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Saving the Library “if you had the will to do it”

library-ex-gordon [1]

by Lindsay Shelton
The most powerful statement at last July’s public meeting [2] about the Central Library came from a Wellington structural engineer with 40 years experience. He said that work to reopen the building could start in two months – “if you had the will to do it.”

The question after the meeting (and still unanswered): is the city council serious when it says reopening the library is a priority?

Cr Iona Pannett said: “We’re getting the message. People want it reopened as soon as possible.” But she said that no decision could be made till after the October elections. And six months after those elections – there’s still no decision. A pretty good indication that she and the council are not “getting the message,” in spite of what they may be saying.

The Council’s then chief executive Kevin Lavery had an even longer timeframe. He said the future of the library was a high priority for the council but insisted no decisions would be possible for “more than a year.” [3] He should have reconsidered his belief that there are “no quick or easy fixes,” after the statement at the meeting that work could be started within two months.

Structural engineer Adam Thornton described how the library building had been assessed at 60 per cent of the new building standard, but then new guidelines had pointed to a risk with the hollow-core floors – but only in the event of a big earthquake. “This,” he said, “is an easy mode to repair..all do-able.” Bracing would be added to fix the floors more securely to the columns and beams. Such strengthening would be a “relatively straightforward” project. And the existence of a basement car park would provide space for installation of base isolators. There would also have to be work to strengthen the stairs, and to further secure panels on the Victoria Street facade.

He estimated that demolishing and rebuilding would cost $140m, with the added problem that 18,000 tonnes of concrete would have to be moved, adding to the city’s carbon footprint at a time when it was aiming to become a carbon zero city. But strengthening could be done for $68million. And the work could be carried out in stages, with re-entry being possible after the first stage.

Cr Pannett said one of the issues was “how are we going to pay for it?”

In terms of priorities, this question should have had an easy answer. I asked her why the council wasn’t postponing construction of the convention centre, so that the budgetted $154m [4] could be transferred to fixing the library. Surely a good idea when, as architect Gordon Moller pointed out, a million people use the library every year. But she said this could not be done, though she didn’t give reasons.

Hard to believe that the convention centre should keep this top priority, when it’s likely to lose money [5], and there’s no way that it will ever be used by a million people a year. In fact, it won’t attract much community use at all, and it’ll be closed for much of the time except when it has succeeded in attracting an occasional big event. Whereas the library is open to everyone every day of the year – but not till the council reconsiders its priorities and works out how it can be reopened.

The council should be aware that, as Adam Thornton told last July’s meeting, there are “lots of other Wellington buildings like this,” with extra support being added to ensure the seismic security of hollow-core floors. But there’s a difference. These buildings have not been closed, but continue to be occupied while strengthening work is carried out, floor by floor.

In the words of Gordon Moller: “The library isn’t damaged. It can be remediated.”

But when?

[This article is an edited version of the original which was published on July 16, one day after the public meeting.]

Read also:
Library could be strengthened for $151m or $200m [6]
Gordon Campbell: What’s wrong with Wellington [7]