by Lindsay Shelton
The future of Civic Square took a turn for the better yesterday, with the signing of a long-negotiated partnership deal for the Municipal Office Building to become part of the planned national music centre.
Plans for the building (which was completed in 1951) hit what the council called a “hiccup” at the beginning of last year when Victoria University, one of the partners in the music centre, decided not to buy it  for use as teaching and administrative space. Vice Chancellor Grant Guilford explained why the university wasn’t going ahead with what was supposed to be the second half (the strengthened Town Hall is the first half ) of the music centre:
The impacts of [the 2016 Kaikoura] earthquake on buildings on reclaimed land such as Civic Square poses new design and cost issues which we need to better understand, as well as other related considerations such as what happens to the neighbouring Civic Administration Building.
One of the reasons for the university’s caution could have been the fact that the MOB is yellow stickered. According to a council news release at the end of 2014  it was rated at only 41% of the new building standard in terms of earthquake resistance, with an estimated $12 million cost to achieve 67%. A cost (sure to rise) that must now be met by the city council as the building’s continuing owner.
In that same release, the council also planned to strengthen the adjacent Civic Administration Building . Completed in 1991, in 2014 it had a 40 per cent quake rating, with a $6m estimate to strengthen it to 80 per cent – which never happened, because the building was closed in 2016 after the Kaikoura earthquakes. Three years later, there’s no decision on whether it’ll be strengthened or demolished.
No such uncertainty about the Municipal Office Building, however. Yesterday’s agreement confirms that it is to be leased from the council by Victoria University for 25 years. So the city will have to find the money to strengthen it. Announcing yesterday’s deal , the council was less than specific about this:
The Council will refurbish the MOB and lease it to the national music centre for 25 years. With this agreement Council can now progress detailed design and finalise costings.
The finalised costings to be added to the as yet unknown cost of saving the Central Library and eventually making it accessible again.
The progress with plans for the music centre does however give a long-term hope that Civic Square will eventually recover its ability to attract the crowds.
Professor Grant Guilford, Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Wellington, said yesterday:
“We believe the national music centre will provide a real uplift for music and music education in this country – the state-of-the-art teaching, rehearsal, research and performance spaces that it will offer will enable an outstanding education for the next generation of musicians.”
Christopher Blake, chief executive of the NZSO (which is the other partner in the national music centre) says:
“The NZSO and the NZ School of Music already have close links. Having both organisations under the same roof offers enormous benefits for the Orchestra, students and staff, and new opportunities for us to work together.”
And the ever-optimistic Justin Lester:
“The national music centre will be home to some of New Zealand’s best musicians and will inject their energy and talent into the central city. With the NZSO and NZSM in the area, the civic square precinct is intended to expand enormously with options for public access to music and the arts, lunchtime concerts, public lectures, workshops, seminars and art displays.”
The music centre will also be the new home for Orchestra Wellington.
But with work on the Town Hall not likely to be completed for another four years , Wellington will have a very long wait before the sounds of music become a daily feature in Civic Square. And if the city council can longer use its Municipal Office Building, and with the fate of the Civic Administration Block so uncertain, councillors face another set of major and costly decisions – will the council ever return to Civic Square?  And if not, what decision will they take about the civic centre of the capital city?