Wellington Scoop

Two town halls: Christchurch has completed the job, we haven’t started


by Lindsay Shelton
It’s more than five years since the Wellington City Council closed the Town Hall and decided to strengthen it – but after five years there’s been no announcement of any contract for the major strengthening work to begin, though $90m has been budgetted for the work.

Compare us with Christchurch. The Christchurch City Council decided three years ago to spend $127m repairing and restoring its Town Hall that was damaged in the 2011 earthquake. Work started promptly and the magnificently renewed building – strengthened to 100 per cent of the new building standard – is to reopen this month. The final cost is $152m.

Why hasn’t anything started in Wellington?

Our councillors first voted in 2013 to strengthen our Town Hall. The council said work was intended to begin at the end of the year. But work did not begin.

In March 2015, Mayor Wade-Brown said the Town Hall would “definitely” be strengthened, and she said the work would be completed by 2019. But work did not begin.

In May 2015, councillors voted for a second time to strengthen the Town Hall. But work did not begin.

In 2016, a year after Christchurch had started work on its Town Hall, mayor Wade-Brown said work would begin that year. But she was contradicted by the council’s longterm plan, which said the project was on hold “while issues were considered.”

Nicola Young said the failure to start the strengthening was “a disgrace.” She said getting the job started was “top of her list of priorities.” But – priorities or not – work did not begin, and a council insider said nothing would start till 2017. The insider was wrong.

In 2017 the council said it was seeking proposals for the work. In March of that year, Mayor Lester announced a “new plan” which would enable to Town Hall to reopen in 2021. But work did not start. In June councillors voted for a third time to strengthen the building. The NZSO and Victoria University supported the project, which now involved a national school of music. A survey of Wellington residents found 73 percent in favour of moving ahead with the plan, which was now costed at $89m. But work did not start.

At the end of 2017, the council said it would be appointing a contractor in the second half of 2018. This didn’t happen.

At the start of last year, Mayor Lester said work would be starting late in 2018. It turned out to be an unfulfilled promise. A ‘binding agreement’ with the NZSO and VUW was signed in October. But by the end of the year, work on strengthening the building had not begun, and no contractor had been announced.

In answer to our questions in December, the council told us that “the tender responses had a large number of questions that have required more work to address than allowed for. We are working constructively with a tenderer and now expect to appoint a contractor in the early part of 2019, and start work on site soon after.”

So here we are in 2019. Waiting for the start of a major city project which was approved in 2013. There’s been no announcement of a contractor.

They do things so much faster in Christchurch.

Yet, when it tries, our city council can sometimes move faster. Less than three years ago it decided to build a new convention centre (the initial discarded plan was to combine it with a movie museum) and since then a contract has been let (though there was no open tender) and work is about to start at a cost of $150m.

If only the council could have worked at the same pace to strengthen and restore our magnificent Town Hall.


  1. Alf the Aspirational Apterxy, 13. February 2019, 11:07

    We are going to have a magnificent perpetually loss-making Convention Centre that will probably fall over after the next big quake, just like the other earthquake engineered buildings. We shall call it the Justin Lester Centre to celebrate this achievement. After that I hope the Mayor can concentrate on getting us apteryxes into people’s backyards, like he promised.

  2. aom, 13. February 2019, 15:28

    Perhaps the Town Hall should be given to Maurice Clark and McKee Fehl to weave some more restorative magic. That makes more sense than the gifting of an uncontested lucrative contract to the Council’s favourite developer for the conference centre.

  3. michael, 13. February 2019, 15:50

    And while the project lingers on and on and on, the cost of strengthening the town hall rises every year.

  4. Geoffrey Horne, 13. February 2019, 17:44

    This is an appalling indictment of the Council’s inertia. I fear that with the loss of several venues the viability of events such as the NZ Festival will be compromised and the city could loose events that have made it a special place to live. We should not forget this shameful record at the local body elections.

  5. Traveller, 13. February 2019, 17:52

    The St James is also closed for strengthening … another major venue lost to the next Arts Festival.

  6. Meredith, 13. February 2019, 19:53

    What is the mayor up to? He holds the portfolio for “Major City Projects” … which are at least four major city-owned buildings including the Town Hall, which he has left empty and unmaintained and un utilised. That is shocking. Is his role simply to arrange to pull down the wonderful City to Sea Bridge and to promote and oversee a destruction of open space on the Waterfront?

    So what Mr mayor is happening with your most major city project – the Town Hall? Just open the doors and let the people in.

    And you also hold the Arts portfolio – are we in danger of losing the NZ Festival of the Arts as Geoffrey Horne suggests? Or just in danger of having to endure the dreadful TSB Arena venue and seats, for lack of anywhere else??

  7. Michael Gibson, 14. February 2019, 10:16

    I have just written to the Mayor as follows:

    Dear Justin – I am wondering what the latest news about the Town Hall is?

    I am simply following up your answer a few months ago to my question at an English Speaking Union lunch (very well attended with you as the draw-card!)

    I was concerned at the time with the totally unsuitable place where you choose to convene Council Meetings and asked when the wonderfully impressive old Chamber in the Town Hall would be again available for use.

    Your answer (for which I was grateful) was very short and assured: “June 2020”.

    Please can you confirm this so that I can add my comments on the excellent website: http://wellington.scoop.co.nz/?p=116191#comments

  8. Ben Schrader, 14. February 2019, 13:06

    The litany of excuses that Lester keeps mouthing for the incessant delays for starting work on restoring the Town Hall is wearing very thin. It’s beginning to look like a case of demolition by neglect. If the delays continue then we could reach the stage where the costs of restoration are so prohibitive that the Council will pull the plug on the whole exercise and bowl the building.

    But might this be Lester’s plan all along? With the Town Hall having bitten the dust, might the $90 million restoration fund then be directed to the Justin Lester Convention Centre? Just saying…

  9. City Lad, 14. February 2019, 16:53

    With all council services, including the mayor and councillors, now accommodated in rented premises on The Terrace, the likelihood of them ever returning to Civic Square is doubtful.

  10. Russell Tregonning, 14. February 2019, 21:40

    I add my name to those appalled by the unconscionable delay in restoring our fine town hall. I sing in the Orpheus choir. The town hall was my ( & many of my fellow choristers’) favourite venue. The acoustics there are unparalleled in Wellington for choral singing. We now perform in second-best venues.
    Please, mayor Lester and all councillors — delay any new city developments until you get the town hall up and running again.

  11. Concerned Wellingtonian, 15. February 2019, 7:30

    Regarding the request to “delay any new city developments”. The delay MUST include the wrecking of Frank Kitts Park.
    Put the money towards the Town Hall!

  12. Tony Jansen, 15. February 2019, 9:16

    When will people stop voting the same people into these positions and start to actually take a keener and more active interest in the administration of our city? Time is running out. [Abridged]

  13. michael, 15. February 2019, 12:50

    If, as the council says, the civic square and City to Sea bridge need strengthening along with the town hall – just get on with it. Why should consideration be given to tearing everything down and rebuilding. The Town Hall and Civic Square and bridge are iconic and should be protected. How else is Wellington ever going to have any sense of history?
    How come the council seem to be able to find millions for their vanity projects such as a new conference centre (minus the movie museum which was originally used as the justification to ensure project viability), destroying Frank Kitts Park by building a Chinese Garden, a proposed new covered arena at the port and the list goes on. Just sort out the current problems before creating more!

  14. Alana, 18. February 2019, 22:24

    Now a ‘blow out’ of the budget is expected. Had they got on with the job earlier how much less would it have cost?

  15. Polly, 22. February 2019, 15:11

    In a Dompost report on June 12th 2013, Chief Executive Kevin Lavery was quoted as asking councillors to seriously consider the future of the Town Hall. He briefed councillors on plans to strengthen the building at a cost of $43million and said the project was an awful lot of money for zero return. Fortunately the Mayor said the Town Hall wasn’t saved in the 1970s to swing a wrecking ball now. She said the Town Hall had cultural and heritage value for Wellingtonians, it was a Category 1 Heritage building and the council had to provide leadership. “How can the public expect private owners to upgrade their heritage buildings if we don’t”.
    Yet here we are six years down the track, with the Town Hall still closed (including the Ilott Concert Chamber) but a Convention Centre on the priority list (when the Town Hall/Michael Fowler Centre and nearby hotels have always been used for conferences.) With the International Arts Festival coming up once again, this wonderful venue will again be missed.
    Finally in the Draft Annual Plan 2011/12 it is stated: “We assess buildings for earthquake risk and work with owners to ensure that older buildings are strengthened to required standards. The Council’s own buildings are subject to the same legislative requirements and in the coming year we will be working to … prepare a detailed programme of work. We’ve also brought forward funding for planning earthquake strengthening of the Town Hall and Council Municipal Office Buildings.”
    So please get on with it.

  16. Concerned Wellingtonian, 22. February 2019, 17:48

    I think that this is an example of the influence of developers. It must be very difficult warding off their ministrations. In this case it has shamefully taken over six years.

  17. Manny, 23. February 2019, 6:59

    Since no building is safe in the event of a big earthquake, the question why does it have to be (repeatedly) “earthquake strengthened.” It feels like our Town Hall is being held as hostage to the developers’ agenda$ .