Earthquake resilience, transport and housing top Wellington's 2017 agenda
After a shaky end to 2016, earthquake resilience has been given renewed importance alongside Wellington's other big issues. COLLETTE DEVLIN and DAMIAN GEORGE report on the year ahead for the capital.
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester barely had his feet under the desk before being thrown into the deep end when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Kaikoura on November 14 and gave the capital an almighty shake.
He had been the city's mayor for little more than a month, the place was humming with one of the strongest economies in the country, and Lester was ready to roll up his sleeves and get stuck into issues like housing and transport.
But then the quake hit.
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Wellington now looks set to be dealing with the aftermath of the seismic event for most of 2017, but Lester says he won't be taking his eyes of the other big issues.
"It was an interesting start and a challenge because there was no job description to how you respond. I had to make good decisions based on accurate information, in the best interest of Wellingtonians," he says.
Lester still plans to fulfil his "trifecta" of election promises - transport, housing and jobs/economy - but earthquake resilience is the more immediate challenge.
"I'm aware of the high likelihood of a significant aftershock within six months that could have a significant impact on Wellington. This is front and foremost of my mind and the council."
Wellington City Council had funding within its existing budgets to make the city more resilient against earthquake, but it may now look to reprioritise other money to help landlords strengthening their buildings.
Council chief executive Kevin Lavery says good management would help ensure the mayor's agenda of jobs, housing and transport was delivered.
"We also need to learn the lesson of the earthquake and make sure we make the city as resilient for the future. This will mean changes to the council financials and a change of priorities."
Building a better relationship with central government was also a top priority for Lester - something the earthquake had accelerated.
After he took over the mayoral chains from Celia Wade-Brown on October 8, he pledged to hold a summit to build a united plan for the city and reset the relationship.
He came into the job with a clear vision for Wellington and that won't change, he says.
But he acknowledges there are now new challenges he needs to prioritise, which will mean a shakeup in funding and the completion date for some projects being pushed out.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, ACTION
One big projects that look certain to see traction in 2017 is the $150 million movie museum and convention centre that will be built across the road from Te Papa.
Once complete, the Maui-inspired building will be able to host conferences of up to 1100 people and will be home to the extensive collection of movie memorabilia owned by Sir Peter Jackson and Sir Richard Taylor.
Construction is set to start early this year, but the city council is still waiting on final design specifications from TMML.
"Once they come back to us, we are good to go," Lester says.
Strengthening the Town Hall and rejuvenating the civic precinct are two other major building projects Lester is keen to get moving.
When Wellington's Town Hall closed three years ago, the intention was to have it strengthened and reopened by 2016.
But its earthquake strengthening was put on hold by the council in 2014 after cost projections increased from $43 million to $60m due to "unforeseen technical issues".
The council was hoping to have an agreement with Victoria University and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in place by October that would see creation of a civic music hub, based around the Town Hall.
This is still pending, but Lester says the hold up is not the result of the Town Hall being damaged by the November quake.
The building came through that event without any issues, and the council was simply waiting to hear back about the deal, he says.
"We are good to go once we get the green light. They have an interior design they want to finalise and they also have a fundraising requirement for the multimillion dollar investment."
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Wellington's business community want to see plans for making the city more resilient, as well as action on investment in critical infrastructure, particularly in transport, and a continued focus to drive economic growth.
Wellington Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Milford says 2017 needs to be a year of action.
After the November quake, there was a need a focus on recovery and strengthening and to ensure the city was prepared for any shocks and stresses that may arise in the future, he says.
"Access in and out of Wellington city is limited, and the CBD has just one electricity supply connection, and we need to increase the number of water supply sources from the current three to be more like Christchurch's 25."
As the capital's population increases, so will its demand for goods, services, and the movement of freight and people, Milford says.
"Our members frequently cite 'poor infrastructure' as a barrier to regional success and their own business performance.
"We need balanced solutions that address all aspects of our transport network - across roading, public transport, air connectivity, the port, rail, cycleway and pedestrian networks - to decrease congestion, improve access, and increase the flow of people and freight."
The chamber was looking forward the progress of key attraction projects, such as the convention centre and film museum, Milford says.
"Wellington must continue to be promoted as a place with opportunities for businesses and entrepreneurship, and a place for a high-class education, employment, tourism and liveability."
First Retail Group managing director Chris Wilkinson said the primary focus for retail in the city was to focus on rapidly recovering the capital's economic strength and resilience.
"The city needs to make some big and potentially audacious decisions to demonstrate this is a place businesses can be confident locating and operating in."
The film museum and convention centre would transform the city's tourism, accommodation, hospitality and retail sectors, ensuring the capital increased its destination value and appeal, he says.
BOUNCING BACK FROM THE EARTHQUAKE
Over at the Greater Wellington Regional Council, earthquake resilience is also be near the top of the agenda for 2017.
Chairman Chris Laidlaw says the quake taught the council, as well as the community, an awful lot about building resilience. He hoped, with the Government's help, the region could continue to make improvements.
"It's got to be done. The confidence in this city, in this region for that matter, depends on that assurance being able to be provided."
The early signs are positive, Laidlaw says, with the Government expressing a keen interest in helping the city develop a long-term capacity to withstand shocks.
"We've seen how hard it is for Wellington city to get on top of this, wanting to reassure people that business as usual is more or less possible, but there are going to be inconveniences for quite a while," he says.
"But this is a city that, by God, can take a shock and just recover and get on with it, which is one of the reasons why people love Wellington so much."
The regional council's Shed 39 offices on Wellington's waterfront, meanwhile, remain a work in progress after they were damaged in the November 14 earthquake.
While some staff have returned the upper floor, the ground floor is in a sorry state and it is unlikely the council's 80 or so displaced staff will be back in the building during the first half of this year.
The ground floor has sunk up to 10cm, detaching from the walls, but Laidlaw says the building stood up well given the magnitude of the jolt.
CentrePort's container port was also severely damaged in the quake, and a decision will need to be made on whether it can be restored to what it was, Laidlaw says.
"I hope that can be done. You've got to hand it to them. They took this hammering and they just got straight into it and it's been salutary I think."
After a tense few years in which the merits of a Wellington super-city were picked apart by the region's various councils, Laidlaw says 2017 needs to be the year when differences are put to rest.
The long-standing issue ended in 2015, when it was scrapped due to a lack of public support.
"When I became the chair [in October 2016], we were not working closely with Wellington city on so many aspects of our mutual interests, nd, frankly, that was surprising," Laidlaw says.
"We were sticking to our knitting. There was a certain amount of competitive sense, and that was not helpful."
Laidlaw says he was delighted Lester won the Wellington mayoralty, because he was a "collaborationist" by nature.
"And that's a huge bonus, because there's so much that we actually have to do in a really joined up way that we've not done before.
"Interestingly, too, the earthquake has reinforced that, and has shown us that collaboration is an absolutely vital element now. It isn't just an option, it is now vital."
The regional council was now working "hand in glove" with the city council and CentrePort on the region's earthquake recovery programme, Laidlaw says.
"So in that sense, we've been probably thrown together in a constructive way, so it's been very useful and I'm delighted with that. I think it's something we should have been doing years ago."
UNPLUGGING THE BASIN
Lester says another big project that will be front-and-centre in 2017 is finding a solution to the Basin Reserve's traffic congestion woes through the Let's Get Wellington Moving initiative.
The joint initiative between the Wellington city and regional councils, in collaboration with the New Zealand Transport Agency [NZTA], was spawned after the agency's proposed Basin Reserve flyover project was killed off by a board of inquiry in 2014.
"I have had good discussions with the Greater Wellington Regional Council and [New Zealand] Transport Agency about the Get Welly Moving project. We will see some significant decisions brought to the public for resolution this year," Lester says.
Lester has made no secret of his desire to see State Highway 1 outside the Basin Reserve cricket ground sent underground via a tunnel.
But tunnels do not come cheap, and as Auckland discovered with the City Rail Link, convincing the Government to write big cheques for projects like this will take plenty of guile.
Laidlaw says some big decisions will have to be made before the city's congestion problem is fixed.
It will be a slow process, but he makes no apologies for that.
"It's the right way to do it. You can't just say, 'that's a good idea, we'll close those streets, put a bus through there or a train or a light rail through that'.
"There's not really another second or third chance at this, we've got to do it properly and comprehensively."
Laidlaw does not mince words when describing the challenge the Let's Get Welly Moving team is facing.
"We're dealing with a series of [roading] corridors that are particularly awkward to free up, and there are going to have to be choices made on traffic volumes - for instance, down the Golden Mile [Lambton Quay, Willis St and Courtenay Pl] - and parking.
"It isn't working well enough at the moment. We've got to have cooperation from the Government in terms of disincentives, if you like, to drive your car into town and park it in the middle. A really advanced city doesn't do that anymore.
"There are no quick fixes, and I think most people now realise that."
Laidlaw says Wellington will need to follow other cities around the world in encouraging public transport use.
"We've got a narrow corridor, we've got a couple of quays that are perhaps usable in this respect. We want also to be able to protect a corridor for a light rail or a tramway system in future.
"That, too, is difficult, because then you're posing a rigid option into a mix that really cries out for flexibility. But I think the majority of people in this city expect us to move progressively towards an electrified public transport rail system through the city."
But Laidlaw is encouraged by how well the Let's Get Welly Moving partners are working together on the issue.
"We want to be very much on the same page. The good thing about that process is the NZTA have a very open-ended approach, partly because, I guess, the shape and the character of the city will be determined by the outcome of it for the next 50-odd years, maybe longer.
"The Basin Reserve [flyover] issue showed us that the problem at the Basin is a symptom, not the cause. So we moved way beyond that and it's been very constructive.
"And, happily, all three organisations are working together. Whereas five years ago, that would have been unthinkable."
'WE ALL HAVE A STAKE IN THIS'
Last but not least on Laidlaw's agenda in 2017 is ensuring the region is on the same page when it comes to water quality.
Coastal waters are in a good state and freshwater systems are "OK", but there is a long way to go to achieve overall water quality, and everyone needed to play their part, he says.
"Fresh water is such an emotive subject, and we're dealing with, as we are elsewhere in the country, 100-odd years of mistaken management. People didn't know that what they were doing was reducing water quality.
This is not just about dairy farmers. It's actually about management of wastewater systems and stormwater systems, personal management at home, which all contribute too.
"All that water's got to go somewhere ... and if it's contaminated in any way, as it often can be in wastewater and stormwater systems, then it finishes up in rivers, streams, harbours, and everybody says, 'that's dreadful, we need to do something'.
"So the truth of the matter is that we all have a stake in it. It's an inadequate response simply to say that dirty dairying is the culprit. Dirty dairying is a part of the matrix."
There needs to be more "good will" within the community if the problem is to be fixed, Laidlaw says.
HOT ISSUES FACING WELLINGTON
The focus of the Let's Get Welly Moving project is the area between Ngauranga Gorge and Wellington Airport, encompassing the urban motorway as well as connections to Wellington Hospital and the city's eastern and southern suburbs.
A number of "scenarios" will be made public early this year, which will spell out a range of options for fixing the city's congestion. Serious options will be discussed in the latter half of the year.
With house price growth in Wellington now outpacing Auckland and rents rising dramatically in the capital, housing is at the top of the city's immediate agenda.
The city agreed to form an urban development agency in 2016, which will help more affordable houses get built by partnering with the private sector.
Lester has also promised to introduce a $5000 rates rebate for first-time owners building a home and rental warrant of fitness.
A housing task force will report back to the city council in March, which will fed into funding discussions around the 2017-18 Annual Plan.
Ensuring Wellington businesses are thriving and attracting more people to the region will be key in 2017.
Lester wants to cultivate and incubate smaller businesses to help them grow. He also wants the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency to bring investment into the city and to build on the growth that is already happening.
The Tenths Trust and the Port Nicholson Block Settlement Trust are some of the largest landowners in the city. Lester sees them being a huge economic contributor to the economy and plans to work with them.
Arts and Education
Education is a huge priority for Lester because traditionally the city has not performed in the international student area, where it is currently behind Auckland, Otago and Canterbury.
Lester wants to create more student precincts and see Victoria University music students set up in the Town Hall.
He also wants to make sure Wellington has a strong arts sector that is receiving a good level of funding and is accessible, so that Wellington towill be known as a city of art and culture.
While the region is in relatively good shape when it comes to the environment, water quality is an issue that needs to be targeted in 2017
Laidlaw says people want to be able to swim in rivers across the region, which will mean correcting years of resource mismanagement.