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A special place, under threat

civic-square-from-the-air

by Helene Ritchie
Wellington is New Zealand’s only major city with a Civic Centre…a city heart…a defined central public space.

In 1986 I was appointed to lead its development. I led the project as Chair, and it culminated with what we have today, which was adopted by the Council of the time. We gave Wellington a heart – defining it as a special civic and public space and differentiating its civic role from the city’s association with central government and its role as the nation’s Capital.

There were many iterations of the concept plan. I can recall at least three including one with a building on Ilott Green. Then came the somewhat miraculous amalgamation of the council’s surrounding landholdings, which enabled the council to close Mercer Street.

We appointed a diverse team of three architectural firms, Athfields, along with Tebbs and Moller. The City Architect Roger Shand was the officer in charge.

It was a privilege to hold the position of Chair of the civic centre project as it enabled me to not only bring the Council together around the concept but also to discuss details with staff and architects and to make suggestions, which were then taken up, to guide the plan.

I argued with officers against a notion that one in particular had, to demolish the then City Library building. The demolition did not go ahead and instead the building became the City Art Gallery. I thought it important to hold on to the heritage buildings already there – as I had done previousIy in 1982 as Labour Leader, when on my motion the Town Hall was saved from the demolition intent of mayor Michael Fowler, but only after a major public campaign.

I proposed to have water in the design of the civic centre to enhance it and to reflect our connection to the harbour. I suggested that the centre reflect a particular New Zealand/Wellington flavour – which became the symbolic Nikau Palms native to Wellington.

I fought unsuccessfully for a soft grassed centre. I failed there and it took 30 more years before that concept became today’s well used artificial grass with much better multiple and appropriate use – from soccer to just lounging or picnicking in the shelter and sun. I thought it important that the art of tangata whenua be celebrated there. That is reflected in the wonderful and unique wooden sculptures of Para Matchitt on the City to Sea Bridge.

Some proposals for the Town Hall were included but the major internal changes, and the Town Hall’s strengthening and renovation, came later as did Neil Dawson’s exquisite and oft photographed fern ball enhancing this unique Civic Centre.

The concept of the civic centre committee which I chaired stands today. It was still recognised as an integrated heritage centre, at my insistence, during my last term on the Council when that status was nearly removed. (That status may have subsequently been removed by now by the current Council?)

The Civic Centre is under considerable threat today, but still remains a physically integrated whole with its eclectic mix of architectural styles, its open, celebratory and clearly civic space, and with no building on Ilott Green but instead a green open space.

Sadly, regardless of earthquakes (and before more major recent ones) it has long been the intention of the council’s leadership (staff and political) to move staff away from the Civic Centre. That is now being achieved. Both civic buildings which staff occupied are historic, (one older than the other) and both are part of Wellington’s heritage as civic buildings.

Ironically the building which Council staff are now vacating has inscribed on the outside: “Municipal Corporation” which the Wellington City Council once was…an integrated whole, serving the Capital, in partnership with the people of Wellington to whom the Civic Centre belongs.

Let’s hope that future Councils see value not only in real estate dollars but also in Wellington’s heritage here, that they undertake long overdue repairing of the empty brick coloured civic building, and that they mend the broken heart, Te Ngakau pakaru, by returning the Council to the Civic Centre…

Helene Ritchie was Wellington’s longest-serving city councillor – first elected in 1977, she resigned in 1989, then in 1998 she was re-elected, till her resignation in 2016.

3 comments:

  1. Tony Jansen, 12. September 2018, 11:20

    Thanks Helene. I was working for parks and recreation at the time whilst completing my Masters at Vic and organised the ground breaking ceremony.
    I think it has been pretty obvious that the current Council has no intention of retaining the Civic Square concept and is falling over itself in its haste to flog the assets off to the University. Ironically, the University will not now buy the Municipal Office Building but wants to lease it instead, meaning that the earthquake strengthening will no doubt be at ratepayers’ cost. It is a tremendous shame that something so iconic and in my opinion beautiful and functional is hastily being abandoned as our city’s council and officials empire build.

     
  2. Michael Gibson, 12. September 2018, 16:37

    Helene, you are badly missed. Why not offer yourself as a credible alternative to Justin?

     
  3. Wendy Armitage, 16. September 2018, 13:33

    The Civic Centre is iconic and deserves to be retained. And, after years of major protests and promises to keep Jack Ilott Green (the largest green space in the CBD), is this now under threat as well? Wellington is increasingly becoming like a concrete jungle with more buildings jammed on the waterfront and elsewhere. Apart from the green belt in the hills around the city, which is wonderful to look at, Wellington City CBD has very little usable green space. And, as the multitude of future high-rise apartment buildings the council has warned us about are built and occupied, there will be an enormous shortage of parks to ensure the health and well-being of the thousands of residents and workers across the city.

    Wellington should look to the many of the major cities around the world that have beautiful recreational parks and green spaces and start working towards a greener, healthier and sustainable city before it is too late.