Is the city's blueprint dream evaporating?

JOHN MCCRONE
Last updated 12:27 04/01/2014
Colin Anderson
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EPIC CO-FOUNDER: Wil McLellan

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The central Christchurch Blueprint has been out for 17 months, but progress towards anchor projects like the innovation precinct seems stalled. JOHN McCRONE asks if the dream is evaporating.

It sort of sums it up. All around us in the plywood corridors, deliriously happy 20-something year olds are blasting away at each other with their Nerf guns.

The beers are going down well at the birthday celebrations of Christchurch's Enterprise Precinct and Innovation Campus (Epic), the black corrugated iron "woolshed" on the old Para Rubber site which a year ago became the first serious stake in the ground for the central city rebuild.

Well, that and the city's other homemade, No 8 fencing wire, venture of the Re:Start container mall - both transitional projects which have been absolutely crucial to the belief that central Christchurch can rise again, better, even more prosperous in every sense of the word, than what existed before.

Life blossoming in the vacant spaces. And Epic has filled every promise, say tenants such as SLI Systems chief executive Shaun Ryan.

Ideas are cross-pollinating, business are mentoring each other, the building has become a drawcard for international talent.

But off in a darkening sideroom, Colin Andersen, Epic co-founder and executive director of IT consultant Effectus, is counting the number of abortive attempts to move on now from stage 1 to stage 2 of the project. Five so far for him, he says wearily. And this time is definitely the last.

Epic was born in the immediate aftermath of the February 2011 earthquake. Andersen and Wil McLellan of game developer Stickmen Studios were simply seeking a shared office space with a few others as a matter of company survival.

But then the idea snowballed. Why not build a new hi-tech campus, create a cluster of like-minded businesses, a re- invigorating community, right in the heart of Christchurch? More than 100 local firms quickly said they wanted in.

So the plan was to start with a pilot scheme, Epic Sanctuary, built with land borrowed from the council and backing from sponsors like BNZ.

This would house about 20 businesses, 250 people, for five years. After that could come the real thing, Epic Sigma. A permanent collection of buildings offering 10 times the space. A whole innovation village of perhaps 2000 software developers and entrepreneurs.

Epic was a citizens' initiative and halfway to being built when the Government got excited about the project. Steven Joyce with his new super-ministry MBIE (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) stepped in to insist that Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee include it almost at the last minute in the Christchurch Central Development Unit's (CCDU's) 100 day Blueprint masterplan.

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And so the Blueprint came out with its dream of the South Frame, a strip of nine blocks of the old central city which would be given over to campus-style office developments spread among greenery and cycleways.

The ugly car yards and warehouses of Tuam St would be booted out to give the central city a defined southern margin of upmarket commercial development - a tidy border that Treasury experts said would have the added bonus of propping up quake-hit central city property values.

The Epic project would now anchor two entire blocks of an official hi-tech innovation precinct down at the High St/CPIT end of town, while up at the hospital/ Avon River end, three blocks would be given over to a matching health technology precinct.

That left a further three city blocks in-between which were just "South Frame" - campus-style commercial space. Maybe lawyers or other high-paying tenants would take those.

On paper, it was a bold idea. But then the heavy micro-managing hand of bureaucracy descended. Government departments trying to engineer a commercial outcome.

Andersen struggles here to remain polite - it does not really pay to be critical of those who have such complete authority over the city at the moment.

But he admits: "We got preached to by MBIE that they wanted the innovation precinct initiative to be market-led. But then they've spent the next two years telling the market what it will be."

Here we are 17 months after the Blueprint and progress has slowed to a crawl.

"I'm frustrated by the Government process. It's in the way. They think they're putting in place all these wonderful structures and methods to build a long-term plan. But while we [are] waiting for it to happen, [all the prospective tenants] are having to sign up lease agreements outside the central city. Why didn't we just suck it and see? Why didn't we just let it evolve?"

Andersen reveals that earlier this year he and McLellan had got to the point where they were going to pull out of the precinct plan, take Sigma down to Sydenham where the land would have been cheap, the place probably half built by now. But MBIE and the CCDU managed to reel them back in.

Yet despite many promises, like that other black hole of the central city recovery, the four-block retail precinct around Ballantynes and the Re:Start Mall, development plans have stalled.

MBIE contracted Architectus, an urban planner, to draft a spatial plan of the innovation precinct. That was delivered months ago, however the plan still sits on someone's desk. And clearly development decisions cannot be made until the CCDU, with its powers of designation, says where the new laneways and pocket parks - all the pretty stuff meant to give the precinct a nice feel - are going to go.

Andersen says they have already had to cut the Sigma plan to half its original size because so many of the 100 firms on the waiting list have now found premises elsewhere.

Something has to start happening early in the new year or that is it for him.

"By March, we need to have a clear steer on whether we're going to secure some land or not. A hell of a lot of work's gone into it. This is our last hurrah."

So has the steam gone right out of the grand Blueprint vision? Rather than just bogging down, is it now turning belly-up? Or is Epic just one small part of something much larger, a long-term remaking of the central city that could take decades to fully eventuate?

And even without Sigma - as the piles of foam Nerf pellets gathering in the corners like Christmas confetti suggest - has Sanctuary already changed the central city in the way that matters most?

The authorities do not want to talk. The CCDU simply issued a bland assurance about the South Frame and its precincts. A spokesperson says negotiations are in train, plans are coming together, but commercial confidentiality means no-one can front to talk about the detail right now.

Likewise when Canterbury TV recently cornered Brownlee on the lack of action in the innovation precinct, he replied, go ask MBIE. Yes, "absolutely dreadful", he agreed.

It was almost with wry satisfaction that Brownlee could claim it was another minister's problem for once.

But speaking with property owners and developers in the South Frame soon reveals what a gap there is between the park-like precincts the Government is trying to create and the commercial realities of rebuilding properties at rentals real-life tenants can afford.

If the economics do not stack up, the market is just not going to deliver and the Blueprint will be dead in the water.

HEALTH PRECINCT LEAST PROBLEMATIC

The East Frame really separates into three different stories. And the health precinct looks to be the least problematic as it has the advantage of anchor tenants with deep pockets as well as a natural logic to where it is happening.

The Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) has already agreed to collaborate with Otago University's medical school and CPIT's nursing college to produce a coherent masterplan for the land around Christchurch Hospital. The work is under way led by consultants BVN Donovan Hill and Jasmax.

Otago had pre-quake plans to expand the research it does in Christchurch and had bought $5.5 million worth of land in Oxford Tce in anticipation.

Christchurch Hospital likewise has money to spread, while CPIT is keen to move its nursing school next door to the hospital.

There is then the obvious possibility to concentrate health technology businesses and medi-hotels on the same campus.

It was a big blow - further evidence of the CCDU's stumbling progress say critics - that one of the most likely of these tenants, Forte Health, went off and built a three-storey private hospital in Kilmore St.

But some other large companies, like software firm Orion Health, are being mentioned as possible precinct members.

Dave Tinkler, a founder of Christchurch health software start-up Emendo, bought up last year by US medical giant McKesson, says the health precinct has every chance of being a winner.

Christchurch is an ideal size of city in which to develop and test new health products. It has the pool of patients, a record of medical innovation. An innovation campus would earn money both ways with doctors having the opportunity to turn local research into export-earning start-ups, while established international firms would come here to conduct clinical trials on their own.

"I see the health precinct happening as a two phase thing, so first there will be the CDHB and the tertiary institutes. They will be the vanguard along with some of the more significant health IT companies. Then the second or third phase will draw in the smaller 30, 40, 50 people sized organisations," Tinkler says.

So the health precinct is likely to take care of itself given the chance.

The big question is whether the CCDU is going to have to use its muscle to force existing land and business owners to play along.

Bruce Miles, owner of a collection of car dealerships in Tuam St employing 165 staff, appears remarkably sanguine about having had the East Frame designation dropped across his land.

Miles says he accepts the Blueprint is for the good of Christchurch and if he is to be moved, then he can live with it - so long as the Government or a developer pays him a fair price and he can find an alternative site.

"From my point of view, I just want them to say, 'OK, you've got to go, let's get on with it'."

SOUTH FRAME DITHERING

But then there are the next three blocks making up the middle of the South Frame, running east from Montreal to Manchester streets.

These have a different justification in that the CCDU wants them turned into campus office space simply to give the city core a tasteful defining margin.

The Blueprint plan suggests Tuam and St Asaph streets will be boulevarded with trees. Another tree-lined ribbon of cycle paths and walkways will ramble down between the well-separated buildings.

The prospect of this produces a rather more explosive response from affected property owners such as Angus Cockram, partner with his brother in the Hyundai dealership in Tuam St.

"They wouldn't be able to tie their shoelaces together. Absolute clowns," he says of the CCDU.

Cockram says it is unfair the CCDU has created a plan but now appears to be dithering over when or even whether it will follow through with the implied land purchases.

"They change their minds all the time. You talk to five different people and you'll get five different answers. But while they've got a designation on you, they've got a wheel clamp on your property. You can't even change a toilet block or do anything to your showroom."

Cockram says he has been told the Government might buy only the land needed for laneways and cycle paths, including one cutting across the middle of his car yard.

"There's no way you could run a business like that," he says angrily. However he also gets the feeling the CCDU is backtracking as it realises an urban planner's glossy streetscapes sketches cannot be just magicked into existence.

When the Blueprint came out, the impression was there would be mass land purchases to make the East Frame happen.

It is now looking like for the middle of the frame in particular that the tactic may be to rely on a planning designation that effects a change through natural business turnover.

Over the next few decades, as property owners came to renew their buildings, they would have to fit in with the area's new purpose.

It is not as if A-grade commercial tenants are queuing up to pay for faster action. The East Frame runs alongside the new Justice Precinct, however, already several top law firms have voted with their feet, signing long leases on new buildings in easier-to-develop parts of the city like Victoria St and Cambridge Tce.

DRIVING A SQUARE PEG INTO A ROUND HOLE


Then there is the innovation precinct. This is a difficult proposition both because the two blocks of buildings, most of them badly damaged, are divided among a much greater number of land owners, and also because the area had an established identity that owners would naturally seek to rebuild.

Laurie Rose, chair of the High Street Precinct Group, says pre-quake, the corner of the city around McKenzie & Willis, with its cluster of heritage buildings ripe for renovation, had been developing a relaxed, mellow feel.

"Cafes, bars and casual retail. It was growing dramatically."

Rose says fashion business had become a feature and there was talk of a fashion incubator as a natural connection to CPIT. So, left alone, owners would have picked themselves back up, collected their insurance and got on with rebuilding more or less what had existed, what they knew how to do.

But now the CCDU has dropped its paralysing designation over the area. Owners are being expected to build back a hi-tech precinct, but if the tenants are to be mostly small start-ups, it seems unlikely they could afford the rents on new buildings.

Lisle Hood, developer of the Lichfield Lanes project, centred around Poplar St, says the CCDU is trying to drive a square peg into a round hole.

Hood says perhaps the CCDU will get half what it wishes for. It might find one or two large corporate tenants to kickstart a transition - Vodafone is one of those known to be looking. But equally, there is the chance that the whole precinct idea might be quietly allowed to evaporate.

Hood says the CCDU has already started lifting designations on individual properties like the C1 Cafe and Alice in Videoland. Bit by bit, the plan could fragment. The spatial plan, if it is ever released, will be the test.

However in the end, says Hood, by taking over control of central Christchurch, instead of making its recovery faster, the bureaucrats appear to have achieved the opposite.

"The way they've handled this has set it back far further than it needed to be, even though the city still will eventually recover."

SOMETHING DIFFERENT IS HAPPENING IN CENTRAL CHRISTCHURCH

There is a bright side. Look, what is the worst that can happen, asks Epic's Andersen?

The health precinct seems a goer. The middle of the East Frame might be a muddle, but that just means the car yards remain a long time. And the innovation precinct is quite likely to attract a company or two like Vodafone.

If Sigma goes ahead - and despite the concerns, Andersen says he has to believe it will - the precinct is going to live up to its name, even though it might be mixed in with shops, bars and other commercial uses.

But the point is that with Sanctuary, something different is already taking place in the centre of Christchurch. And the lesson is how little it actually has to do with the Blueprint and its carefully planned streetscapes or upmarket office developments.

Kaila Colbin, co-founder of the Ministry of Awesome which organises the weekly "Coffee and Jam" entrepreneur pitch sessions at Epic, agrees.

She says innovation hubs and co-working spaces have become a big thing around the world. It is obvious that start-up businesses need support, and that the best advice and stimulation comes from sharing knowledge with peers.

With 19 different firms mingling in the one building at the Sanctuary, there is always someone across the corridor who has first-hand experience of breaking into the US market or knows someone who can fabricate a circuit board.

An innovation hub also creates one place in a city where international visitors head says Colbin. If a big name from Google or IBM is in town, they are unlikely to stop off at individual companies, but they will come and hang out in a general space like the Sanctuary.

So it is about a concentration of talent. And Colbin says such hubs have transformed other small cities. Boulder in Colorado had no hi-tech scene to speak of before a few locals did the same thing 15 years ago and created its Techstars accelerator lab.

But state agencies have the tendency to want to engineer these creative environments she says. They automatically think in terms of impressive marble and glass architecture, plenty of advisory committees and formal grant processes. They build the structures first, then try to fill them with people.

And all round the world there are sterile failures as a result. Dare she mention Canterbury University's glittering national ICT Innovation Institute (NZi3)?

The Sanctuary was instead built on a shoestring. Outside it is cheap roofing metal, inside it is bare plywood and general DIY funkiness. But that completely reflects the youthful start-up feel of what it houses.

So what matters is that a community with a shared spirit has taken root in Tuam Street, Colbin says. If allowed to grow organically, it will naturally begin to colonise the spaces around it. And this is the right way round to do things.

"You can't just go linearly in Christchurch and say things like we need to build [big projects] so people have somewhere to invest their money. People invest money where there's energy.

"That's why when you look at the cycles of gentrification in places like New York, San Francisco or Denver, first the creatives come, then the artists, the gays, the entrepreneurs - it grows from there and finally the money comes. You can't start with the money because the money will follow the energy."

So what a recovering central city needs to foster is this kind of excitement says Colbin. First build the buzz, then precincts will take care of themselves.

However, it would still be great to see Sigma coming to fruition within the next couple of years, she says.

Sanctuary may be exceeding expectations, yet there would be no harm in seeing the same experiment repeated at four or five times the size.

- The Press

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