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Farewell to Civic Square

civic-square-1950s [1]
Civic Square, 1970. WCC Photo from Old Wellington.

City council staff may never return to Civic Square after their move to the Terrace is completed in a month or two. Their absence will endanger the character of the area, because its two major office buildings will both be empty while three years of strengthening is carried out on the (also empty) Town Hall.

The council announced this week that staff will start moving out of the Municipal Office Building [2] at the end of next month. (They’re moving to an office block on the Terrace.)

And the reason they seem unlikely to return:

Victoria University is negotiating to lease the council building [3] for use as teaching rooms and admin space for the new music school which is to be centred on the rejuvenated Town Hall. The university says

Leasing the Municipal Office Building will allow the national music centre to encompass performance, teaching and administrative spaces. The University aims to provide downtown facilities that will build on the best aspects of the New Zealand School of Music – its high quality programmes and internationally recognised staff.

The leasing idea is a surprise, because at the start of this year. the university declined an option to buy the building, [4] citing concerns about its strength in earthquakes. If it gets the deal to become a tenant, it will no doubt want the council to strengthen the building before it can be occupied by teachers and students.

And what of the Civic Administration Building (the orange one) – will it also need to be strengthened? Or will it be demolished? It’s been closed and empty since the 2016 earthquake, and demolition would seem to be its likely fate. If so, there’d be an opportunity to open out Civic Square and reveal the forgotten frontage of the MOB.

The council is reported to have an eight year lease on its “temporary” offices on The Terrace. That’s five years beyond the date when the Town Hall work is supposed to be completed. A sign that as a long-term policy the council is considering leasing, instead of owning, as the way of the future.

What will this mean for the long-postponed plan to rejuvenate Civic Square?

Till now, it’s been a space that speaks to a Wellington sense of place, devoted to civic functions and activities – and symbolically important in a city where central government is dominant at the other end of town. If the Council never returns, these attributes will change.

Perhaps for the better? The music school will bring a lively crowd of students into the area, and it’s also committed to becoming a “vibrant hub” [5] offering a busy programme of performances.

But that’s not for three years, or longer if construction takes more than the promised three years. In the interim, with half of its buildings closed and empty (and with the Capital E structure yellow-stickered, and the Library also waiting for strengthening to be scheduled), Civic Square is in danger of becoming a wasteland in the centre of the city.