Is the abandoned east a future Crown goldmine?

JOHN MCCRONE
Last updated 12:52 27/07/2013
The bar-talied Godwits have returned to the Avon-Heathcote Estuary after an 11,000 kilometer flight from Alsaka.

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They can see it happening. In a few years' time, the Government turning around and saying this red-zone land is in fact OK for remediation and rebuilding.

Apartment complexes with smart riverside views will start appearing on sections whose previous owners have now been packed off to featureless subdivisions in Belfast and Lincoln.

It just seems obvious the Government will want to get its money back on its decision to red- zone some 8000 properties - 5000 of them congregated around the Avon River.

Official documents reveal the Government expects to spend $1.7 billion on buying people out and should recover some $565 million on the insurance policies it will inherit on the houses and property.

If those figures remain accurate, then the Crown is staring at a loss of more than $1.1b. But it will also be left holding an awful lot of land.

This is especially so if you take a step or two back from the Avon River, once the suburbs have been cleared of homes and left empty fields, an area-wide remediation project might seem an economic proposition where individual section-fixing wasn't.

Ground compactors could be wheeled across the land with no-one around to complain of the vibrations. Fill could be trucked in. The kind of deep riverbank piling and other perimeter treatments that were being talked about after the first September 2010 quake could be revived.

The feelings of those recently dispossessed might be too raw right now, but in five or 10 years, the Government could expect opinion to swing back towards the desirability of a repopulation of the east.

The Avon red-zone represents some 400 hectares, or about two-and- a-half Hagley Parks. Imagine what a high-end developer could do if allowed to carve up this as a blank slate. And what reason would there be to leave such a large wedge of Christchurch forever empty?

Well, don't try on such comments with red-zoners like Leanne Curtis of the Canterbury Communities' Earthquake Recovery Network (CanCern).

"I don't ever want to see it repopulated," says Curtis vehemently. "I'd be spewing if somebody else's kids were playing in there after my kids were tossed out. That feeling's not going to go away for a long time.

"Then you've got the people who still live around it. Half their community's been ripped out. I don't know how they would feel about sticking a whole bunch of new people in either.

"The red-zone is a heart thing, a belonging thing. The residents feel they own that space even though they've had to leave," Curtis says.

Evan Smith of the Avon-Otakaro Network says what outsiders - even those elsewhere in Christchurch - may find hard to understand is the way locals felt pressured, even bullied, into accepting the Government's payout package.

It was an offer rather than a compulsory acquisition, but it was made with threats about what would happen if not accepted, Smith says.

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Essential services would likely go, insurance cover was bound to be discontinued, compulsory purchases at "red-zone values" might soon follow.

"Looking back, there is a bitter taste for quite a few people over how it was done. And that would certainly come to the fore again if the land were remediated and redeveloped. If you had the scenario of Clearwater Resort-style elite terraced villas being built, that would really stick in the craw," Smith says.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee and the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) are not talking about what will happen.

Some say partly this is a negotiating tactic with insurers. There's no point revealing just how much value might remain in the land while you are still trying to extract the most from 8000 insurance claims.

But also, Curtis says, the authorities will want to keep the lid on public discussion until the last residents taking the Crown offer have left. This was supposed to have happened already but about 100 red- zoners have been granted exemptions to stay on in their homes until January 2014.

The Government also has the continuing problem of the Quake Outcasts, the 45 owners of bare sections or uninsured homes who are fighting in the courts for a full payout offer on their red-zoned properties.

"What Gerry and Cera have been saying all along is that their focus is on helping people settle their claims and leave the red zone," Curtis says.

So no point risking anyone having second thoughts by beginning a debate on the future of the land right now.

However, Curtis says the decision process might start with a bang soon after that. With his command-and- control style of operation, Brownlee has been setting a brisk pace with all his recovery planning.

Already this year there was the sudden surprise of the Land Use Recovery Plan (Lurp), a regional document rubber-stamping the establishment of new fringe Christchurch suburbs and other planning changes forced by the quakes.

This is being pushed through at speed, free of the usual Environment Court challenges, because of the extraordinary powers available to the minister.

Now also about to start is a fast- tracked review of the Christchurch City Plan, a more detailed reassessment of the zoning and building restrictions in the city.

The full scope of this review has yet to be announced, but Curtis says it is logical it would be where the council might sketch out the fate of the Avon red-zone and surrounding suburbs.

So there is the potential for major decisions to begin happening fairly swiftly. And just because the authorities are not talking about their thinking does not mean they do not have a game plan formulating.

Which, Curtis says, is why east Christchurch is getting ready with its own recovery plan, developing a consensus about what should happen to that Crown-owned land.

We may have yielded the central city, but now we are going to hang on to control over east Christchurch, vows Peter Beck. He's the former dean of Christ Church Cathedral, retiring Burwood-Pegasus councillor, and now founder of the informal but well-connected lobby group, Eastern Vision.

Beck says the Government's takeover of the central city with its imposed 100-day Blueprint masterplan might have been necessary for the quick rebuild of the business and civic heart of Christchurch, but the east needs to be the opposite - a grassroots exercise, harnessing local knowledge and taking a true long- term view.

"The Government's recovery planning has been focused on 10- to 15-year timeframes. Eastern Vision was created last year out of a sense of wanting to look at the future of the shorelands - the river, the wetlands, the whole of the Christchurch aquatic area - for the next 50 to 100 years," Beck says.

As a group, Eastern Vision has been a puzzle because of its surprising mix of names and its rather "behind the scenes" approach. Those involved include Christchurch "old money" businessman Humphry Rolleston, as well as Labour MP Lianne Dalziel and National MP Nicky Wagner.

Don Miskell of Boffa Miskell, the landscape architect who led the Government's central city Blueprint design team, was an early member, although his place has since been taken by another Boffa Miskell director, Nicola Rykers.

Beck says there is no mystery about how Eastern Vision arose. It started over a beer with Rolleston, who was an old mate as chairman of the Cathedral's Canons Almoners group. Beck had just been elected to the council in a post-quake by- election and wanted to surround himself with a sounding board of people with influence and good ideas.

Miskell came in for a while before he was recruited to the Blueprint effort. Since then, the group has been expanded to include local politicians quake activists like Avon-Otakaro's Smith, and academics like Landcare Research's Colin Meurk, an expert on wetland ecology.

Beck says Eastern Vision's approach has been deliberately low- key because its mission is to foster a public debate - guide rather than decide. "I call us a conversation rather than an organisation."

With the red-zone issue for instance, Beck says the answers cannot be prejudged. There are those like University of Canterbury geologist Mark Quigley, who lost his Avonside home, who have good ideas about how there could indeed be islands of residential development in the future.

"That's what we are into at the moment - concepts. There might be some repopulation, but we don't know what that could look like yet. That's why we need to have conversations with everyone we can."

National's Wagner says Eastern Vision has managed to cut across political boundaries because it is working from the community level up. "We're all on the same side."

And a healthy network of linked initiatives is emerging, she says. The east has its own collection of anchor projects now. Wagner says the big one which everyone has heard of is the Avon-Otakaro River Park, the idea of turning all the red-zone land into a city-to-sea recreation and conservation area.

At the bottom end, the sea would be allowed to reclaim Bexley as a wetlands. Further upstream, there could be dog parks and community gardens.

The suburb of Horseshoe Lake, which sank considerably in the quakes, could be dug out and flooded to form a 2.5km water course capable of hosting international rowing and kayaking, as well as being a safe haven for junior sailing and other watersports.

Then there are the revitalisation plans for New Brighton - a redevelopment of the commercial area, the possibility of a seafront waterpark.

Just as important, says Wagner, are the groups that have sprung up to drive the projects. New ones are popping up all the time. An example is a collection of small IT businesses in New Brighton branding themselves as "Silicon Beach" - a counterpart to the Government's central city innovation precinct with its own "play by day, work by night" identity to match a beachfront lifestyle.

Wagner says the red-zone is a chance to reinvent Christchurch around its main defining feature, the Avon and its estuary. She says the old Christchurch almost ignored its waterways.

"Even in Fendalton, if you go up the Wairarapa Stream in a canoe and look at the houses as they were built in the past, they mostly had their compost heaps and their rear windows facing onto the riverside. But over the past 20 years, they've been turning their houses around."

And now likewise, she says, the whole city can turn around to make the most of the Avon, something that could transform the character of Christchurch.

"Look at Wellington or Auckland and how they've embraced their waterfronts and the sea. It's what's really brought their people together."

So an understanding is building in terms of the potential of particular projects. And then to bolster the arguments, there is some quiet research going on.

Avon-Otakaro's Smith says with cash from the Rainbow Warrior Fund which supports conservation initiatives, Lincoln University has been commissioned to do a study on the financial benefits of using the red-zone land for a park rather than housing.

Smith says the river park campaigners want to see all the red-zone dedicated to community use. "We're not talking about just a riparian strip or a narrow corridor." Smith believes that because of the lateral spreading and liquefaction issues, none of the red-zone is ever going to be suitable for remediation anyway.

But just in case the Government is thinking of slapping down houses where it can, he says the Avon-Otakaro Network wants to be armed with a report demonstrating the economic value of the alternative.

"There are many benefits of a green space park that can be costed, like the savings on health budgets because of the extra recreational and exercise opportunities it will create.

"Then there are the tourism and other business opportunities. There could be millions of dollars in hotel bed-nights to offset the Government's investment in a park and wetlands."

Alongside this study, Eastern Vision through the involvement of Rolleston and Boffa Miskell has been working to assess the future flood risk of the east and its coastal suburbs.

Smith says flood management has become a new priority because with the widespread liquefaction in the east, the land has slumped by anything up to a metre in places. And then sea level rise due to global warming has to be factored on top of that.

Smith says the changed nature of the flood threat is something that urgently needs to be understood and communicated so people can make the best decisions on how to rebuild. For instance, it is another reason for allowing a large chunk of the red-zone to become an eco-park wetlands.

Instead of building apartment complexes up to the water's edge, Christchurch could future-proof itself against coming sea level rises by turning its rivers and estuary into a flood buffer zone.

Beck says the key bits of information are being assembled - the economic case, the flood risk realities, the anchor project possibilities. The next step will be to take it out to the community, and put on something like the council's Share an Idea exercise.

A natural opportunity will be the Spring River Festival in October, a repeat of last year's Labour Day weekend celebration organised by the Avon-Otakaro Network.

Beck says the fear is that after Christmas, the Government will announce it is ready to consider plans for the red-zone and things could move fast. So the east has to be prepared with its own clear, widely backed set of proposals.

"The hope is that good ideas like the river park will become so supported that they become almost unstoppable," Beck says.

- Fairfax Media

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