Is convention centre really needed?

22:59, Apr 08 2014
Rydges Latimer Square
RYDGES LATIMER SQUARE: A great venue for a conference already exists in Christchurch.

Do you like conferences? If they are done right, they can be stimulating, productive and rewarding. Otherwise they can be just talk. Mostly they are a lot of hard work.

Seismics and the City is a formidable task for organiser Lyall Lukey. The third annual conference, called Building Momentum, took place in Christchurch at the end of last month. Speakers included politicians, the heads of Cera (the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) and the Earthquake Commission (EQC), scientists, academics and business leaders.

I took part in a session entitled "A Polycentric City". More on that in a moment. What struck me was the venue: Rydges Hotel in Latimer Square.

It was a bit of a jam with 250 attendees, but everything ran smoothly. A new building, just along from Shigeru Ban's distinctive cardboard cathedral, Rydges proved perfect for a conference. It's a modern but fairly unobtrusive looking building that seems designed simply and efficiently to do its job.

Which begs the question: Does Christchurch really need a big new, publicly funded convention centre? Or are the city's existing hotels and venues, like the CBS Arena, already up to the task?

Perhaps it does. Perhaps there is a huge demand for conferences and conventions. Perhaps a new convention centre would bring in more people and money to the city, boosting growth and helping to stimulate the former CBD.


Or not. Many people feel the convention centre, like other anchor projects - especially the sports stadium - are being foisted upon them with no consultation.

After a massive earthquake toppled buildings, ripped up streets and destroyed whole neighbourhoods, these were not the main priorities people were demanding.

People did not ask: How can Christchurch survive without a convention centre? They wanted their houses fixed.

At a cost to the taxpayer of hundreds of millions of dollars, mega projects must stack up economically. They need a sound business case.

Phil Driver, who has just launched a new book in the UK called Validating Strategies, believes planners and councils often ask the wrong questions.

Ask people if they want more cycle lanes, or a sports stadium, or a swimming pool, for example, and most would say "yes". They should be asking: "Would you use this new facility? Would you be prepared to pay for it?"

These are the key categories: projects, results, uses and benefits.

"The strategy needs to be validated," says Driver. "That it makes sense, that it will actually happen, that it's worth it, that it's the best strategy."

That simple shift in approach represents a quantum leap in decision-making. Work out what are the top priority projects that stand the best chance of success.

Seen in this light, the Christchurch City Council would have to be crazy to sell off productive assets like the port and the airport, and invest the proceeds into new projects like a convention centre or a sports stadium, whose prospects for economic success are far from certain. Just look at Dunedin, where many locals now regret the cost of that city's new covered sports stadium.

It took a controversial casino deal to secure adequate funding for a new Auckland convention centre.

A proposal unveiled last year by lawyer Geoff Saunders for a new Christchurch sports stadium designed by architect Thom Craig looked attractive because of its clever, multi-purpose design.

Rather than being empty when a match was not being played, the tower blocks surrounding the sports ground would function as offices or hotels.

It's uncertain what decision will be made, or when. That goes for a lot of Christchurch's former CBD. A whole bunch of buildings, including the former Rydges hotel, the old Post Office (Starbucks) in Cathedral Square and the art deco former Design and Arts College building remain empty and abandoned because of "insurance stalemates".

This is no way to rebuild a city. Neither is the obsession with rebuilding the CBD at all costs.

The city council wants to rein in suburban office development to try to kickstart growth in the central city. The doughnut city is bad. Fix it, the critics insist.

Sorry, it's too late. As I pointed out to the Polycentric City session, the nature of Christchurch has changed irrevocably. It has not been one central compact city for some time.

Yes, the former CBD is still important, but its role has changed. It is a cultural centre, but no longer purely a business centre. It could also be residential. Exciting architecture and landscaping will help it revive.

Other centres should also be allowed to grow. Why effectively penalise one set of property owners and subsidise another lot? Will that really benefit the wider community?

The challenge is to make multiple hubs as attractive as possible - for residents and businesses. They should be more than big-box suburban malls.

The Press