City watch: Part One

DAISY SEELY
Last updated 05:00 29/11/2013
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How often do you visit the CBD?

Most weeks, I love keeping up to date with the city's progress.

Never, I have no reason to.

Every day, I work there.

I like to visit every now and again to see what has changed.

I try my best to avoid it.

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City watch: Part two

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It's all action in Victoria St. Positioned outside the inner-city cordon erected after the earthquakes, the northern gateway to the city has had a headstart on the rest of the central city and it shows.

Office and retail space in new buildings is being snapped up, with restaurants and cafés at street level to service workers and attract new life. As the cranes are leaving and glass windows are being polished, businesses are getting closer to moving in - something Andy MacFarlane, owner of the new Norwest Building at 76-78 Victoria St, calls the "see it to believe it" factor. And the momentum is increasing, which is a good sign for building owners and developers.

Andy and partner Trish MacFarlane have certainly seen interest from potential tenants pick up as their building nears completion. Although it isn't fully leased, the building has Craigs Investment Partners confirmed as the lead tenant, joined by Rhodes and Co law firm, Vesuvio Café and Asian-fusion restaurant Spice Paragon, a business with an existing restaurant in Riccarton that is expanding to be part of the Victoria St "buzz".

Trish and Andy worked closely with MAP Architects to ensure not only was their high-profile triangular site maximised, but the surroundings were considered, too. The former Asko Design site has glass panels on one side to reflect the Victoria Clock Tower, with exposed Mt Somers limestone, recycled timber, and naturally rusted steel louvres on the northern side of the building to control the sun's heat.

"The principle behind the design is an arrow, pointing northwest, showing an interaction of the mountains and the city," Andy says.

Maintaining the head start

The redevelopment of Victoria St is happening more quickly than most other areas thanks to the consent process being "pretty good", MAP Architects director Kerry Mason says. MAP has been having pre-consent application meetings with the Christchurch City Council to avoid delays. Kerry says such meetings with the planners ensure by the time plans are lodged for consent, council officials already understand projects and timings. "It's a much more straightforward consent process on larger buildings than it is on a house," he says.

However, winning over public opinion has been more of a struggle. Although Victoria St's buildings are all different, there is a noticeable trend among the city's newcomers for lots of glass and often box-shaped designs. Despite vocal opposition from the public, it is something developers and site owners are opting for, Kerry says.

"Everyone writes to the newspaper and says 'why don't we have classical buildings with arches and everything else', but tenants don't want that; they want glass."

It's not just the design of buildings, but location that is attracting tenants. Law firm Buddle Findlay will be the main tenants of 83 Victoria St, a site that is home to the tallest building on the street, as its consent was granted before height restrictions were introduced after the earthquakes. The company, which was operating from 245 St Asaph St, will be leasing two floors, while competitors Greenwood Roche Chisnall will share a floor with the Carter Group, Ashton Wheelans and Mutual Credit Finance. On the ground floor, Mr Sushi will open another branch.

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Victoria St appeal

The involvement of developer Richard Diver, who has a hand in 11 buildings on the street - building nine and renovating two - was enough to get Buddle Findlay to commit to a lease. "We were confident that he would build a good building," Buddle Findlay partner Mark Odlin says.

Its central location, with plenty of local amenities, including Cranmer Square, Hagley Park and bars and restaurants, was also a drawcard. While Buddle Findlay still isn't sure exactly where the centre of the CBD will end up, everyone is confident Victoria St is a strategic place from which to do business, Mark says.

He also believes the cluster effect of several law firms and other professional services based in Victoria St will work well for clients and permanently influence the CBD's future composition.

"[It] will make it less likely for there to be a traditional CBD full of offices in the foreseeable future ... Once moved in, firms are likely to stay. I think it is likely that there will be a loose band of offices running up Lincoln Rd, through the Civic building and HSBC tower, up Cambridge Tce and then up Victoria St," Mark says.

Another of Richard Diver's projects, the Carlton Butchery building at 181 Victoria St, was the first building under way on the street after the September 2010 earthquake. It houses the Countrywide Property Group, which is involved in most of the street's developments, law firm Lane Neave, the Building Intelligence Group and European restaurant Saggio di Vino.

Further along Victoria St, the redeveloped No 145 site now includes commercial real estate company Knight Frank, retailers Belle Interiors and Nairns Jewellers and, tucked behind them, Tony Astle's popular Asian fusion restaurant King of Snake.

Meanwhile, the repaired building at 131 Victoria St reflects what's happening in the rest of the street, with its mix of professional tenants: law firm Saunders & Co, Hays Recruitment and MAP Architecture, which is working on most of the design for the street. At street level, Tony Astle's latest hospitality venture Mexicano's, considered to be his quirkiest establishment yet, completes the mix.

After strengthening work has been completed, 104 Victoria St is due to open early in 2014. So far, confirmed tenants are financial and investment services company Hamilton Hinden Greene, which will share the third storey with Clearwater Construction. The ground floor will house another, yet-to-be-named hospitality venue by Tony Astle, a boutique gym and a nutrition centre.

New campus-style building

Knox Plaza, next to Knox Church, is another prime site on the Bealey Ave end of the street. Owned by businessman John Ryder, and completely independent of Knox Church's rebuild, it will include a $16 million to $18 million, four-storey project designed by MAP Architects to a "pretty fantastic set of rules", Kerry Mason says.

Discussions between architects and John began with him talking about a campus-style building. "That was his way of describing a low-rise building with landscaping, courtyard and spaces for the public," Kerry says.

Kerry and John agreed the building would resemble a university campus, taking a lead from "newer-age" companies with campus-style buildings, such as Apple, and focus on shared amenities and space between buildings.

"Most building owners want to maximise the site - put so much on it. John has taken a different stance. He wants it to be a building that has space around it, and so it is unusual," Kerry says.

The property will incorporate a cloistered walkway and internal courtyard, with architectural features sympathetic to the neighbouring Presbyterian church's gothic design. The courtyard will feature a 12-metre-high sculpture by leading Christchurch sculptor Graham Bennett. Law firm Duncan Cotterill will take over most of the Knox Plaza building, leaving room for some hospitality businesses.

"We have always said that we are committed to moving back into town," says Terry McLaughlin, chief executive of Duncan Cotterill, which has been operating from Sir William Pickering Dr in Burnside.

"The opportunity to fully lease this office space means we can be back much sooner than we might otherwise have been.

"The Knox Plaza development will be part of a fresh business face in an entrance to the city. Victoria St is fast becoming the place to be ... This building will tick all of those boxes and, at the same time, be a fantastic piece of architecture. The fact it is engineered to 130 per cent of the new building standard provides our staff and clients with additional reassurance."

Construction of the plaza development, which will be set behind a "transparent" single-storey building housing retail and hospitality outlets, is scheduled to be completed by September. Excavation for the basement and piling is well under way.

Heritage buildings

Knox Church, the inspiration behind the Knox Plaza, has recently launched its rebuild plans. The $5.5 million project, funded by insurance, the Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Buildings Fund, a grant from the Knox Trust and public donations, is being developed by the Knox Church and Wilkie and Bruce Architects with the aim of saving as much of the original building as possible.

It was discovered during the building's assessment that the wooden columns supporting the roof structure were still intact, so plans were drawn to incorporate these into the design.

"The footprint is virtually the same," the parish's project manager, Ron Keating, says.

New foundations, post-tensioned concrete columns, lightweight concrete walls, and a copper-clad roof are among the new features, as well as larger windows, allowing a view from the street.

When the parish set out to fix the church, it identified that the building would need to be used far more than it previously was. The repaired Knox Church, with a capacity for 400 people, will be used as a venue for music, drama, public meetings and performances. The church has even engaged engineers to ensure the space is acoustically suitable.

"It's going to give Christchurch another meeting space ... It's going to be very important for worship and community use," Ron says.

The project is scheduled for completion by July and the church's fundraising team has launched an appeal to raise up to $2 million.

Preserving the city's heritage is also important to Jacqui Lee, owner of Ironside House, located where Montreal, Salisbury and Victoria streets meet. She couldn't help but think, "where there is a will, there is a way", after the heritage building sustained significant damage during the earthquakes. Originally the site of the Junction Hotel, opened in 1866, the property later housed a teachers' college, cookery school and, most recently, Ironside Café and Ironside Thai restaurant. Jacqui bought the building in 1999 because of her love of heritage sites and all things antique. Repairs, which began after the September 2010 earthquake and continued after the February 2011 quake, have been expensive at $2.3 million, but some funding was provided by the Heritage Fund and the Christchurch City Council's heritage incentive grant. Jacqui says the money was well spent, as it would have been a shame to lose a beautiful building that adds character to the city.

"As Christchurch becomes more box-shaped, we need more buildings like ours. It shows exactly what we can do with wooden architecture; it adds a lot more warmth," she says.

Jacqui knew Ironside House would need a strong venture to be financial viable. Prominent Christchurch chef Jonny Schwass now leases the building for his restaurant Harlequin Public House. For Jacqui, the restaurant is the perfect tenant, as Jonny shares an interest in Christchurch's heritage sites. She also appreciates the symmetry of Ironside House honouring its roots as a public house and a place for the community.

A new timber structure

Another timber structure that has grabbed attention on Victoria St is Sheppard & Rout's post-tensioned timber-frame building at No 134. The three-storey office block is now occupied by Young Hunter Lawyers and design company Hairy Lemon, with a designer furniture store, Matisse, at street level. The development's standout feature is its seismic technology using timber laminated veneer lumber (LVL) frames and concrete floor systems.

Sheppard & Rout architect Jasper van der Lingen says its design allows individual parts of the building to be isolated for repairs in the event of any future earthquakes.

"The whole point of installing the earthquake technology was to make it easily repairable. An adaptable building with resilience definitely suited potential tenants," he says.

Other new additions

Among other Victoria St newcomers, an Irish bar, The Bog, opening at 50 Victoria St, will add to the existing lineup of Revival Bar at No 94 and Latin-fusion bar and restaurant Tequila Mockingbird at No 98. The makeover of No 98 by Cymon Allfrey Architects was inspired by the aesthetics of the original building, including arches and an elegant façade.

While the debate about the shape and location of the future CBD rages on, one thing is for certain: Victoria St is in fast-forward mode. The street's development so far is proof that, with vision and commitment, the rebuild is more than just words.

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