New council reviews Wakatu Square deal

Last updated 13:00 13/12/2013

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OPINION: There is a strong sense of starting afresh as the city council reopens the Farmers redevelopment issue. And was that ever needed!

Three months ago the previous council team was a quorum away from confirming a deal to sell council land at Wakatu Square for a new Farmers development. After three councillors - new Mayor Rachel Reese, Ian Barker and Jeff Rackley - walked out of a meeting to prevent a decision being made based on poor information, the council had little option but to defer the matter for incoming councillors to deal with.

Whatever the reality, the perception was that the council mishandled initial negotiations.

The brokered deal involved a purchase price $1 million below market value; local business interests were sidelined in favour of an Auckland-based developer; Wakatu Square was arguably compromised by the impact on existing businesses; and there were allegations of misinformation regarding Farmers' intentions should the deal not proceed. It all became very messy, had an impact on the mayoral race, and a clean start is appropriate and welcome.

Commercial negotiations of this nature inevitably are progressed behind the scenes, but ratepayers have every right to expect transparency of process around projects so pivotal to the city's commercial heart. That did not seem always to happen last term and in particular with this issue.

It is heartening that the council has seen the need to involve local developers and landowners in its discussions. Let us hope that the transparency continues, especially when some of the sharpest critics of the previous arrangements are now involved in discussions with the council.

There was a feeling that the council had previously been strong-armed into making the Wakatu deal happen or face losing Farmers to the central business district. The retail giant already has a strong presence in Richmond and has been "invited" to rebuild at Nelson Junction near Stoke, already the home to Mitre 10 Mega. So, Farmers does have a plan B if it cannot get what it wants or needs in the Nelson central business district - even if staying in the city remains its preference.

The council has been buying up property in the vicinity of Wakatu Square. Earthquake strengthening issues might force its hand in some areas and also open new possibilities where buildings are demolished, but there are currently few remaining large-scale sections of land within the central business district for major developments.

All things considered, it would make sense and be better for the city if Farmers were able to redevelop at an existing site, presumably the one off Trafalgar St. Any impact on Buxton Square could be mitigated through additional parking at Wakatu Square. Farmers is a keystone retailer for Nelson and even moving it a few hundred metres to the southwest would change the dynamics of the central business district, depending on who came in to fill the current sites.

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