Can Christchurch be saved?

GEORGINA STYLIANOU
Last updated 05:00 04/05/2014
Tourist photographs ChristChurch Cathedral
Joseph Johnson

THREE YEARS ON: Endless plans, designs, concepts and discussions have so far produced little.

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The rebuild of Christchurch is at a crossroads - will it fall into place or will it flop? Georgina Stylianou reports on the city's recovery. 

Rebuilding New Zealand's second-biggest city was always going to be challenging.

At the moment, this fact seems to be the only one the Government, the Christchurch City Council and the private sector can agree on.

Before the February 2011 quake, Christchurch's central city was dying. The messy commercial centre just couldn't compete with the large malls with plentiful car parking.

The Government, under the specially formed Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera), produced a bold revival blueprint that intended to condense the business heart of the city, boost residential development and create world-class civic amenities.

The council and the Crown drew up a controversial cost-sharing agreement and divided the city into "precincts" for development. These were known as "anchor projects".

But endless plans, designs, concepts and discussions have so far produced little and the pace of the rebuild seems to have slumped in the first quarter of this year.

The blueprint created uncertainty because of the huge amount of land acquisitions, zoning difficulties and the inevitable delays that come with such a large task.

Landowners were unable to move on until they had negotiated the sale of their properties to the Crown and developers were waiting for physical proof of recovery before they committed to multimillion-dollar rebuilds.

While demolitions continued in central city, investors and insurance-rich landowners took their money to the city's peripherals.

Office and retail developments, new bars and restaurants and many A-grade tenants - law firms, accountants, engineers - found their new homes in Christchurch's Lincoln Rd, Moorhouse Ave and in and around the Durham-Victoria St precinct.

Now the CBD is open for business again, some would-be developers are struggling to make their ambitious projects stack up in the face of rising construction and labour costs and dwindling numbers of flash, well-paying tenants.

Some prime central-city sites have changed hands two or three times and, in the meantime, the outskirts keep growing. The city has been dubbed a donut by some.

Inside the new, smaller city core, the shine of the recovery blueprint has worn off and signals of disharmony have started emerging.

A public spat between the council and the Crown over the planned performing-arts precinct highlighted the tense relationship that exists between the local and national authorities.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee interprets the cost-sharing agreement one way, and Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel another.

Dalziel was surprised that the Crown had stopped land acquisitions in the precinct, saying the council could not develop a plan without land certainty. Brownlee maintains planning needs to be undertaken first before Cera hands over a chunk of land.

Fairfax Media understands that, out of five shortlisted consortia in the running for the convention centre precinct, only one group remains.

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In March, a letter written to the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) by a convention centre contender expressed concerns about the tender process and the lack of information interested parties were entitled to. The winning group will be announced soon.

The eastern frame - a strip of land that runs between Manchester and Madras streets - has cost the Crown about $168 million in land purchases and left many former owners reeling.

A group called the Central Owners Rebuild Entity (Core) has several members who allowed their sites to be compulsorily taken by the Crown in order to seek further compensation through the courts.

The frame is earmarked for medium-density residential development and an expression of interest issued by the CCDU attracted 14 responses.

Shortlisted companies will be invited to tender for the role of development partner with the Government later this year but many remain sceptical.

The innovation precinct is veiled in confusion. But rumours that Brownlee will soon lift the land designation - allowing landowners to resume business - have been quashed by the minister.

However, owners have been given the opportunity to pitch development plans to the Government but say they are now growing tired of the delayed release of the Crown-led masterplan for the precinct.

Last week a central tenant of the precinct pulled out of the project, blaming delays and overpriced land.

The Enterprise Precinct Innovation Centre (Epic) had plans for stage two of its central-city development but confirmed it was shelving them because "we have lost confidence", Epic co-founder Colin Anderson said.

However, Brownlee said the expansion of Epic relied on Government funding and there were other landowners in the precinct with development plans in place.

The retail precinct, which has long been hailed as the flagship recovery project by the Government and private sector, was last week described by Brownlee as "the biggest mess on our plate".

Developers had to create plans that covered at least 7500 square metres of land in the precinct as the Crown looked to avoid a staggered and mish-mashed retail core.

In doing this, groups either had to buy other people's land or sell their own. Brownlee said the Crown had been forced to step in and buy a block of land in a bid to solve the stalemate and facilitate development but owners were still unable to reach an agreement.

Construction of Antony Gough's $150m Terrace development was paused recently so cost increases and design issues could be addressed, meaning no major construction work is under way in the precinct at the moment.

The Avon River precinct and the justice and emergency services precinct are ticking along nicely while public consultation on the new central library concluded last week and the council is developing a business case for the metro sports facility.

As for the bus interchange precinct, the facility itself is proceeding as planned but the CCDU last week withdrew expressions of interest for the retail, hospitality and office precinct around it after feedback from developers.

This will not affect the bus interchange and plans for the surrounding precinct are still being worked through.

The CCDU is working on a masterplan for the health precinct and there is no timeframe in place for the proposed new stadium. Brownlee maintains there is a lack of understanding about the scale of the rebuild and the Government processes that need to be adhered to when it comes to tenders for anchor projects and public probity.

"I've been dragged through the courts on several occasions because some people have insisted we haven't followed a good process . . . what that does is lead to a very cautious approach by us."

He said the doom-and-gloom predictions about what would happen to Christchurch after the earthquake - population exodus, higher unemployment and a property market crash - had not come to pass because of Government commitment and "the decision by people in this region to stay and make it work".

"For all the grizzles and grumps and stresses and strains of the last few years, I think as a wider community we've done exceptionally well."

A recent report led by the New Zealand Council for Infrastructure Development showed many businesses involved in the rebuild believed Cera and the council were hampering progress, with lack of alignment between the two organisations being the most heavily criticised aspect of the recovery.

Dalziel has conceded communication between the council and the Crown needs improvement.

Colliers International Christchurch general manager Jonathan Lyttle said millions of investor dollars had been taken outside Christchurch because of uncertainty and the "lengthy development processes" people had to contend with. However, many big tenants had committed to coming back into the central city and private developers were booming on the west side of the Avon River, Lyttle said.

"The most substantial development has been, or is taking place, irrespective of the Crown involvement, rather than because of it."

Dalziel said the council was working to develop its own procurement, investment and delivery agency to give people keen to invest in the rebuild a "single point of entry".

"We all know that activity in the likes of Victoria St is thriving . . . but there have been challenges in the core." She said investors and businesses were "holding off until they know what is going to be around them and when".

Key recovery aspects, such as the provision of car parking in the CBD, were being delayed because of the council's ongoing insurance negotiations, Dalziel said.

"Insurance settlements would have to be my biggest frustration because I feel like, if we had a global settlement of our claims, and our Earthquake Commission claims, we would be able to play a much stronger role - it's holding us back."

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend said there were 200 private developments, either under way or consented within the four avenues, but the core of the city would continue to struggle until the remaining demolitions had been completed.

"We're at a crossroads at the moment but we're reaching the end of the smoke-and-mirrors phase where information is being withheld."

He said there had been a "real shift in thinking recently" and the council, Cera and the CCDU had now realised that people needed more information and clarity.

It appears there is a genuine desire to make this work but the key will be less blame, more action.

- Sunday Star Times

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