Christchurch Town Hall should go - Gerry Brownlee

TUG OF LOVE: Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and the Christchurch City Council are at odds over the future of the Christchurch Town Hall.
TUG OF LOVE: Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and the Christchurch City Council are at odds over the future of the Christchurch Town Hall.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has declared his hand over the fate of the town hall, saying the damaged complex is outdated indicating it should go.

The stance on the "broken and unusable" facility will come as another source of animosity between Brownlee and Christchurch City councillors, who want the Sir Miles Warren-designed complex saved.

Tensions peaked last week after Brownlee made public a letter from International Accreditation New Zealand saying it may revoke the council's ability to issue consents if it did not remedy a massive backlog.

Councillors voted unanimously last November to restore the Kilmore St town hall to 100 per cent of new building standards.

A new report on the viability of saving the town hall is due to go to council by the end of the month.

However, in today's Perspective piece in The Press, Brownlee appears to pre-empt the report, saying restoration of the "badly torn apart" facility would be an "expensive challenge".

"What's left of it sits on some of the worst land from the geotechnical perspective in the central city - in part why it is so seriously damaged," he says.

"We have a clear choice: try and recapture the magic of the past and patch up the town hall, as some want to do; or deliver modern facilities that could again have Christchurch leading the world for quality performing arts spaces."

When councillors voted for restoration, the repair bill was estimated at $127.5 million, with $69m covered by insurance.

Under Canterbury Earthquake Rebuild Authority (Cera) legislation, Brownlee has the power to overturn decisions made by the council relating to land in the central business district.

In November, Brownlee did not rule out overriding the council on the decision, saying the hall's location by the river made it unsuitable for buildings.

Cera's blueprint for the city allows for a new performing arts precinct "in the event that the town hall cannot be repaired". The blueprint shows the town hall site vacant and bordering the Avon River Precinct.

Mayor Bob Parker yesterday maintained the town hall's fate was not a decision for the Government, which he said appeared to "want to throw away all of Christchurch's heritage".

"As far as I'm concerned this is a council decision. It will remain that way," Parker said.

"The minister has long held that view and made it clear that he does not want the hall saved. We have made it quite clear that we do."

Parker said for Brownlee to urge demolition now was "interesting timing".

Cr Peter Beck said no decisions should be made before the viability report went before the council.

"We have said we want to save the town hall and there is huge community support for that but we need to see what the report says first.

"There seems to be a lot the minister and the council are disagreeing over at the moment. It's a shame he can't speak to us more directly rather than making statements through the media."

Architect Sir Miles Warren, who designed the town hall along with Maurice Mahoney, said it would be a "disaster" if the complex was not saved.

Demolition would be "very unpopular", he said.

"[Demolition] would be going against the wishes of the council and the community.

"How could we not save it? If Wellington had an earthquake do you think they would just knock down the Michael Fowler Centre? No. We can't do that here."

In his Perspective piece, Brownlee says Christchurch has the opportunity to create a "cultural heart for the city" in the form of multiple theatres and performing arts spaces.

"This is the sort of infrastructure that meets the needs of a modern city. With respect to the old town hall, it did not, and hadn't for some considerable time."

Brownlee said the Court Theatre, a long-term Arts Centre tenant before the February 2011 earthquake, deserved a "permanent home" in the arts precinct.

Court Theatre chief executive Philip Aldridge said it would ideally like to be in the precinct.

"We obviously want to get back into the city centre. We're very keen to help with the regeneration of the city."

However, Sir Miles said an arts precinct could not provide a heart for the city in the same way as the town hall.

"It is concerning if the Government can't see the difference between the town hall and an overbloated convention centre.

"This building is so much more than just a venue.

"The Government seems to want to throw away all of Christchurch's heritage."

Parker believed saving the town hall could work in with a new arts precinct.

"I'm sure there is a way we can work in the two concepts together."

The Press