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'Disneyfield' river precinct underwhelms

JOHN MCCRONE
Last updated 13:42 16/08/2014
Avon precinct - artist's impression

FUTURE VISION: There have been mutterings about the lack of consultation, and cost, of the new Avon River precinct, pictured here in an artist's impression.

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It must be galling to be giving away $100 million of public money and finding folk so apparently underwhelmed.

The Avon River Precinct, the re-vamp of the 3 km of the river running through the central city from the Botanic Gardens to the Avon Loop, is the Government's big gift to Christchurch's rebuild.

Cyclepaths, promenades, playgrounds, art trails, new parks and wildlife planting. A continuous strip of "green urbanism" that will at last make something striking of the city's best natural feature, bringing the Avon back to centre of place.

And yet the mutterings are about "Disneyfied" water features, a lack of consultation, the likelihood that despite the ridiculous amount of money being spent, it is a project quite liable to fall flat on its face.

Another Cathedral Square. A public space that the bureaucrats buggered up and which will see endless future tinkering trying to get it right.

If the river precinct does prove to be a missed opportunity, the Government will only have itself to blame says architectural designer Barnaby Bennett, co-editor of a collection of critical essays, Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch, being published this month.

Bennett says Christchurch residents do not feel connected to the proposals because they have not been included in the design process.

"It could've been a really powerful symbol of people getting back into the city and engaged with the idea of creating life there. So it's absolutely mind-blowing that you would do a $100m public space project like this without the public's involvement."

Bennett says the initial planning of the river precinct was handed to a British firm, BDP - inside sources told him the Government's Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) took the cheapest bid.

The result was the rather bland trial section, Watermark, near the Antigua Boatsheds, which was opened in August last year.

It is what you might expect from some anonymous overseas design team doing a quick corporate job, says Bennett. And the CCDU has been struggling to row back from that uninspiring start ever since.

Others agree the river precinct has the feeling of an over-blown project being rolled out by invisible forces.

Jessica Staples, a landscape architect at Goom Landscapes, who herself has worked on state-delivered public spaces like Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island cultural district, says what she has seen so far hardly ranks as world class.

Staples says maybe she will feel different once it is finished, but the problem is that apart from a few vague artist's impressions, the information about the precinct has been held so unnecessarily tight. Even the city's design community has not been getting a preview, let alone a say.

"So how do you expect to get buy-in if people don't know what they're buying into? There's such a lack of detail as to what's going on. Then there's the worry that once it's down on the ground, well that's going to be it."

COSTLY PRICE TAG

Let's talk about the price tag first. How can a river precinct even cost this much?

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CCDU director Warwick Isaacs and his chief planner Don Miskell are on the defensive. They do seem taken aback at the way such a gift horse could be looked in the mouth.

Isaacs says the public might find it hard to imagine where $100m is going because the construction has not really got ramped up yet.

The CCDU did unveil the Watermark stretch as something to see. But this was not much more than a taster to gauge people's reactions - part of the consultation that the CCDU has in fact been doing to fine-tune the river precinct's design, Isaacs is keen to point out.

There has also be the "in river" work going on most of this year, the CCDU's diggers working their way downstream to reshape sections of the Avon's flow.

Again says Isaacs, it is misinformation to suggest the public has not been consulted over the project.

The city council's Share an Idea weekend showed that ecological values were a top priority for people in the rebuild. And so that is where a lot of the CCDU's budget is going - investing heavily in creating a healthier river.

For biodiversity reasons as well as to add simple visual interest, the sluggish Avon is being narrowed at various points to produce stretches with a tinkling, ruffled surface, flow.

The diggers are building stone-edged platforms which will both pinch the channel and create areas for water-margin native planting. There are eel holes and rough gravel is being dumped on the river bed to make a more attractive habitat for small water insects and blue gill bullies.

Pre-quake, the Avon was more in decline than many might realise. Trout numbers had dropped 80 per cent over the past 20 years. A clean-up could bring fish numbers - whitebait too - back to what they used to be.

However the real work, and so the real expense, is only just about to begin Isaacs says.

As the public will soon see, the river precinct's budget includes 30m of landscaping to either side of the river. This takes in the roads adjacent, like Oxford Tce, that are going to be more or less pedestrianised.

"It's not just the river and its grass banks. A lot of the costs are in the surfaces and the roads." Add in new bridge walkways, broad stepped plazas and special features like the Margaret Mahy family playground, and the dollars soon mount, Isaacs says.

The $20m playground - which has the goal of being "the world's best" - is an example of where the money actually goes.

"The playground itself is probably $5m including the play equipment and land contouring. But the balance is for taking out the existing infrastructure. There's some contaminated ground in there with old oil tanks and the like.

"There's also the resurfacing of Armagh St. So there's a lot of remediation to pay for as well."

Isaacs says with construction to be in full swing by the end of this year, and hopefully completed by the end of 2015, the city is going to see the value of what it is getting pretty soon.

Miskell admits there has been some chopping and changing of the details. That may be another reason why the public feels unsure about exactly what is proposed.

For instance, in the early artist's impressions and online videos released by the CCDU, the goal was an unbroken river promenade.

Animations showed slatted boardwalks dipping down to the water so walkers and cyclists could take an uninterrupted path through the city.

"Yes, there were some preliminary sketches. But when we checked the feasibility, unfortunately the bridges weren't high enough to give the headroom. You'd have to be walking in the water to get under them, which was a pity," says Miskell.

Some design ideas proved impractical. Others have since gone to contain costs.

Miskell says his budget is big but not open-ended. So elements like a pedestrian bridge which was going to connect the left bank promenade to the Margaret Mahy playground, crossing the river by the avenue of poplars, have now been dropped.

But Miskell says happily another footbridge - connecting Victoria Square to the old band rotunda - is still in. He starts to beam at this chance to talk about one of the precinct's "wow" features.

Miskell says the idea came to shift Victoria Square's Captain Cook statue so that Cook could stare down Oxford Tce, and this new directly east-facing bridge, to look straight out to sea. A much more meaningful way to point the guy, remarks Miskell.

And the CCDU wants this bridge to be not just functional but a piece of sculpture, a work of art.

The CCDU is putting forward $1.5m for the construction - enough to pay for a standard class of bridge. However Miskell confides that well-known philanthropists have been sounded out.

Someone is quite likely to stump up the few million more to commission a world-class designer and so present the city with a new iconic landmark.

"We would have a bridge that people not only used to cross the river but would come down to look at as part of a larger art trail experience."

DEFINING ANCHOR PROJECT

Miskell is getting into his swing. This is why for Christchurch, the Avon River Precinct is probably the central city's defining anchor project - money well spent. Done right, it will cement a new identity for the shattered city.

Pre-quake, the Avon had almost disappeared from sight, built out by the noisy roads and uncaring office blocks.

The focus of Christchurch's civic identity was its neo-Gothic settler story, Worcester Bvd as the heritage spine with the museum and old university buildings at one end, Christ Church Cathedral and Cathedral Square at the other.

Post-quake, the river precinct is where a 21st century image of Christchurch can emerge.

Miskell says the CCDU listened closely to Share an Idea. The call was for a central city that was green, compact, accessible and also culturally distinctive.

The public did not want a mini- Melbourne or other copycat. It wanted Christchurch to grow even more into "itself", whatever that was.

Miskell says the Avon is already a great start in that regard with its meanderings, punts and willows. Other cities have their windy harbour fronts or great muddy rivers like the Thames and Yarra.

And Miskell says the river precinct is an investment to create a city with now a compelling story. Rather than a bland corporate walkway as some are claiming, the 3km landscaped ribbon has in fact been carefully broken into seven sections, like chapters.

First there is the Watermark stretch from the Antigua Boatsheds to the Bridge of Remembrance. Miskell says it is too early to judge that until after the tearing Oxford Tce traffic has been diverted away down Tuam St and the river banks are given over to the strolling weekend crowds.

It is all going to be opened up. And down at the Rhododendron Island end is going to be the $11m official earthquake memorial site.

What that will look like is still the subject of an international design competition. But you know it is going to be something special and moving - articulating what the earthquakes mean in term's of the city's identity.

The earthquake memorial then leads into the war memorial of the Bridge of Remembrance and Remembrance Gardens. On the opposite bank will be Antony Gough's flash bar and restaurant precinct, The Terrace.

So here will be a change of gear. Miskell says the idea is to create a public amphitheatre in this section, landscape the two sides of the river so that they now "talk to each other" as a mass gathering place. There will be stages and big screens for the summer evenings. The Terraces will be an open-air hub for the city, the meeting point where tourists will head and people congregate instead of somewhere like Cathedral Sq.

The next section of the river bank is Victoria Sq, which again will be unrecognisably improved.

The ziggurat Crowne Plaza Hotel that hulked in one corner has gone. Instead there will be a road on the diagonal, allowing the square to become a ceremonial entrance to the city centre. It is being redesigned as the place of civic welcome. Next along is the North Frame - a more parklike and contemplative space says Miskell. The CCDU has taken over the collapsed PGC building site to be grassed.

So a connecting series of distinct feels. Across Manchester St bridge come the stately poplars and the bustle of the Margaret Mahy playground. Finally the precinct tapers into the long last stretch of the Avon Loop where the joggers and bikers will head.

LIFESTYLE AND MEMORY

Miskell says it will be a mix of lifestyle and memory. And aspects are going to be controversial. The central city's new emphasis on native and Maori for example.

You can guess at the hackles rising among those who might have seen the CCDU's video clips of its consultant ecologists talking about a restored waterway and parents taking "children down to feed the eels".

Mallard ducks are alright is the official line, however all the bread and poo does pollute the river. More careful riparian planting may tip the balance towards indigenous scaup with any luck.

Miskell rolls his eyes a little nervously. But he says Ngai Tahu has been deeply involved in the precinct's design - it had a team of six "in the loop" - and the public has voiced its desire for a return of real wildlife.

Miskell says the various strands of native, Maori and Pakeha settler heritage will be visibly woven into river precinct. There will be a criss-crossing of English gardens on one bank, denser pockets of bush on the other, so these identities become symbolically intertwined.

You will see how well it works, how it knits together a story of who we now are, Miskell urges.

It is probably a fair criticism the CCDU did not get the public emotionally involved in the river precinct's design, which is why a $100m project is arriving to a somewhat ho hum feeling. Yet the CCDU believes it has consulted enough and the money will tell in the quality of what gets produced.

Think of the success of the Re:Start container mall and expand that on a serious scale, say Miskell and Isaacs.

Come on. You know the river precinct is going to be all that future visitors can talk about, the impression of what it is like to be a lucky Christchurch resident, once the quake-shattered city is up and running again.

- The Press

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