Saving Christchurch Cathedral Square
Development plans have been collapsing in Cathedral Square. The convention centre has been pushed out to 2018. The cathedral remains a ruin. Has it become the black hole of the rebuild? JOHN McCRONE reports.
Does Cathedral Square have a future? Once the obvious heart of Christchurch, its premier location, the square is fast becoming the black hole of the rebuild.
Just consider its multiple problems. And the way its failure could blight the whole eastern corner of the central city between Hereford and Gloucester Sts.
Sure there is the whopping great $500 million convention centre that the Government is going to build – its gift to the city, $284m coming from the public purse, the rest from its commercial partners – which will fill one whole side of Cathedral Square.
That alone will plug the gap created by the demolition of some two dozen Christchurch landmarks, from the Farmers department store and central library to the 1960s Government Life building and swanky Victoria Apartments tower built only in 2005.
However critics say this will be a couple of blocks of dead space. Architecturally imposing no doubt, but with little real connection to the Christchurch public and the civic life of the square.
It was going to be the Arts Precinct next door to the convention centre which was to be the square's real driver, giving it a new performing arts focus.
The wonderful revamp of the Isaac Theatre Royal was intended as only the start of making Cathedral Square the anchor of a high brow entertainment district.
Yet that prospect has largely fizzled because the money is going to be spent on saving the Town Hall auditorium and James Hay theatre over in Kilmore St instead.
Cathedral Square will get the rebuilt central library, double the size of the old one. And that's probably still the brightest bit of news.
Although even there, questions have been raised as to whether it is the best location in terms of accessibility. Public transport and cheap parking will a hike away for book borrowers.
After that, it all gets grim again. Who else is going to be building around the square?
Clearly it won't be office blocks in a hurry. Ngai Tahu's announcement that it has signed accountancy firm EY and several government departments to a coming development on the old central police station site is final confirmation that Cambridge Tce has emerged as the new CBD.
By contrast, any plans for Cathedral Square have only been collapsing.
One family investor group, Cristo Ltd, said it was giving up efforts to develop the half-demolished BNZ House on the Colombo St corner entrance to Cathedral Square. It was better off taking its insurance pay-out to Auckland.
It now turns out a second family investor group, Central City Estates, has seen its own dreams turn to dust on the ex-ANZ plot just opposite at 9 Cathedral Square.
ASB Bank had announced in late 2013 that it was going to take this prime spot as a tenant. Architectural drawings were released of a four-storey regional headquarters.
But when questioned on the lack of building, family spokesman Chris Bayley admits ASB quietly pulled the plug last December. It is not happening.
So the corporate tenants have voted with their feet. And it is becoming difficult to see who the square is even meant to be for anymore.
Don't forget its biggest problem of all – the bombed ruins of Christ Church Cathedral. If the cathedral gets turned into some modernist glass exercise, the square will even have lost its role as the heritage cornerstone of the city.
Why would the tourist buses drop off anyone in the square rather than at the Botanic Gardens?
Developer Ernest Duval, founder of the post-quake property owner's group, City Owners Rebuild Entity (Core), says the whole dynamic of central Christchurch has lurched decisively west.
"If you look, all the people-focused amenities are on the west of the city. The new Metro Sports Centre, the museum, the Botanical Gardens, the Arts Centre – all of the things people want close by are on that side."
Duval says Cathedral Square once told its own story. It was the city's transport hub and cinema centre. It was the natural place of ceremony and assembly.
Yet under the Government's blueprint plan, even the civic welcoming function of Cathedral Square is to be shifted over to Victoria Square. The idea is to make that the new bicultural front door to the city, a greeting place developed in partnership with Ngai Tahu.
Duval says because of the square's threatened loss of post-quake identity, the surrounding blocks reaching down towards Manchester St have become problematic in turn.
The contagion now threatens the Government's East Frame, its plan to sell off six expensively acquired blocks of land, stretching from the Avon River to Lichfield Street, for inner-city apartments.
Fletcher Building has been mentioned as a possible purchaser. But Duval says any developer would normally have to pre-sell a fair number of units to guarantee its bank financing.
And how can it do that while the apartments are still looking straight out on the most blitzed and graffitied part of town? "You would have to be brave person to step in there right now."
A chicken and egg situation is developing because the property owners back across Manchester St are waiting for this promised residential development – an instant community of 2000 city-dwellers on the doorstep – to make sense of their own development plans.
So the fate of Cathedral Square is critical to a whole neighbourhood. Duval says it is no secret that the square was already struggling before the earthquakes, forever being redesigned. Now people have to wonder exactly what its role in the new city is suppose to be.
As a space, has it finally lost its logic?
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Christchurch architectural designer Barnaby Bennett, a member of the city's transitional movement and pithy critic of the rebuild, says a little thought shows Cathedral Square is caught between two stools.
For the purpose of making the convention centre a success, the square now needs to become the city's up-market hotel plaza. This is the new commercial driver. If it is not offices that ring the rebuilt square, then there is a logic in it being five star hotels and luxury gift shops.
However the people of Christchurch want Cathedral Square returned to them as their premier civic space. If the Government is going to spend time and effort sorting something out, it ought to be that, starting with the ruined Cathedral most probably.
To Bennett, the convention centre is looking increasingly misconceived – an example of what California writer Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell, describes rather ironically as "elite panic".
Bennett says after disasters, the popular view is that it is the communities that can't cope. There is looting and dysfunction. But as Christchurch found out, the opposite is mostly the case.
Solnit argues it is instead the elite who fear they have the most to lose economically. "In the quest to appear to be in control, they often make foolish large decisions," says Bennett.
He says it is the only reason he can see for the convention centre being made so large and taking over such a prime spot.
The Government forced through a purchase of all the properties between the square and the bend of the Avon River. It even decided to build over Gloucester Street without public consultation, saying it might make a nice internal shopping arcade.
But Bennett says such a giant single purpose building creates a huge financial risk for the city. The Government is constructing it in partnership with hotel and commercial interests, but ratepayers will eventually have to take over its running.
"It's such a big site to be mono-functional. If you had put in a whole lot of small developments in there, similar to what's happening on Cashel Mall, you'd just get so much more economic activity and life around Cathedral Square."
Bennett says if the convention centre proves a white elephant, only rarely used for 2000 visitor conferences and not really covering its upkeep costs, it is not as if it can be quickly repurposed, chopped up and converted to better uses. Christchurch is going to be stuck with whatever it is.
And even assuming it is a commercial success, what is a convention centre going to contribute to the public life of Cathedral Square, Bennett asks?
He says the design brief – or at least a paragraph of it – talks about an "activated edge". The convention centre will have at least one official hotel, plus the kind of glossy designer shops and high-end bars and restaurants you would expect.
However it is going to be filled by gatherings of Australian dentists and Asian bankers – business tourists who see Christchurch as a quiet, scenic backdrop to whatever hectic schedule of speaker sessions and break-out meetings might occupy their week.
Bennett says the centre of Auckland is characterised by its commerce and universities, Wellington has Parliament and the large public institutions.
"By putting a giant convention centre in the middle of the city, Christchurch is essentially saying to the world 'the best of what we offer is a nice place for business people to meet and talk about other places'. That's our grand vision, that's our message to the world," says Bennett.
But the convention centre has been decided. The land has been cleared and a consortium is being contracted to deliver. So the question becomes whether the convention centre will get the kind of square it needs?
Dean Humphries, Auckland-based hotel expert for commercial real estate specialist, Colliers, strives at first to strike an optimistic note when asked this, but then concedes Cathedral Square faces a host of problems in attracting new development.
Humphries explains that hotel investment is very different from building offices. For office space, you find a tenant willing to sign a five to 10 year lease. With the certainty of steady rental stream, banks will then fund 70 per cent or more of the construction costs.
But with hotels, the brand name on the front is usually that of an international chain which has merely signed a management contract. It will operate the premises you build, hopefully at a healthy profit. However the lack of an assured income means banks will fund only about half the build.
And then controlling those costs is also a far more critical part of a hotel project, says Humphries.
"They're much more expensive to construct than an office tower. There's a lot more moving parts because effectively you're building something that's got maybe 200 bathrooms and 200 kitchenettes. So the margin for error is very small."
Humphries says for this reason, the hotel game is for the experienced and deep-pocketed. The luxury hotels tend to be developed by overseas syndicates. And those investors would have to be very sure about how any proposition stacked up.
Humphries says he was visiting Christchurch with a party of heavy-weight investors a few weeks ago. While they welcomed the promise of a convention centre, they were shocked to find it still a bare site, any opening having now slipped forward by at least another year to late 2018.
Their comment was that in Singapore, it would have been built already. Along with the rugby stadium and anything else meant to drive local bed nights.
Humphries says of course Christchurch just hasn't got the construction capacity of a Singapore. "But it's pretty hard to explain that to international investors."
So in the long-term, Christchurch has the right fundamentals, says Humphries. It has the airport to make it the gateway to the South Island. Tourist numbers have been growing at 5 per cent a year.
But right now, the city has around 2000 of its old 4000 hotel rooms back and that more than meets current demand. Hoteliers feel no rush to get back in. And even then, there is no commercial reason for every big hotel to be gathered into Cathedral Square.
Humphries says normally hotels spread themselves around a city. And if there is going to be a cluster, it looks like it is going to happen down by Victoria Square now that the Performing Arts Precinct plan has fallen apart.
Christchurch City Council's decision to rebuild the Town Hall means that the reserved block of land in Colombo St by the river has became surplus to the Blueprint's requirements.
So instead of being bought and demolished by the Government, the damaged Forsyth Barr tower is being repaired and turned into a replacement for the old Crowne Plaza hotel.
The freeing of the land also allows both the Millennium & Copthorne group, and local rich lister Philip Carter, to rebuild the hotels they had on those sites.
So that is a fair chunk of the top-end market concentrated in an excellent location says Humphries. Meanwhile the two big pre-quake hotels in Cathedral Square – the Millennium and Rydges – have become long-term obstacles.
Both are owned by overseas investors, not the hotel chains. Both are involved in insurance battles about whether they are to be repaired or demolished and cashed out.
Humphries says like the ruins of the Cathedral, any hotel operator is looking at these two battered buildings and seeing them only as yet another reason to hold fire. So by the time the square is sorted, the new hotel developments probably will have landed elsewhere.
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There are developers hoping to get hotel projects going in Cathedral Square.
After a number of others gave up on the demolished Press site because its prospects were too uncertain, local entrepreneur Miles Yeoman has now bought it for $3.6 million with the aim of creating a hotel which is an architectural replica of the old Press building.
Many would welcome that. Especially as it would be matched by the Heritage Hotel across the road – the converted Old Government Building, which along with the 13-storey Novotel, is one of the two hotels in the square that survived the earthquakes and back running.
Central City Estates, having lost ASB as a tenant, is now also having to consider the hotel option. But family trustee Chris Bayley says soaring construction costs are making that an increasingly difficult alternative.
Bayley says because of Christchurch's new seismic standards, even providing a 36 car basement parking area was going to add $5m to any building. "It's out of control – try and make that work," he says ruefully.
So it is not as if Cathedral Square won't have some hotels. Just as there will be a return of some tourist-oriented shops simply because the convention centre is going to have those as part of its "activated" frontage.
But still, the concern is about what will fill the other gaps around the square. And more than this, what will a stuttering Cathedral Square mean to the people of Christchurch?
Again says Bennett, the issue is that Cathedral Square is the city's largest civic space. As part of the convention centre and general blueprint reshuffle, it is scheduled to get a $10m make-over, half paid for by the Crown, half by the council.
Yet whose purpose is eventually going to drive that new look, Bennett asks? The commercial needs of a national business tourism strategy or the desires of the citizens for whom it is supposed to be their most meaningful location?
In the end, Bennett offers a surprising answer. Perhaps the medium term failure of the square could be a blessing. Maybe the freezing of development for five or 10 years will allow its new identity to emerge more organically.
Bennett says the problem has been the rush to impose top-down solutions. The community was never properly consulted on the central city's blueprint. But imagine Cathedral Square filled with a succession of transitional movement projects – more substantial versions of Gap Filler or even the Re:Start Mall.
"An absolute no brainer is a covered vegetable market in the city. Like Melbourne, you could get semi-permanent sellers in there. It is that sort of thing that'd bring people into the city every week."
Bennett says a comment from overseas experts who came for an adaptive urbanism conference last year was that Christchurch was doing the small transitional stuff better than any other city. And the Government was laying down the large lumpy investments.
Yet what was lacking was the middle level of perhaps $200,000 to $500,000 projects which could fill places with temporary activity and help establish new uses for areas that had become a blank slate.
Bennett says for a struggling Cathedral Square, the temptation will be to try to figure it all out and deliver a solution. Look in control. However the alternative may be to support whatever people start to want to do in the square and let a purpose grow.
"The collapse in investment might be a positive in 10 or 20 years time because if the rush to fill the city fails, it will give the community a chance to get in there and recolonise it a little bit."
It is certainly a more optimistic view. The flavour of Cathedral Square might be funky rather than luxury for a long time. It could be a bit noisy and colourful. However done well, even that would be a plus for the convention centre – an international drawcard. And it puts the focus back on Cathedral Square as the city's central civic space.
So Cathedral Square? Maybe its bad news is not such bad news. As Bennett suggests, in another decade, its failure might also become its opportunity.
- Christchurch Press