Editorial: A new dawn for central Christchurch
New dawns, fresh starts and tipping points have been announced so often in Christchurch that readers may be in a state of disbelief or extreme scepticism. City cheerleaders are at risk of being the boy who cried "recovery!" But there is no question that the official end of the Re:Start shopping mall on Sunday, April 30 is a milestone in recent Christchurch history.
The mall opened five-and-a-half years ago within a much more anxious and traumatised environment. The legend of Re:Start says that it was put together in just 61 days with generous support from Leighs Construction, the Buchan Group, the ASB and the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust. People who had their doubts about shipping containers doubling as shops quickly changed their minds and the mall became a hit with visitors. By its second year, in the summer of 2012, it was on the tourism map.
Along with the Transitional Cathedral and the work of groups such as Gap Filler and Greening the Rubble, Re:Start contributed to a sense of new possibilities in a city that had previously been marked by civic conservatism. Risks could be taken. Ideas could be tested. For a year or two, this exciting transitional spirit became something the world noticed about Christchurch, while Christchurch itself waited and waited for the rebuild to start.
The popular success of Re:Start, as The Press wrote in an editorial after its opening weekend in 2011, was not just about "the tangible pleasure" of visiting familiar shops again, but also, and more importantly, "the affirmation that the heart of Christchurch could rise again after so much devastation had been visited upon it". There was a very real fear that the drift of retail to the suburbs that had accelerated even before the earthquakes could become irreversible.
Re:Start was one of the important ways in which those fears of suburban drift were put at rest. But it is to be hoped that its success also showed retailers and developers that a central city retail environment had to be more than just a suburban mall without a roof. Re:Start offered different kinds of shopping as well as food and entertainment. It is important that some of its creativity is carried over into the new city.
Re:Start's original lease was for only six months. That it lasted five years longer is testament to the slow pace of the rebuild. But we can say that Christchurch has finally reached a point when the future starts to feel more tangible than the past. The ANZ Centre and the BNZ Centre offer a mix of office space and high-end retail, with the former threatening to become the fashion district of Christchurch. The Crossing, which is still under construction, has also secured key fashion tenants.
Some of Re:Start's former tenants are moving to a permanent home in the refurbished McKenzie and Willis building, which forms an important corner of the innovation precinct while also harking back to High St's pre-earthquake bohemian atmosphere. In time, some developments and precincts that feel slightly bland and even identical now will develop individual cultures and new neighbourhoods will start to emerge organically.