Wellington Scoop

The Library – it’s a priority


by Lindsay Shelton
It’s almost a month since Wellington’s Central Library was closed, because of concerns that the 27-year-old building might be insecure in a major earthquake. We now wait to hear that strengthening and reopening the Library will be taking priority over other, less important city projects. (Yes, I’m thinking of the Convention Centre.)

On the day the Library was closed, Mayor Lester acknowledged that

“it is one of the city’s busiest buildings with 3,000 visitors a day, including 500 children.”

And he also said:

“We will do our very best to …make the investments we need to make the Central Library building safe for Wellingtonians.”

In a tweet the same day, he said

The Library is our immediate priority.

So we are due for a progress report on what these three statements will mean.

There can be no disagreement that fixing the library is a top priority. The mayor confirms that it is used by more than 20,000 people every week. Which makes it a much greater priority than $150m convention centre, which will be empty for much of the time, and on the occasions when it has attracted a conference, the maximum number of users will be 1500. Few of them will be locals. And they’ll all have had to pay to enter. Whereas the Library is free for all.

The council had no trouble agreeing on the importance of the Town Hall, with councillors voting unanimously four times to strengthen it. But they took seven years to get the project started. (Has the final agreement with the contractor been signed yet?)

A seven-year closure would be unacceptable for the Central Library. Or for the abandoned Civic Square, where the City Gallery will soon be the only building that is still open.

The council also has to prioritise its stance about the large number of other ‘earthquake-prone’ buildings in the city. As the last council meeting was told:

There are around 600 earthquake-prone buildings (EPBs) in Wellington. Around 120 of these are heritage buildings. Owners of these buildings are required to undertake work to bring them up to a satisfactory level of structural integrity. This year, we will continue to work with building owners and will develop an enhanced advisory service to support this programme of work as promoted by Inner City Wellington and others. There will be a particular emphasis on buildings that have been identified as Priority Buildings, where timelines for strengthening will be reduced to 7.5 years. We are in liaison with Central Government around the EPB framework and will ensure that Council and Government effort is integrated and complementary.

While many of these negotiations are no doubt being carried out behind closed doors, there should be no secrecy about developing plans for the future of the Central Library. Let’s expect a progress report on the decision making which will – which must – lead to its strengthening and reopening. And with a timeline that is much shorter than seven years.

WCC sets its priority: Gives greenlight to Convention Centre construction.

TVNZ QandA: Hollow core floors earthquake warning


  1. Helene Ritchie, 9. April 2019, 13:40

    So many people are so sad that the library has closed. They tell me….all the time.
    It could be readily fixed without significant financial pain if the funding for the Convention Centre were transferred to this top priority project…. And with the money left over, the “pink” CAB next to it could be fixed as well. It should have been fixed long ago.

  2. Julian Ward, 9. April 2019, 15:13

    Not a single building has ever come down or a single person killed in an actual earthquake in Wellington. For over 150 years this place has been completely safe. Yet, our Council have us in a state of fear and business confidence is down because of the ‘what if’ paranoia. Should we abandon the city and live in caravans, just in case? In the meantime, Council compliance keeps changing and the goal post keeps widening and our city is becoming a ghost town of empty buildings. [Floors in Statistics House collapsed during the Kaikoura quake. .]

  3. M Batson, 9. April 2019, 15:29

    The library is the jewel in the crown of civic buildings in Wellington, a marvellous asset. Unfortunately, the council has a poor track record in turning such things around, such as the St. James Theatre and the old town hall where strengthening and renovations were stalled for years. Many other projects WCC run or coordinate, like the Victoria Street project costing $11M and finishing in 2015, were also poorly managed. WCC closed the library more than two years after the earthquake happened, so why the delay, and where is the plan to get this ‘priority’ back up and running? Seemingly, nowhere to be seen.

  4. Whena Owen, 9. April 2019, 15:40

    At least 120 buildings in Wellington have the same flooring system, Hollow core pre cast, that closed the capital’s central library. [via twitter]

  5. Alana, 9. April 2019, 17:38

    The Central Library is an essential part of city services. And a massive loss for the many kids and teens who don’t have a quiet place to study as well as adults who need reading and social places. I urge the WCC to put this at the top priority.

  6. NBS 100%, 9. April 2019, 17:46

    The Council think we need to spend gazillions of dollars on the Town Hall because it is on reclaimed land and below high tide. How come it stood for 111 years before the Council closed it? (And is still standing!) So is the Council about to require 120 hollow-core precast floored buildings (I had heard “only” 50) to close, as well as buildings on reclaimed land?

  7. Ben Schrader, 9. April 2019, 17:56

    Julian’s claim that not a single building has come down in a Wellington earthquake is wrong. In the 1848 earthquake, many brick buildings came down, killing two children, and leading to the decision to largely rebuild the town in wood. In the 1855 earthquake, one of the few new brick buildings, Baron Alzdorf’s Hotel, collapsed and killed its owner. No more brick or masonry buildings were erected in Wellington until the 1880s.
    The pre-cast floors of the Library make it a hazard for the thousands of Wellingtonians that use it and the decision to close it was the right one. But like everyone else, I would like the WCC to make it a priority to fix it before any convention centre.

  8. Northland, 9. April 2019, 18:56

    I agree with Julian. It feels like the Council is locked in ‘analysis paralysis,’ unable to take on any risk in case there’s a chance that fatalities might happen when a large earthquake hits. The sad fact is that there is no way anyone can guarantee every building in the public space is absolutely safe. A trade off between risk and public amenity must be made. The right balance must be struck. And open transparent and responsive decision making is key to gaining the public confidence that the right decisions are being made.
    Justin, tell us your plan. What is the current risk, what will be the future acceptable risk and how much will it cost to get there?

  9. tom, 9. April 2019, 19:26

    While Civic Square might be described as a success from an urban perspective, from any other perspective the place is an unmitigated disaster – almost every aspect of the Square has problems: the Library (which I read in the engineers’ report could be rated less than 15% of NBS – in other words it is a deathtrap, Julian), the Town Hall, the MOB, the CAB (which I read in another Council document can only be strengthened to 67% of NBS and, therefore, one can only suppose that its fate is demolition), the City to Sea Bridge, Capital E, the seawall holding back the lagoon, the underground carpark, and elements of the Michael Fowler Centre. Indeed, the only aspect of the Square that has escaped any real problems is the City Gallery (which I think must be made to accommodate the library while it’s building is out of action, at least in part).

    Faced with this vast planning and engineering disaster, I want to know what the Council is doing to reflect on the mistakes of the past? It’s not acceptable that this extensive range of issues should have arisen with something that is not yet three decades old. The officers, planners, councillors, architects and engineers of the day need to be looked into to see how this type of incompetence can be avoided in the future.

  10. Tom, 9. April 2019, 19:37

    Northland, you should read the engineers’ report concerning the library closure before you start talking about weighing up the risks – in the best case scenario, the building is rated at 25% NBS and in the worst case it is 15%; on top of this there are issues around the irregular floor plates making the risk of “pancaking” much higher than if it were a regular office building and given that these floors hold many tons of books, I’d sooner not take the risk.

  11. B. Dover, 9. April 2019, 19:45

    @Julian Ward – you’re missing some key facts. Such as that in those 150 or so years there has been significant damage to buildings from quakes that have occurred quite a distance from the city (hundred of km distant). And that when the Wellington fault in particular does finally let go, or one of the other nearby faults capable of generating very large quakes (such as Ohariu and Shepherd’s Gully, plus the Hikurangi subduction zone and other unknown undersea faults), the shaking will be severe. Many buildings will be coming down and be damaged beyond repair.

    So taking steps to protect the city and lives is essential – given the high numbers of general public using the library building I’m happy that it will (hopefully) be made safe in fairly quick time.

  12. Edvard, 9. April 2019, 21:46

    Given the slow pace WCC moves, it would be faster to convert the planned convention centre to a new library. Then redevelop Civic Square with a smaller convention centre and Chinese garden.

  13. Elinor Dashwood, 10. April 2019, 9:13

    A price of some sort must be paid here. That price must take the form of one of the following:

    the money required to fix the building;
    an ongoing risk to the life and limb of those who choose to use the building;
    moving the library to another location in central Wellington; or
    not having a library in central Wellington at all.

    Those who think that it is clear which of these is to be preferred, need to demonstrate that they have also thoroughly considered the costs and benefits of the others before reaching their conclusion.

  14. Tony Jansen, 10. April 2019, 12:00

    I was one of the WCC Parks and Recreation staff that was involved in the ground breaking ceremony for the Civic Square. I am devastated that this and previous Council administrations has run this concept into the ground and killed off the heart of the city. No wonder nobody votes in local elections anymore when you see how our elected representatives behave and how little they listen to the people. Nobody but a small minority of business people want the Convention Centre. Certainly not in its current form. No business case, no external funding, no users and 100% financial liability for the people of Wellington. I couldn’t think of a worse scenario than this. A white elephant is being kind. That all our Councillors voted for this idiocy is very disturbing. Yet I hear so little from them now, in support of repairing the library. Funny that.
    The Mayor and his Council need to make a strong public statement financially prioritising the reopening of the library whilst putting on hold the Convention Centre.
    It is a no brainer.

  15. Hamish, 10. April 2019, 13:53

    I think you’re all missing the point. We want to get some books out. It will be great to get the building back, but the function of it is what is important and that needs addressing now!

  16. Helene Ritchie, 10. April 2019, 16:56

    Dear Hamish
    Nobody here is missing the point. A library has a far greater function than a convention centre, in any civilised city. It will be used more by local people. It is a community hub. (In fact, the new Johnsonville Library for which I fought so hard over many years when a councillor, will actually be called “Johnsonville community hub, Waitohi.”)
    The Wellington Central Library was not only a place to “get some books” – it served a range of functions as a place of learning, of research, of lending books, dvd , cd, magazines; a place to tell stories to children who feel at home there, a place to be warm, to do homework, to photocopy, to engage in the latest technology, to seek help from skilful and helpful librarians, to have coffee, to see displays, to attend meetings and lectures, and the essential Citizens Advice Bureau.
    The building is an important public space for the city in a protected (?) heritage Civic Centre made up of unique architecture. It is the heart of our city and as such makes a statement that a library, reading, learning is at the core of what we cherish as a civilised society.
    And finally our Central Library served everyone, especially the large fastest-growing “suburb”- the inner city CBD. They and we deserve far more than a small “pop-up” in Manners Street, just to “get books”. The Central Library should be fixed – prioritised over the vanity convention centre for the few, and opened again to the public without delay.

  17. Clem Fandango, 10. April 2019, 17:28

    The City Council’s executive leadership team members are ambivalent about libraries, and have been for years. They’ve run down the service for 20 years by under-funding operational budgets as well as capital renewals and replacements. It’s telling that they’ve continued with the convention centre project, rather than defer and reallocate funds for a fast-tracked Central Library repair or replacement.

    What about at the governance level? The mayor and councillors seem to want social equity, but they forget (or choose to ignore) what properly-funded public libraries can achieve. Wellington’s network of library facilities, and the thinly-stretched library professionals operating them, are an *existing resource* that could be geared up to grow community literacy, facilitate access to technology, promote learning and foster social connection. The politicians and executives don’t understand or care about this. I predict the Central Library will be in temporary premises for a decade.

  18. J-Po, 10. April 2019, 18:05

    NZ is a great place to get away from it all. Why, our capital city doesn’t even have a library or a town hall! [via twitter]

  19. michael, 11. April 2019, 13:32

    Helene, I totally agree with you. The Library was used by more than 20,000 people every week, the majority of whom were Wellingtonians. It is a no-brainer that this facility should be the number one priority simply because of the high useage – as apposed to what I consider a “figure licking exercise” to justify the convention centre.

    No doubt we are going to go through months/years? of deliberation about how to fix the library and by the time a decision is made the entire Civic Square will be a forgotten wasteland in the middle of our city. If the council can’t figure out how to fix the library – pull it down and build a new one now! That will be a lot cheaper in the long run if the Town Hall is anything to go by.

  20. greenwelly, 11. April 2019, 14:25

    Now while it’s not ideal, (from an overall arts perspective) has anyone proposed that as an interim solution the Council look at moving as much of the Library collection as possible “back” into the City Gallery building… (which apparently rates at 67% NBS).
    The two exhibitions currently there will finish in July, allowing more than enough planning time to plan out space in the building ahead of any move.

  21. tom, 11. April 2019, 15:48

    Yes, Green Welly, I think that’s the only plausible option for a temporary library – it should be moved back into its old building. The Gallery might be able to retain one or two rooms and obviously it would have to make drastic changes to its planned calendar, but it’s the best option for the city (and let’s face it the offerings at the Gallery bore most people, including art lovers, to sleep).

    I was in Napier last year and noticed that something very similar had been done by moving their library operations temporarily into the museum/art gallery there.

  22. michael, 12. April 2019, 9:36

    Unless they decide it must be pulled down, we should have our library back in about 7 years? The WCC have advised owners of Wellington buildings on key arterial routes they must strengthen their properties in 7.5 years to minimise disruption in a large quake, so I assume this directive also applies to the Library?

  23. April Chase, 12. April 2019, 9:39

    Moving the library back into the old building is a brilliant idea – I remember that building fondly from my childhood – a warm busy hub of hushed wonder and the scent of thousands of stories…
    The Wellington Library is far more than a library. It is where many of us go when there is nowhere else to go, to feel a brief respite of warmth and the friendly companionship of books, before trudging home to our own, dark and lonely domiciles. We need our library back, and soon.

  24. greywarshark, 12. April 2019, 11:38

    All people reading Scoop and knowing people who are concerned about keeping the treasure that the Library is, and Scoop itself, please ask every day what is happening. Press for priority.
    The spread of technology and the casual neglect of society’s physical artifacts showing our advances over the centuries in imagination both socially and scientifically, should be pushed against. You know the saying from Nazi times about noting but allowing unsatisfactory things, first this, then that, and finally all are in danger of being discarded.
    Te Papa scientists have been let go, our national archives have been downgraded for care and protection. We have lost control of our country and it is in the hands of mindless ants scurrying round meeting efficiency targets. It is a quiet battle and must be fought, no mistake, or in short years to come there will be a nasty furore about whose fault the ‘disappearances’ were; overseas that word has been used about humans, but our memories, hopes, dreams, discoveries are important too. Hold libraries close, or lose our pasts, glorious or inglorious. They are us and if we don’t know them we will lose ourselves.

  25. Alana, 12. April 2019, 17:15

    I like the idea to vacate the City Gallery and install a temporary library there. And rebuilding or replacing the Central Library building should really be made the top priority.

  26. Pauline, 13. April 2019, 8:44

    Great idea all of you who suggest using the old library; and forget about runways and the convention centre … the Library and the Town Hall should be the council’s top priorities.

  27. Andy Foster, 22. April 2019, 13:14

    There are several issues that have been raised.

    Firstly – the Library. It has similar precast concrete floor construction to the former Stats building. It isn’t damaged, nor is it earthquake prone, but in an earthquake the floors could come off their seating and collapse, as happened with the Stats building. Given 3000 people a day were using the library, once that advice was confirmed there was no choice but to close. Having a central city library is an absolute priority for all of us. There is immediate work to find ‘pop up’ locations in the CBD and extend suburban library hours. We will get further engineering advice next month as to whether the library can be better tied together, or what would be an absolute worst case nightmare: it can’t and we face potential for a rebuild. Personally I think we should be looking at the City Gallery (which has been strengthened), or part of it, as an option for temporary library services.That would bring more people to the rest of the Gallery, to Nikau and to Civic Square. Probably not something the Gallery would be keen on, but it might be a win win option – and every part of Council has had to get tighter on space at some point post Kaikoura.

    Town Hall – Naylor Love will be on site starting work in the next few days.

    Municipal Office Building – work is being done with Victoria University of Wellington and NZSO on accommodation opportunities for their activities. Personally I think the potential for Civic Square to become a 24/7 centre for music and performance (in addition to many other activities) is immensely exciting.

    Capital E is EQ prone and has always leaked. The bridge itself is fine but Capital E is the access to the bridge, and will need attention.

    We obviously need to make decisions about the Council’s presence in Civic Square. To me, Council presence is essential, with the Town Hall, Library and Gallery still there and Te Ngakau (‘the heart’) Civic Square such a vital part of our city. People living, working, playing in the immediate area brings life. We need to give thought to what temporary events can happen there alongside building work.

    It’s clear there are some very big challenges with Civic Square. There are also opportunities to improve Civic Square with the inevitable need for building work. Better interface between the buildings and the Square is an obvious opportunity. We can also improve the links between the Square and surrounding streets (notably Cuba/Wakefield and Harris). Unfortunately none of this is going to be cheap, but we can be clever about what we do, and for me it also means some other things have to come out of our budget. (as I said when voting against last year’s Long Term Plan, when I said that even though debt was projected to more than double over 10 years, we had made insufficient provision for Civic Square and Let’s Get Wellington Moving)

    We do need to get on with this – ideally we do not want to complete the Town Hall and still have Civic Square as a long term building site because of various other building works. What we do with Civic Square must also be a major conversation with you as the people of Wellington.
    Kind regards
    Andy Foster
    City Councillor

  28. Local, 25. April 2019, 11:10

    Mayor and councillors – no need for major conversations. Unlike you we are not paid to have conversations. We pay you to fix things – the CAB (sitting empty since 2016,) and the library.

  29. michael, 25. April 2019, 16:09

    @ Andy: You mention that resolving the issues with Civic Square is not going to be cheap and it means “some other things have to come out of our budget” which I absolutely agree with. I therefore propose that the money earmarked for the Convention Centre and Shelly Bay would go a long way towards helping. And should the airport runway and the proposed new arena still be under consideration, they should be ditched as well. We need to get on with the urgent work now! The public are sick of waiting year after year while costs rise along with our rates.

  30. Haul Penry, 26. April 2019, 7:33

    While Auckland gets everything and anything it wants at central government and taxpayer expense, us Wellingtonians feel let down by a govt that promised to address the needs of areas south of Bombay.

  31. Scott, 3. May 2019, 9:01

    A little transparency and communication would go a long way to reassure ratepayers. If there are issues, state them. Keeping people in the dark is a sure way to start the rumour mill running rampant.