Building old and new in post-earthquake Christchurch
A couple of weeks ago, an agent took property developers Miles Yeoman and Craig Newbury to the top of the still empty Millennium Hotel on Cathedral Square. They went up in the goods lift and looked down upon the city. From up there, Christchurch looked busy.
All the cranes, the fences and scaffolds, the men scurrying about in hi-vis. As you drive around the city, it looks like disparate activity, but from above, you can see how it all joins up. Even allowing for the fact that property developers are in the optimism business, there is so much going on that Newbury feels confident in calling 2016 the busiest year of the rebuild.
He predicts that no year before nor after will have the same level of activity. Some of the big projects will wrap up this year, some smaller ones may spring up to fill in the gaps but other gaps will remain empty for a while longer.
Some of the most glaring gaps were right under Yeoman and Newbury's noses as they looked down from the Millennium.
* Christchurch developer Richard Diver sells up multi-million dollar Victoria St buildings
* Yeoman and Newbury developing at full speed
* Replica of The Press building planned
* Heritage rebuild plan in doubt over Square inaction
* Heritage facade on old Excelsior Hotel will be lost
"The Square would be a different place now if the church had their decisions organised faster, obviously, and if a convention centre had happened," Newbury says. "Those are the two hold-ups."
Do they want Christ Church Cathedral rebuilt? "We're agnostic," Newbury quips. "Just make a decision."
But Yeoman leans towards restoration of the old, given the significant loss of heritage and the emotional meaning of the centre of the city.
Newbury and Yeoman are the two directors of Canterbury Property Investments (CPI) which formed in 2011. We are talking in the CPI office above Coriander's restaurant, which they developed. The St Asaph St building was modelled on the old Occidental Hotel near Latimer Square, a notable victim of the widespread destruction of built heritage after the earthquakes.
Can you revive the past or at least create convincing replicas? Sometimes people are fooled. The pair remember having a quiet afternoon beer on the Coriander's verandah when "a lovely old lady" stopped and asked, "Didn't this used to be a hotel? Have you shifted the Occidental here?"
"As we'd had a couple of beers we said, yes, yes, we have," Newbury says. The woman thought for a moment and said, "You've done a marvellous job".
The story still makes them laugh a year later. The view from their office across Welles St reveals another of their replicas. The Bootleg BBQ Co seemed to suit a copy of a San Francisco fire station. They have also signed up to replicate the old Excelsior hotel on Manchester St, after buying the site from the Christchurch Heritage Trust in 2015.
The most ambitious of all was an idea – and they stress it is still just an idea – to build a replica of the original, gothic Press building as a hotel on its old Cathedral Square site. A lot of people got very excited about that one.
"With new technologies, you can replicate a building like that," Yeoman says. "Or we might combine a mix of old and new."
They bought The Press site for a reported $3.6 million in 2014, including an adjacent site that faces Gloucester St. They are "in discussions with Quest Hotels" for the Gloucester St part, but The Press site requires more thought and more time.
"It's the closest bit of freehold land to the cathedral," Newbury says. "It's an iconic site. We're in no rush. We've got to find the right project for that site."
The cathedral is holding things up but so is the stagnation of the convention centre. One of CPI's strongest post-quake projects is the stylish new Warren and Mahoney building on the corner of Montreal St and Cashel St. Yeoman says that as much has been spent on consultants' fees on the convention centre as CPI spent buying the old Scales House site and building on it for Warren and Mahoney.
"$15 million!" Newbury says. "It is unbelievable."
"How difficult is it, really?" Yeoman says. "It's a big version of what we're doing. [Developers] The Plenary Group must really wonder how we ever managed to build a city. If it was in Australia, it would be finished by now."
"Odds are we're going to be a decade without a convention centre," Newbury says. "That's a real indictment on decisions. A decade! Ten years!"
As the pair are fond of saying, property development is all about place and time. Land values and rents rise and fall depending on levels of confidence, supply and demand and, inescapably in Christchurch, the big and slow-moving plans of central and local government.
Yeoman says they paid less for The Press site "than you would pay on Victoria St and about the same as what land round here [Welles St] is selling for. It's probably doubled in value over the 18 months since we bought it."
Why? Because of momentum. Because of an expectation something will happen soon. And because sites like that don't come up often.
But anyway, place and time. Go back to 2011. Newbury had a financial background and Yeoman had been in partnership with developer Richard Diver, before the global financial crisis slowed them down. One of Diver and Yeoman's biggest hits was the Hazeldean Business Park.
Yeoman and Newbury started with a couple of projects in Rangiora before looking back at Christchurch. After the earthquakes, Diver had reinvented himself as the man who would transform Victoria St. There was a symmetry to his former partner turning his attention to the south side.
"Eighteen months after the earthquakes, you could see how the city was starting to come back," Yeoman says, as he looks south towards the Port Hills. "This area here was going to move ahead. There were no cordons."
Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, as it was then known, had kept going. South side streets stayed open. There were already expectations that the southern half of the CBD and Sydenham might become new, creative, bohemian neighbourhoods. So Yeoman and Newbury bought a scruffy chunk of land on the corner of St Asaph St and Manchester St, which was hosting Gap Filler's Dance-O-Mat at the time.
That became Coriander's. They embraced the urban and transitional as they set about gentrifying an industrial neighbourhood. They commissioned street artists like Popx and Dcypher to paint works on the sides of buildings, aware that in a year or two they may disappear behind even newer buildings. They bought almost an entire show of clever work by street artist Milton Springsteen, which hangs in their reception area.
"We have probably done 12 buildings since 2011 and have another four or five on the go," Yeoman says.
There is a cluster of new sites around Welles St, lower Manchester St and Southwark St. They are doing a building for the Employers' Chamber of Commerce on Kilmore St. They are doing a big redevelopment of the Funky Pumpkin on Colombo St. And if Christchurch City Council planners will let them, they will put up a building for a law firm on the corner of Southwark St and Manchester St, which was marked not too long ago by a big inflatable rugby ball.
On Welles St, next to the Bootleg BBQ Co, Fletchers Residential is building 101 apartments and eight townhouses in a development called Atlas Quarter. These southern streets will start to get busier. Environment Canterbury (ECan), Kathmandu and Vodafone are bringing office workers back into the neighbourhood.
"Compare it to, say, Peterborough St or Kilmore St," Yeoman says. "You go into that area now and it doesn't have the same energy this has."
But does he think there will be, as some feared, a glut of office space?
"If you asked us a year ago, we would have probably said yes. But the current stuff will get finished. The glut will not be in the new buildings. It will be the suburban office space, the B-grade or C-grade space."
It seems that businesses that drifted to the suburbs do want to come back in, as planners and developers hoped. Warren and Mahoney is a great example. The architecture firm is now a key feature in the recent rebranding of the western side of the Avon River as "West End", a marketing initiative led by CPI, Ngai Tahu Property and Armitage Williams that confirms that political and cultural power has shifted west.
It seems a no-brainer in retrospect but there wasn't much activity in the west when CPI bought the Scales House site in early 2013. Richard Owen had almost finished his St Elmo's project. The old police station was still up. Other big, new buildings had not yet started.
"It took us longer to get it through the consenting process with the Christchurch City Council than it took to build it," Newbury says. "It took us 18 months to plan, 52 weeks to build."
Can they suggest ways in which the council can speed things up? "I think it's the nature of the beast," he says. "It's just the way it is."
Yeoman says they have good council connections with the likes of consenting and compliance manager Peter Sparrow, but councils are simply big, slow-moving machines. It took six months just to get consent for the Funky Pumpkin.
Property development can seem like an eternal war between impatient, free-market intuition and the controlling impulses of planners and bureaucrats. Yeoman and Newbury know that. But they have more serious complaints about the restrictiveness of the Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) and the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU), who did not engage well, as Newbury diplomatically puts it.
For example, they say they have never been approached about plans for Cathedral Square despite owning The Press site. They have tried to buy pieces of land along the south frame near the justice precinct to develop smaller buildings for law firms, but to no avail. Yeoman says of the government bodies, "They were trying to maximise what they were getting for the land rather than getting alongside people who deliver projects as part of their vision."
They remember the blueprint launch in 2012 and say they never believed the ambitious timeframes that were proposed back then. Did anyone, really? The best thing about the blueprint, in Newbury's view, is that ideas of southern and eastern frames provided some certainty, some shape to the city.
That didn't go exactly as planned, either. The southern frame was supposed to be smaller, campus-style developments, he says ironically as he points toward the shining bulk of the new ECan building that fills their window, but "in the private sector you went okay, I understand that, now let's get going. If you can't control your project, it does your head in, really."