'Great news day' for Wellington - council agrees to spend $179m to fix, upgrade library

Wellington City Council
Wellington City councillors unanimously voted to fix and upgrade the city's quake-prone Central Library, despite public support for a new building.

Sir Ian Athfield can rest in peace. The nikau palms are safe, and so is his building.

In what Mayor Andy Foster called a “great news day” for Wellington, its city council on Wednesday voted unanimously to fix the Central Library designed by the late, revered architect, at a cost of $179 million.

In doing so, they turned their backs on the public’s preferred option of a new build, estimated to cost $180m.

Foster told Wednesday’s meeting that this was a “big decision, and the community wants us to get on and make it”.

* Wellington's central library should be repaired not rebuilt, staff to tell councillors
* 'Bowl it and start again': Public tell Wellington City Council to demolish Central Library
* Wellington councillors at odds over central library plans

And make it they did, with that decision seemingly swayed by the ability of designers and engineers to cut the big initial cost estimate for fixing the building from $200m to $178.7, including base isolators to reduce the risk of future earthquakes, and upgrades to bring the library into the 21st Century.

Like a majority of submitters and those polled in an independent survey, some councillors had been spooked by that high, initial estimate.

The council had received 1456 written submissions on the five options on the table, which included varying degrees of strengthening (options A-C), while options D and E related to new builds.

The feedback showed 42 per cent of people were in favour of Option D – building a new library on the existing site – while 31 per cent preferred Option C, which councillors opted for.

An independent survey had delivered a similar but tighter margin of support for a new build.

Wellington Central Library has been closed since it was declared earthquake-prone in March last year.
Ross Giblin/Stuff
Wellington Central Library has been closed since it was declared earthquake-prone in March last year.

Foster told Wednesday’s meeting he had been “attracted to a quick repair job”. Jill Day had also “favoured the cheap, get-it-up option”.

But Foster, Day and others were impressed by the work of council officers to close the gap on costs and deliver a “have-it-all” option that preserved the heritage of the building, improved access to the Civic Square and “future-proofed” the library with a modern fit-out.

Foster called it “exciting”.

“We will deliver something that will be much better, more engaging, more accessible.”

Councillor Jenny Condie said the decision would deliver all the benefits of Option D - the new build - but also the benefits of keeping the old building at the same price – without “a battle over the heritage value” that would have stalled the project.

A $179 million upgrade is planned for Wellington’s earthquake-prone Central Library, with a targeted opening date of May 2025.
A $179 million upgrade is planned for Wellington’s earthquake-prone Central Library, with a targeted opening date of May 2025.

Iona Pannett said the planet would be a winner, too. Councillors had been concerned about the impact of demolition on carbon emissions.

“Keeping the building was the best environmental outcome,” she said.

Laurie Foon said it was “such a great story for Wellington, enabling us to keep our unique building on a unique site”.

The upgrade would convert the earthquake-prone library into a modern, 21st ​​​century library.
The upgrade would convert the earthquake-prone library into a modern, 21st ​​​century library.

Ratepayers may be able to save even more money, after councillors agreed to an amendment allowing officers to “optimise” the building’s footprint in the design, and possibly add floors and space that could be leased out.

“The whole project is a once-in a generation chance,” Fleur Fitzsimons said in supporting the amendment.

“We’ve already got the experts engaged so this is about looking at building outwards and upwards ... Taking the opportunity to consider the full potential of the site.”

The council will now begin more detailed design work, with a view to putting something more substantial before the public in March next year, as part of the Long Term Plan process.

The library was closed indefinitely on March 19, 2019, after the council received engineering advice about significant quake vulnerabilities.

This included “specific structural concerns” with the library’s floor seatings, similar to those found in the Statistics New Zealand building which partially collapsed in the 2016 Kaikōura earthquake.

At the time, then-mayor Justin Lester described the library as the “living room of the city” and said it was visited by about 3000 people, including 500 children, each day.

Former deputy mayor Helene Ritchie was “very pleased” the building would not be demolished, even if it will cost four times what it might have cost if it had simply been fixed.

She had advocated for the cheaper option of fixing the library and opening it sooner.

“It is virtually a new build,” she said. “It is a very seductive, new design” that will require very tight contract management by the council.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that the cost will go higher … and I will congratulate the council if it doesn’t.”

Convener of the Save Our Library Facebook page Redmer Yska said the council’s decision was a “great day for the city”.

“This is a building that the city loved and used,” the historian said. “That expression that it’s like the living room for the city is true.

“It was our second most used building after Te Papa, and it’s a shame it’s going to take so long to get it back.”

Wellington's central library closed on March 19, 2019 following advice received from engineers that the building may not be safe in the event of an earthquake.

He said the community had been “grieving” since it was closed in 2019.

But not everyone was happy with the vote.

The city’s chamber of commerce said it was a missed opportunity to redevelop the civic square.

“Wellington City Council ought to have considered all the opportunities and think big with the available space,” said chief executive John Milford.

Councillors had been “timid and picked the most expensive option to simply maintain the status quo”.

“If a business, in the current Covid-uncertain environment, had made this decision to rebuild even though it was the most expensive option, for the same outcome with the biggest price tag ... well, they simply wouldn’t.”

Milford felt the council should have worked closer with the city’s developers, and also considered a “sale and lease” option.