Wellington Scoop

Elephant, albatross, or whale?


by Guy Marriage
The proposed Wellington Convention Centre has not been getting a very good press lately. Voices are clamouring that the City Council should cancel the building contract and walk away from the deal. Critics are arguing that it will be a white elephant, an albatross around our necks, and a foolish mistake that the city neither needs nor wants. Few are standing up for it – the developers Willis Bond are quiet, the architects and engineers are not able to talk publicly about it, and the contractors are keeping their heads down.

So what do we know about the Convention Centre? Elephant? Albatross? Or a giant white whale? Precious little, it seems, is firmly in the public realm. We know the price is high. We know the contract has been signed. We know that years of work has gone into the design headed by a previous Mayor and a previous city manager. We know the construction work is underway, with piles drilled and foundations being poured. The stage is set: it is literally too late to back out now. Soon, the curtain will rise and the show will go on. The building, Ladies and Gentlemen, is underway.

What else do we know? We know that the site is in prime position for some major purpose, situated in a direct line between the restaurant land of Courtenay Place and the number one tourist destination of Te Papa. Both prime attractions for people to come to Wellington. Putting aside the momentary problem that there are currently no restaurants open, no museums open, and no tourists moving, we can safely say that this will pass: tourists will return, Te Papa will reopen, and one day Courtenay Place will once again echo with the sounds of revellers. The site will, of course, retain its major function as a thoroughfare.

Some people are arguing that the site should be repurposed for social housing, for council housing, or for affordable housing. These are foolish arguments: this is one of the most prime and desirable locations in Wellington for a major public purpose and the Council has been keen to get a major public building underway here for years. It is no place for housing: it would certainly not be affordable. The location demands that it play a major civic role, something far more fitting than the sad and tired car yard it has been for years.

Wellington has for years been known as the city of the arts, a title that the dreaded ugly sister further north has been steadily ripping away from us. Auckland had a wonderful waterfront convention centre, but that has been removed for a couple of years from public use and turned into a base for the Americas Cup. Auckland was always about the money. They too have had the tragic loss of their Convention Centre, consumed by fire and nearly bringing about the ruination of New Zealand’s biggest construction company. Remember too that their convention centre was bargained for trinkets and beads: built “free of charge” in exchange for hundreds more pokie machines, to feed the hands of wealthy Asian zombie gamblers.

Wellington is the city of the verb and the home of theatre in New Zealand. We started and still host the International Festival of the Arts, which requires a multitude of venues each time it is held. We are the home of WOW, which will return in all its grandeur. We excel in the small and boutique theatre, from the tiny Bats and Gryphon theatres, the intimate Hannah Playhouse, the grand old ladies of St James and the Opera House, the more modern grandeur of the Michael Fowler, the rambunctious creaky old Shed 6, and then the almighty great oval of space that is the Cake Tin.

Wellington has been crying out for years for a mid-size facility. And currently, New Zealand has no usable mid-size convention centres. Nor anyone going to conventions this month. But we don’t plan a facility that will last for 50 years or more on the basis that for 2 months all of New Zealand is staying at home.

Bookings for the Convention Centre are, we are told, racking up already: accountants, dentists, architects, engineers, wood-processors, and more are all wanting to have a spot in a city for a weekend to get together with their colleagues and do what people do in conventions: talk, drink, eat, and stay the night. All of those factors are of huge importance to a small city like Wellington – we need people to feed our entertainment mill. The attraction of a location in the middle of a vibrant small city will surely ensure that its convention facilities will often be used – I think the last few weeks have shown us that while Zoom can do a lot, it is no substitute for face to face meeting.

And for the weeks that there are no conventions scheduled, there will be other uses. Wellington’s need for a decent-sized mid-sized venue for events will be hopefully well-met by this new building. I’m assuming that it will have been designed to be as open and flexible as possible for human to human interaction. I’m willing to bet good money that when the International Festival of the Arts is on, they will use the Convention Centre. Probably WOW has booked it already.

There’s still a lot we don’t know. We don’t know what will be on the ground floor. We don’t know the details of the business case. We still don’t know how the scales on the outside are going to stay glossy and white. But we can still have the vision and imagination to guess that this building will be, in time, a well-valued asset to the city. So: albatross? No. White elephant? I think not.

A great white whale, swallowing people up whole and entertaining them for hours? I think we could, maybe, just possibly, have a winner on our hands here.


  1. Gooch, 25. April 2020, 8:52

    Blimey, how about turning it into a casino with a huge neon sign on top “Lester-Vegas”

  2. Andrew, 25. April 2020, 9:18

    The convention centre site is surrounded by housing. All of the buildings bordering the site house apartments. I don’t think the people living there think it’s a bad place to live – or is it just a bad place for poor people to live?

  3. Andrew II, 25. April 2020, 9:31

    ” to feed the hands of wealthy Asian zombie gamblers.” Sadly this is not exactly true. Go visit the casino in Auckland. Most people with thousand yard stares are neither Asian nor wealthy. Putting the profiling aside, a casino would be the last thing we need.

  4. TrevorH, 25. April 2020, 9:37

    We will have a perfectly good space for “mid-sized” conventions when the building has been strengthened. It’s called “the Wellington Town Hall”.

  5. Guy M, 25. April 2020, 10:14

    Andrew – you may note that the existing apartment blocks nearby are on smaller sites, all with extensive street frontages, mainly overlooking stunning views out to sea and all fetching absolute top dollar in sales and rental cost. Those apartment buildings cost a lot to build and the developer gets their money back by selling them for huge prices – none of them are affordable housing in any way.

    The site for the Convention Centre is very different – it has a large, deep section and thus a lot of the land would have no view – or a view only of the backside of Te Papa. There would be a few at the front that could get a view, but the rest of the site (if turned to housing) – the vast majority of the site – would have mainly internal views only, and a site like this is not going to be suitable for “affordable” housing. No one with any business sense would use this prime site for a scheme for low-cost housing, and like it or not, we want our Council to exhibit good business sense.

    I’d urge you to go and read the Business Case (I’ve found it since i wrote that article) and read it in full (all 119 pages). It is clear from that document that the site is a pivotal one in terms of regenerating this part of the city, and that a number of other nearby properties are also likely to be redeveloped (refer to p33), but only if the Convention Centre site is redeveloped in a way that works for them too. Nearby sites will be turned to uses like hotels, retail, hospitality, and yes, more high-end apartments (p39).

    The route through from the great Harbour Walkway, through past Te Papa, right through the ground floor of the Convention Centre past the Exhibition (probably also run by Te Papa), to the back of the Readings site and into Courtenay Place, is a great one in terms of urban design and offers a highly useful new pedestrian route for the city. Taranaki St is likely to become a more high-volume street if the new Rapid Transit route goes up there, and that will make it less desirable as a pedestrian route. Instead, pedestrian routes are likely to flourish more in Tory St and in this new Convention Centre / Reading route.

    I hope this helps Wellington.Scoop readers understand why the WCC is still pushing for this as a valid project. That WCC are not saying “let’s put the Library there” can therefore also be viewed as a good thing, in that (hopefully) they are still planning to strengthen and restore the existing Library to its use, but that’s a different story for another day.

  6. TrevorH, 25. April 2020, 10:30

    @Guy M. Yes Convention Centres are sought after by investors and owners of surrounding properties as a means of raising the value of their assets. This was well documented in “Convention Center Follies” by Heywood Sanders which is the definitive study. But for residential ratepayers they are a never-ending drain on resources. If commercial investors want to stump up the cost including the ongoing and substantial expense of operating the Convention Centre, no problem. But to burden ratepayers with it when we are facing the most severe financial shock since the Great Depression is unacceptable.

  7. Guy M, 25. April 2020, 10:30

    Andrew II, sad to say, i disagree. Last time I visited the SkyCity Casino in Auckland, i noted with horror that nearly all the patrons were Asian and nearly all the staff were Pasifika. The patrons were certainly spending more money than me, therefore I view them as wealthy: ie they were gamblers, short and sweet, pulling the handles of the machines like Zombies and surrounding the tables in throngs. It is an ugly scene to me, watching people of any race waste their money like that. I’m certainly in no way advocating a Casino – never have. Just saying that to me, the Auckland Convention Centre is deeply tainted by its birth as an extremely dodgy business deal.

    Trevor H. – Read the Business Case report and note that the old Town Hall is suitable for some things, like music, but no so good for other things, like speech. It is also being developed as a joint venture project for the School of Music and as more of a music venue than it has been in the past. Let’s face it – we ARE lacking a suitable venue at present. But all these venues work together, which is what makes Wellington so great as a place for gathering. We will, in the future, have events that will use the MFC, the old Town Hall, and the Convention Centre, all booked and working as one.

  8. Hel, 25. April 2020, 10:55

    Guy, congratulations – quite possibly the most informative and balanced comments made on this contentious topic. I’ve taken the opportunity to have a read of the business case during the lockdown and it is a thorough and informative document. The need is well expressed and hard to argue with, the location is ideal from the perspective of conventions and the urban improvements will transform that area of town. I find knee jerk reactions, like converting it to housing, repurposing it as a library or even just defaulting on the contract bordering on ridiculous and I trust the Council has more sense.

  9. Tui, 25. April 2020, 10:56

    Great to finally see some rational analysis of the situation Guy!
    Like it or not, I agree we need to see the project out. People seem to think at the click of your fingers you can modify a building’s design, even once construction has begun, which unfortunately isn’t true.

  10. Hel, 25. April 2020, 11:11

    TrevorH, the work of Heywood Sanders is far from the definitive study. Since you’ve referenced a few times I’ve become a google warrior and had a look and what you actually find is that his work has been largely dismissed and his research methods found to be flimsy. That is the beauty of the internet, you can find anything that backs up your argument if you look hard enough and others don’t.

  11. Peter Kerr, 25. April 2020, 12:12

    The problem is the ratepayers of Wellington don’t want to fritter away their rates to pay for this, when they’re about to enter an economic depression, and their city is a high-need case for transport, water and sewerage, coastal erosion, social housing, environmental and library renovation and reform.
    No; no white elephant, no albatross, nor white whale – but a dead skunk on the side of the road.

  12. TrevorH, 25. April 2020, 13:05

    Yes Hel there has been pushback from consultants, developers and city politicians. But here’s a link where Sanders addresses (starting at 19 minutes) the criticisms he has received and provides detailed information on the state of convention centre business. It’s quite amusing if it wasn’t so sad, I hope people find the time to enjoy it.

  13. Guy M, 25. April 2020, 13:09

    I don’t want to bang on about Convention Centres all day, as the weather is too good to be stuck indoors, but I think it is worth noting that Christchurch’s Convention Centre is poorly sited – as is Auckland’s too. Yes Chch has a central city site but it seems to be acting as more of a barrier than as a primary route. Unlike Chch where the locals don’t live centrally and the public will have to skirt round the edges, this building will channel residents and tourists alike right through the centre of the building.

    Meanwhile, Auckland’s building is up on the ridge, when the people are down in the valley, and it is huge, and it is not on anyone’s usual track home apart from the motorway onramp. They may get all the huge conventions, but they won’t get the smaller, more fun size, mid-size meetings that we will.

    Wellington’s site has certain natural advantages – Te Papa, the Harbour, the Courtenay Place shops, the nightlife (when it returns) – it is filling in an awkward hole and will provide the main route to the shopping and eating area, as well as being a simple walk to the PT route up Taranaki, which will be on the main traffic route for the majority of Wellingtonians.

    Badly designed convention centres are indeed scattered across the globe, wiping out street life and vitality from entire city blocks at a time. I think that on this occasion, we have an architectural practice who have looked carefully at the wider city issues first, produced a scheme where the building will add to the local vitality and enhance it, not take it away, and in combination with the Exhibition space downstairs, this will be a good asset for the city.

    As for the cost – that’s not for me to say. We can all only hope that the WCC’s cost advisors have done their sums right and that the situation they described then (Dec 2018) is still valid now. As they were talking primarily about capturing the domestic market, not aiming solely at the international market, we may be still in the play.

  14. NigelTwo, 25. April 2020, 14:34

    Convincing or not, this is about intangibles. What about “show me the money”? [One of our contributors is preparing to look at this topic next week.]

  15. TrevorH, 25. April 2020, 15:06

    Looking at the Business Case, no one seems to have signed off on it. And the MBIE figures on New Zealand Business Event Activity (BEAS) to June 2018 are showing a declining market. Yet a consultant dismissed these figures: (page 21): “…. there are industry concerns about the reliability of the data coming from the BEAS and how estimates are used when participating venues do not submit their data … the data reported in the BEAS does not accurately represent the trend in the actual level of business events activity that is being experienced ‘on the ground’ in New Zealand. They have advised that based on their experience, the current market conditions are generally positive and are not in decline… “. The business case thus suggests that MBIE data is deficient on a critical point. Really?

  16. michael, 25. April 2020, 17:34

    Little wonder Wellington ratepayers are unhappy about the Convention Centre, when the Government is paying for the Christchurch Convention Centre, and Auckland’s Convention Centre is funded entirely by Skycity.

  17. Hel, 25. April 2020, 19:39

    michael, something I can agree with you on. Looks like one of the reasons Wellington is upgrading is because the crown have invested heavily in Christchurch – changing the landscape, but nothing for Wellington.

  18. Pauline, 26. April 2020, 7:43

    Guy – as an ardent supporter of Wellington arts and theatre, you forgot Circa, another much loved venue with two theatres and a cafe…

  19. judy siers, 26. April 2020, 8:47

    Bravo Guy Marriage! An excellent article in support of a new and exciting building that is already underway, one that will have purpose, as you explain, and will make a strong architectural statrment along a major city thoroughfare. You have moved us forward in our thinking.
    The facade design is fabulous, it provides history with the flair and style this city needs and deserves. This swish of the fish represents Te upoko-o-te-ilka-a-maui, Maui’s famous fishing trip, the origin of our city. The opening of this building in a couple of years will be a celebration, and in the meantime is a bright light though this Covid 19 tunnel of gloom.
    You have started a dialogue of optimism and hope, thanks Guy. Without hope we are hopeless.

  20. Concerned Wellingtonian, 26. April 2020, 9:31

    Guy M is enthusiastic about the claim that there will be an increase in activity caused by building on a vacant site in this part of the city. Quite simply, an increase in local activity will indeed occur if you build anything (anywhere) which attracts a number of visitors; but the Business Case gives no assurance that a particular number might actually come, especially with a downturn in tourism and economic activity. Future revenue is a major concern for ratepayers and this is not assured in the Business Case.
    Are we on track with the income which the Business Case assumes will be received? “Key Financial Assumptions: It is assumed that $25 million will be received evenly over four years from the Crown from 2019/20”
    More generally, it is troublesome that the convention centre was too late to be considered at the last Council Meeting of 2018. The 129-page Convention Centre Report was circulated as a late item to the members of a Committee who already had 550 pages to read just before Christmas. The two staff members who were responsible for the Report are no longer employed by the council and cannot give an answer to this and so many other questions. And it is a pity that the mover and seconder of the motion to accept the Business Case, not being re-elected, will not have to account for themselves.

  21. John Rankin, 26. April 2020, 10:39

    A possible way to reconcile the competing views would be for the City Council to sell 51% of the shares in Wellington Convention Centre Limited. Some of those commenting will be keen to invest. Those who are sceptical of the business case can take some comfort knowing that 51% private ownership will bring commercial discipline to the business. The city will raise some badly-needed cash, perhaps enough to avoid a rates rise. I trust that Guy, Hel, Tui and Judy, among others, will be at the front of the line to buy shares, if they are offered. Their kind of optimism and creativity is just what Wellington needs for the post-Covid recovery.

  22. Guy M, 26. April 2020, 11:25

    Thanks Judy Siers for your positive comments – much appreciated.

    Thanks too to Concerned Wellingtonian for your comments, which I will leave for those more connected with business cases to answer. May I just say this though: I know of at least two NZ organisations which have been seeking for years to hold their national conference in Wellington, but they have unable to because there was no suitable venue. Obviously that is only 2-3 days each, but there will be many more. Most other cities do not have a suitably-sized venue: Rotorua is too small, Napier is too small, New Plymouth is too small, Wellington most venues are closed for strengthening, Christchurch is not yet built, Auckland has burnt down, etc. There is certainly a market there, and Wellington should try and claim its part of that market. No one can have any assurance about the future under the current climate, but one thing is certain: if we build nothing, then no one will come.

  23. TrevorH, 26. April 2020, 12:41

    If we want to attract people to come to Wellington we have to emphasize the things that make it inherently attractive. Building a large, expensive hall and hoping for people to come and fill it is cargo cult stuff.

  24. CC, 26. April 2020, 12:45

    John, the only problem of selling 51% of the shares is that the ratepayers are already in the gun for the Centre and – given the WIAL experience – the Council will no doubt fall over itself to underwrite the losses of private investors. A fully private option was on the table but fell through seemingly when investor Mark Dunajtschik considered the land purchase price excessive. After that, the Council dived in to become ratepayer-financed developers with support from the business sector. On the plus side, Wellington will now have a new Children’s Hospital on the back of Mr Dunajtschik’s generosity and acumen.

  25. Traveller, 26. April 2020, 13:40

    TrevorH: As Judy Siers writes (above) the building itself will be a landmark attraction for visitors to Wellington, with its fabulous facade design telling our story with flair and style, as appealing as the Len Lye Centre which draws many people to New Plymouth. We can explain to our visitors that the swish of the fish represents Te upoko-o-te-ilka-a-maui, Maui’s famous fishing trip, the origin of our city.

  26. Lance, 26. April 2020, 14:32

    Have to agree with TrevorH on a lot of this: One of the problems I have with the convention center project is that the WCC is engaging in a commercial activity, backstopped by “investors” who have no choice but to invest (ratepayers cannot opt out), and it is doing so when unemployment is going to jump while salaries are reduced. By the time this becomes obvious as the loss-making venture that it is destined to be, the individuals responsible will have moved on, the consultants will have pocketed their fees, Willis Bond will have taken its cash home, and the ratepayers will be forced to support the venture ad infinitum. Either that, or it will be sold to a private developer for a substantial loss. I keep hoping that the WCC will turn its attention to things cities should be doing (like say, sewers), and not going out on ratepayer-funded commercial adventures.

  27. michael, 26. April 2020, 14:33

    One thing that seems to be forgotten is that Wellington has a shortage of hotel beds and therefore the suggestion from at least one councillor that once conventions (of 1500 people plus partners) come, so will the hotels, seems rather like putting the cart before the horse.

  28. Guy M, 26. April 2020, 16:09

    Trevor H: at last we agree on something. Before Wellington was actively marketing itself as a place to visit, ie back in the 60s and 70s, Wellington had few visitors apart from queues for the ferry. After years of careful promotion, it is now near the top of places that people want to visit. That’s because, as you say, they emphasized the “things that made it inherently attractive.” Those same things, such as its compact, walkable size, its huge cafe culture, its fine food reputation, and its fantastic Harbour setting, make it a place where people do want to visit. And hence conventions will be organized here as a primary choice. Or do you think people will never want to meet again?

    The other option is that we do only the things that we absolutely must: more sewer pipes, new storm water drains, repairing roads and footpaths. I totally agree that those are necessary but they are not the only things. I’m willing to bet that very few would ever book a ticket to Wellington to see our new sewer pipes.

  29. Paul, 26. April 2020, 21:15

    I would have thought fixing our aging water infrastructure would be a tad more important. Pumping raw sewage into the harbour is not the best look.

  30. Henry Filth, 26. April 2020, 21:31

    Wouldn’t it be great to link the waterfront, Te Papa, Courtenay Place (and by extension, Cuba Street) without having to navigate the shambles of the Cable and Wakefield Street pseudo-motorways.

  31. CC, 26. April 2020, 22:52

    Guy, as well as not booking to see new sewer pipes, visitors won’t want to see stormwater washouts, potable water bubbling onto the streets through the tarseal, or their contribution to effluent emerging under the Taranaki Wharf dive platform. Looking at a white fish (or will it be an elephant) might be a welcome distraction, specially if their firm, employer or professional organisation is hiring the venue for a chow up and hoe down.