists and sentimentalists, as is the case with our provincial cities.
Already, Auckland commercial real estate agents are reporting a deluge of Christchurch commercial property owners seeking to reinvest their insurance proceeds in a superior investment location. In that sense, for many of these people, the earthquake has proven to be a saviour windfall.
WORLD WAR II DESTRUCTION TOOK DECADES TO REBUILD
The rebuilding of Europe's bomb-destroyed cities after World War II took two decades, but even then was only possible because those cities had sizeable central-city residential occupation. So there was an instant market for new offices and shops. That is not the case in Christchurch.
Beirut provides a more modern example. Its CBD rebuilding after the civil war offers a potential physical model for Christchurch. Entirely pedestrianised with attractive six to eight-level mixed residential and office buildings and at street level, shops, cafes, gardens and fountains, Beirut's new centre is a sheer delight. But, and unfortunately there is a but, it was substantially funded by a successful sentimental appeal to the global Lebanese diaspora, motivated less by immediate financial considerations. Additionally, with no earthquake factor and cheap Syrian and Muslim Lebanese labour abundant, construction costs were a fraction of Christchurch's.
Harvard professor Ed Glaeser, in his acclaimed 2010 book, Triumph of the City, made the valid point that the construction of great cities has always been a consequence of authoritarian governments. The recent building from scratch in virtually a decade of Kazakhstan's striking new capital, Astana, now with a population twice that of Christchurch's, epitomises this, it's existence being solely through the irrational whim of its all-powerful president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Economics played no role in Astana's construction, for had they, then it could never have been built. As that is not the New Zealand way, a new approach is required for Christchurch.
FOCUS ON BEING A GARDEN CITY
Christchurch has always justifiably boasted of being our garden city. A new and realistic strategy should build on this desirable feature and abandon thoughts of resurrecting its CBD. It could follow the model of many Christchurch- sized American cities with insignificant CBDs and instead comprise suburbs, each with its own commercial centre of low-rise, low-cost, walkup offices with shops below, in garden settings, much like the delightful Havelock North. Such buildings are quickly built, cheap and will find a ready end-investor market.
If Christchurch was to restructure itself in this fashion, which is both practically and financially feasible, it would be an army of gardeners and not builders that would be required, to transform it into a very different but hugely admired, fabulous garden city.
Existing major buildings that withstood the quake, such as the Art Gallery, the Forsythe Barr tower and others, would no longer sit in a city streetscape, but instead in isolation in a garden setting linked by avenues. It would not be a worse scenario, but instead different from before and arguably a great deal more appealing. The planners should abandon the ridiculous Noddyland terraced offices proposal put before the public, plainly designed by people with no awareness of contemporary office market demands for space and light.
Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee was 100 per cent correct in describing most of the now destroyed building stock as "old dungers" and this proposal simply offers new dungers.
The pre-earthquake Christchurch, with its legacy of largely redundant buildings, is gone forever. The planners have a blank sheet and should think afresh about the opportunity this presents for a radically different and superior approach.
Sir Bob Jones is a longtime property investor, author and former politician based in Wellington.
- The Dominion Post