Devote IRD building to community groups

The IRD building in Madras street, with the 185 White Chairs installation in the foreground.
JOSEPH JOHNSON

The IRD building in Madras street, with the 185 White Chairs installation in the foreground.

OPINION: 

As the rebuild of central Christchurch picks up pace, and high-end commercial spaces return to the city, the tenants who used to occupy the cheaper spaces prevalent in the old city are struggling to find affordable property.

The small businesses, non-governmental organisations, arts groups, and community services that can't afford the rents of the new builds are forced into alternative arrangements.

Places like EPIC and Ministry of Awesome have turned this problem into an opportunity and created different kinds of shared and collaborative spaces for work, but these solutions do not address the needs of community services who need confidentiality or the variable, secure and sometimes messy work areas that artists require.

A study by commercial real estate company JLL late last year confirmed that there was a small surplus of vacant space at the top end of the market with shortages in the lower grade ranges.

Because of this shortage many cultural and community activities have dispersed around the city, creating inefficiencies, disconnection, isolation, and further exasperating the housing crisis by shifting into residential buildings.

This loss of lower-grade spaces was always going to be a problem in the rebuild, and although they will be re-established over time through the construction of lots of different kinds of buildings, this process is too slow to address immediate needs.

If we don't find an urgent solution then there is a real risk the city centre will lack the variety of people and occupations it needs to be a place of vibrant collective and community activity.

Luckily, there is a way to alleviate this problem.

The Government now owns the large IRD building that sits in the empty East Frame, where hundreds of apartments will be built over the next 10 years.

The building was built for $50 million in 2007 and reportedly will cost $20 million to repair for commercial use, a cost that I understand Cera is weighing against demolition.

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While this is a significant sum of money it is potentially a cost-neutral investment as the expense could be passed on when it is eventually sold.  

I understand there is also a fear that repairing and opening a building of this size will slow down the construction of new office buildings through releasing an unexpected surplus of rental space.

There is, however, a way that a win-win-win can be gained for the city.

Why not fix the building, and keep it for 10 or 15 years as a location for cheap and subsidised rent for the large number of tenants that the city can't presently support, but desperately needs.

The Government would be achieving the social outcomes its trumpets as part of the rebuild process and it could recoup its investment in 10 or so years when the market starts to need the office space and once the rest of the city has started to fill up with life and activity again.

The inclusion of this broad variety of tenants would also support the shops, cafes, and restaurants pioneering the new city.

Keeping this building would support all five of the urban themes established in the Share an Idea process: a green city, an accessible city, a stronger built identity, a compact central business district, "a place to live, work, play, learn and visit".

The ground floor could be opened up for public activities, a cafe, community spaces, exhibitions and other public events. The middle floors and upper floors of the building could be cheaply leased to a variety of organisations that produce public good for the city, but can't afford full rents.

Arts organisations, social service providers, community groups, education providers and youth services could share the building and create a hum of innovation and activity only minutes walk from the centre of the city.

What does this need to make it happen? Firstly some imagination and flexibility from the Government towards its vision for the city. It would mean accepting that some of the East Frame might remain as commercial space.

But this is not  a sacrifice; the best parts of cities mix their uses so they support and protect each other.

It would also require some meaningful public engagement with the user groups that would benefit from this kind of proposal.

Lastly, it would require a strategic use of government money. The temptation to demolish the building and write off the risk is obvious. But surely any diligent use of taxpayer money would see spending $20m to protect an asset worth $50m as a desirable equation?

This is one of those unique and exciting opportunities that could deliver wins in all directions for Christchurch.

There are exciting social, environmental, and economic opportunities in re-imagining the use of this building over the short to medium term. Let's start working together to make it happen.

Barnaby Bennett is a Christchurch designer, writer, PHD candidate and co-founder of the publishing co-operative Freerange Press.

 - The Press

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