Is Cera past its use-by date?

BIG PLANS: Will the Christchurch Convention Centre ever happen or will it remain pure fantasy?

BIG PLANS: Will the Christchurch Convention Centre ever happen or will it remain pure fantasy?

OPINION: 

Dust swirls in the nor'wester. Weeds flourish. They are all that does.

Looking east from Lichfield Street, the Port Hills form a panoramic backdrop. The foreground remains bleak and rubble strewn.

This is the proposed site for Christchurch's new stadium, but the roar of the crowd and the clash of rival sports teams seem far off indeed. Will this site remain a wasteland for another 10, 20, or 30 years? Or will it just become another parking lot?

The same story repeats itself on other sites earmarked for much vaunted anchor projects. On the Colombo and Gloucester Street corner a splendid sign promises an exciting convention centre. I quite like the look of the glittering metallic building in the picture. It wouldn't look out of place in Berlin on the banks of the Spree, alongside some impressive modern architecture. Will it ever happen or will it remain pure fantasy?

According to a forecast from Cera (the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) in August 2013, we should have expected a lot more progress by now. Work was forecast to have started on the convention centre, the stadium, the metro sports facility, and the central library. It hasn't.

We don't even know what they will all look like. Progress on other anchor projects is mixed. The justice and emergency precinct and the bus exchange are underway. Retail developments have been announced. Plans have been unveiled for the Avon river precinct. Signs promise a vibrant innovation precinct and "inspiring" central city living but nothing has happened. Ditto a performing arts precinct.

Some business leaders and architects who were previously optimistic are disappointed and alarmed at the lack of progress. Many blame Cera. That may be partly true. You could also blame the previous council, too much bureaucracy, and a failure to co-operate.

Sure, delays were always to be expected and four years on from the earthquakes, nobody would be too surprised if plans now have to be modified. But concerns run deeper than that. The fundamental question is whether the structures now in place to plan for the future are the right ones or whether they need a major overhaul.

After the departure of charismatic boss Roger Sutton under a cloud, Cera seems to have lost its way.

According to its own glossy publicity material, Cera and the CCDU (Central Christchurch Development Unit) were supposed to listen and respond to the public.

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Instead, too many decisions have been made in secret. A proposal to waste $7 million of public money "fixing" Victoria Square, a part of the city that was not even damaged, shows how out of touch this body has become.

We needed the Government to take charge after the initial disaster; the scale of damage and the recovery was beyond the city council. The Government is spending tens of billions of dollars (our dollars) on the rebuild in a cost sharing agreement with the council. We still need oversight (and yes, that includes a strong Earthquake Recovery Minister) to ensure that money is spent wisely. However, now is the time to return the task of making detailed design decisions to the Christchurch City Council. Cera is past its use-by date.

Those involved in the Blueprint like architect David Sheppard still think it was a good plan, even if growth has shot ahead outside the centre. (The Blueprint won a prestigious World Architecture News award.)

Lack of money is the stumbling block. Something has to give. Partial council asset sales and rates rises will help fund the rebuild, but only so far. The council has made it clear it cannot afford to contribute fully to all the anchor projects, at least not straightaway.

In its Long Term Plan discussion document, the council says it will concentrate on the basics, practical things that will make a real difference to people like more affordable housing, public transport, and cycleways. That makes sense, even if details are sketchy.

So the question arises, yet again, whether we need all the anchor projects - or if there are other ways to fund them. I am not sure about the business case for a convention centre or how much it will benefit the public. We have heard very little. I feel it should be the role of private enterprise, including big overseas hotel chains, to help pay for it.

Lawyer and sports administrator Geoff Saunders and architect Thom Craig believe a new sports stadium would be an asset. The current location is congested. Their proposal to incorporate commercial buildings, hotels, other sports facilities, and a sports museum on the proposed new site would help make it commercially viable.

Encouraging private and overseas investment - private public partnerships - may be the best and only option to build these grand designs.

 - The Press

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