Wellington Scoop

Where’s the will to fix the Library?

concern about library

by Lindsay Shelton
Five city councillors are telling us that they really, really want to reopen Wellington’s Central Library as soon as possible. But staff papers for next Wednesday’s council meeting do not show any evidence that such an aim is being pursued with any urgency.

Where to start?

The agenda papers for the meeting describe how “structural weaknesses” in the Central Library were identified by Aurecon, an engineering advisory company which was hired by the council in February last year after new guidelines were released for buildings (such as the library) with precast concrete floors. Aurecon delivered its verdict to the council in March last year. The council then hired WPS Opus to deliver a peer review of the Aurecon assessment which agreed the building had “structural vulnerabilities.” The council then closed the library and the carpark underneath it.

Moving slowly, more than four months later the council hired Professor Ken Elwood from Auckland University’s Faculty of Engineering, to lead the “process of facilitating a group of construction and engineering industry experts in finding the right way forward for the Central Library building.” In September the council convened a workshop led by Professor Elwood “where the library’s structural design and associated vulnerabilities were discussed and potential engineering and construction solutions assessed.” In November new mayor Andy Foster told the DomPost he was expecting the engineers’ report on the library building to be completed by January or February.

This report may have been delivered on time but it has never been released, though parts of it may have contributed to the papers for Wednesday’s meeting. Papers which make it clear that the council will be doing nothing this year to get the library reopened, in spite of councillors’ enthusiasm.

While the fact that a million people visit the Central Library every year seems to be convincing proof of the Central Library’s popularity, council staff aren’t so sure. They say things need changing.

Officers are developing a high-level concept, to be further informed through community and stakeholder engagement, for a future Central Library service that could integrate civic, cultural and creative activities and programmes, enable the formation of community and service partnerships, and deliver a modern, 21st century service.

They acknowledge that their new look system could be housed in Ian Athfield’s award-winning building. But they also mention the possibility of demolishing it.

A modernised library service could be accommodated in either an appropriately remediated and reconfigured Central Library Building, or in another fit for purpose building.

To pursue their aim of doing things differently, council staff are asking our councillors to authorise them to organise

a public engagement campaign that seeks to understand and acknowledge the current and future needs of customers, visitors and ratepayers to inform the design for a future central city library service and that the proposed engagement should seek public opinion on the remediation of the current building as well as options for a new build on the same site.

They do use a convoluted vocabulary when they hand out their advice. And how do different do they think that the new library should be?

A future Central Library service needs to feature larger, more dynamic spaces for children and families; flexible shelving options for physical collections; enough space for individual, quiet reflection, study and relaxation; as well as areas for collaborative learning (formal or informal), meetings or social interactions. The diversity of activities needs to be fully accessible, with good delineation of spaces, multi-functional spaces of varying sizes, and the ability to physically and/or acoustically separate quiet and noisy spaces

Which sounds pretty much like the Central Library before it was closed. But council staff don’t want it to be the same (even if a million visitors a year had never complained):

Reinstating the Central Library service, as it was, would not deliver the modern services, flexible spaces and technologies the public need and would likely expect, particularly following a long period of closure. Customer surveys prior to the closure showed they valued the building and collections. However for some it lacked the spaces they needed. Feedback included the need for more seating options, comfortable furniture, and meeting spaces; better air circulation and improved lighting, navigation routes, signage and accessibility and bathroom facilities; and continued access to quality collections. The lack of acoustic control, and no dedicated events space, meant noise regularly impacted on quieter areas.

Nevertheless, staff are willing to accept that the Athfield library could be re-used:

A refurbishment could remain faithful to the original design, while introducing contemporary design elements and reflect the modern role of libraries – the key objectives and assumptions underlying this proposition could include: a solution that balances space for people with space for collections; an upgraded facility that caters for a wide variety of user needs; a building that is fully accessible, welcoming, and attractive to the community; flexibility (of uses and spaces) through innovative design; and making the most of its location as a key connection to the wider Civic Precinct.

City councillors, reported in Friday’s press release from the council, are more enthusiastic than the staff about the Central Library as it was.

Fleur Fitzsimons:
“The Central Library is a precious public space where everyone is welcome, residents are really missing it, we need to get is open as soon as possible.”

Iona Pannett
“Getting it open again is a high priority for me so all Wellingtonians can go back to what has been called the city’s living room.”

Sarah Free
“A Central Library should be the heart of the city. A place for people, learning, culture, and being with people without expectations”

Laurie Foon
“A central library is one of the most important spaces and places that is valued by so many people in the city.”

Teri O’Neill
“I grew up in that library, and now as a Councillor, I’d love to ensure those generations to come also have that place to learn and grow as I did.”

Will any of these councillors press for things to move faster? The paper that they’re voting on next Wednesday merely asks them to “note” information about a range of costs and possibilities, while wanting approval for ten weeks of consultation (staff call it “public engagement”) starting next month and continuing till the end of August.

During this period staff will “share,” “acknowledge,” “engage,” canvas,” and marvellously “begin engaging with key groups to plan how to engage with them effectively…” The key groups seem to include the entire population of Wellington: “This would prioritise (but is not limited to) mana whenua, children and youth, older people, Pasifika, migrants, homeless, accessibility, creative and humanities sectors.” And that’s only the first four weeks.

Staff will also “listen to and communicate,” “highlight,” promote,” “reflect,” and “demonstrate…” There’ll be webinars and polls and speakers and presentations and showcases and a display space. And “a high level leaflet explaining the future library opportunities and how to provide feedback for people who are not easily able to access online or CBD events.”

The staff will be so busy. But the library will still be closed. And by the end of the year what’s the best we can expect: a report with options, and a “future central library design brief including partnership options.”

Then comes the difficult bit: the fact that there is no budget for doing whatever will eventually be agreed should be done. And if you’re following closely, you’ll be aware that the strengthening costs given in the report to councillors include more than just strengthening.

The most expensive option that is listed – for 100 per cent resilience – is estimated as costing $200m. The actual strengthening cost is however only $133m, with the remaining $67m being spent on building services and new fitouts. The mid-range strengthening cost, reported as $151m, turns out to be $89m, with $62m for building services and fitouts. And I guess no one wants to know that there’s an even lower strengthening cost of $36m, to which they’ve added $54m for building services and fitouts.

Which takes us back to the public meeting last July, when Wellington structural engineer Adam Thornton told us the Central Library would be easy 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 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 the total cost of strengthening as $68m. And, as we all remember, the work “could start in two months, if you had the will to do it.”

Sadly, the council’s will doesn’t seem to be there. In spite of what councillors are saying.

Read also:
Save our library: a failure to recognise public concerns


  1. michael, 24. May 2020, 12:34

    Who decided that council staff should spend all this unnecessary time and money? Just strengthen the library, reopen it, and upgrade the facilities down the track when we can afford it. Yes, it might be nice to do all sorts of amazing things to the library but we need it now. Having the library as the community hub of wellington is vital especially post-covid.

  2. Tony Jansen, 24. May 2020, 13:36

    I think the elephant in the room is the Council’s plan for the Civic Precinct, which I cannot find anywhere. What exactly is the vision for this vital area and how does the central library fit into it?
    The original concept from the late 80s/early 90s made a lot of sense. Locating all the key civic facilities and services in one area with an open public square and then linking it to the sea was a game changer for Wellington. Other cities tried and failed to replicate what we had done. We were the coolest and most innovative city in New Zealand. Fast track 35 years and we have become the poster city of dysfunctional local government. We cannot seem to get anything right. The public distrust the Council. Voter turnout is low. Attendance at most of the public meetings during the last local government campaign was miniscule. There is general apathy from most Wellingtonians. Those of us who care write on sites like this, make submissions and are generally ignored by our elected officials.
    There is a wider agenda going on here driven by salaried WCC officials. They frame the parameters for the councilors to vote on. Some of our councilors may indeed share our concerns and hopes for the central library, but their views will inevitably be hijacked by a city administration that has its own ideas.
    I thought the central library was just fine as it was. Eclectic just like my city.

  3. Gwynneth Jansen, 24. May 2020, 14:11

    ‘Ask a librarian” – remember that invitation?

    Better still let’s ask the librarians who worked in the Central Library about how well the building functioned as a library and as a workspace.

    They can articulate what was great and what issues were there around people flow, signage, information provision, housing of book stock, quiet spaces, discussion/breakout areas and dedicated spaces for children, research, reading and reflection?

  4. Peter, 24. May 2020, 14:13

    How about this for an idea? There is space on the top floor of the library that could be repurposed for modest size conventions with video links to expand numbers. Surely the question must be asked in as to whether conventions in the present format, will continue in a post Covid world. Even without paper a library will always continue as a centre for exchange of information within a community.

  5. Roger Walker, 24. May 2020, 14:32

    Can the Council please tell us why they have to spend so much money? We understood a simple solution was to increase the seating depth of the hollow core flooring by bolting steel angles to the primary beams. This may not achieve 100 percent NBS but there is no guarantee that a the ‘big one’ will take any notice of that arbitrary rating.
    Let’s be pragmatic for the sake of the getting it operating again ASAP. [via Facebook]

  6. Diane Calvert, 24. May 2020, 18:25

    The report is written by officers with recs to Council. Repair or build new are the options. Various pros and cons. [via twitter]

  7. Peter Kerr, 24. May 2020, 20:23

    Thanks for the informed comments, Councilor Calvert. Three bland phrases on twitter is what we’ve come to expect as a response from you and your colleagues.

  8. Andrew, 24. May 2020, 21:02

    The SS Wellington City Council glides into the sunset, the band plays, the councillors sit at captain Foster’s table sipping martinis and dreaming of glitzy balls at the soon to be opened Convention Centre. Little do they know, however, that an iceberg comprising of the wrath of Wellington ratepayers serenely floats just out of view over the horizon.

  9. Alana, 24. May 2020, 22:43

    This is an excellent summary of where things have been, and gone wrong. The CEO should be required by the Council to move on this right away as a priority.
    The Central Library is part of life in Wellington – as a library, information resource but also where kids and adults study in quiet space where many don’t have at home.
    Thanks, Lindsay, for making such a strong case for our library.

  10. Al, 25. May 2020, 3:40

    Thank goodness for Lindsay and others for reporting and writing on this topic. And the reader comments and outrage. We don’t want WCC to over complicate and push up the price. Just get on and fix it.

  11. Wayne Dyer, 25. May 2020, 7:58

    Honestly, come on council get a handle on it. It’s absolutely not necessary to keep quoting 100% of nbs, there is no point focusing on that number. The library can be fixed and at a fraction of the rediculous $200million figure, just like many other buildings have been. Please get on with it asap and stop procrastinating.

  12. Ana, 25. May 2020, 8:47

    The library is an amazing public space. Work needs to start asap. Where is the sequencing plan? Rebuilding is a nonsense. Surely this is a “shovel ready’project given the engineering expertise already engaged. Covid19 will reduce Council income. Choose an option councillors, find the $ or borrow it and ACT please.

  13. michael, 25. May 2020, 10:52

    I heard Councillor Young on the news this morning stating she would like to see our library pulled down and a new one built for $140 million instead of spending $200 million on the Athfield library. Apart from the fact it would mean removing 18,000 tonnes of concrete which would have a significant impact on the city’s carbon footprint, what about the demolition costs which no one is mentioning? And what about spending far less than $200m and strengthening the building and opening it as is now. Must say the $200m scare tactics seem to be working and no doubt we will be faced with years and years without a central library.

  14. wendy, 25. May 2020, 11:01

    Let us hope no more WCC buildings get closed after today’s shake because that will probably mean more years of delays and more big-ticket projects instead of just getting on and strengthening the buildings. Must be wonderful to have so much public money for all these amazing projects, while the rest of us have to be content with trying to get things back to the way they were, while coping with rising rates and mortgages to pay.

  15. PCGM, 25. May 2020, 11:58

    There’s a culture of inaction at the council, and the library is only one example amongst many of how incredibly slowly the gears grind.

    From closure to reopening, the Town Hall strengthening will consume the best part of a decade. The first reports about the urgency of climate change were consulted on by the council in 2010, and the next one – which will say exactly the same things in slightly different words – won’t be finished until 2021, by which time the emissions of the council will be materially worse. Let’s Get Wellington Moving simply hasn’t, nor will it deliver anything anyone cares about for many a long year.

    The library is suffering the same fate, where endless talk has replaced action. Based on the timelines in the report to councillors, there is likely to be at least a five year gap between closure and re-opening – an unconscionable delay. To give that some context, it only took six years for the might of the Western world to be gathered and for Hitler to be defeated. It’s astounding that we can run the entirety of World War II – the invasions, the defeats, the victories, the untold human sacrifice – in about the same time the council will take to repair a single much-loved building. Granted, the armies of WWII didn’t need to navigate the complexities of the Resource Management Act, but by the same token, no-one is carpet-bombing the council officers and their consultants.

    So perhaps Cr Iona Pannett is right to be worried about the sea level rise that she and her council have done so little to address. At the current rate, the whole of Civic Square will be inundated long before the endless rounds of consultation and engineers reports are even finished.

  16. Dan Milward, 25. May 2020, 12:47

    Another Earthquake. Library still standing. [via Facebook]

  17. Grumpalump, 25. May 2020, 12:57

    Having had a chance to look at the Agenda and Report, I note that about 2 pages relate to the actuality of the risk for the building due to a structural weakness resulting from a construction detail used for the past 40 years. It is clear that Council Officers have an Agenda of their own, as the rest of the report addresses externalities related to the future of library services. OR have Councillors in the past been influencing the direction that they want to see the service go and perhaps [God forbid] have a legacy that they can call their own.
    As someone has correctly identified that Councillors are there to serve the public and ratepayers, perhaps the Council Officers should also be reminded that they are serving the ratepayers and not themselves.
    A previous Mayor has [albeit indirectly] a lot to answer for the subsequent actions of the Council creating monuments that live on.

  18. Paul, 25. May 2020, 13:52

    Repair as is and get underway! Where is that an option in the council paper? Otherwise, as there is no money and priorities are already set on spending, leave a wasteland monument for venture tourism, or demolish the building and perhaps put it down in grass!

  19. D'Esterre, 25. May 2020, 14:02

    We love the Athfield building: it’s a distinctive feature of the CBD streetscape, and we want it retained, thank you very much, Councillor Young. Enough of such Philistinism! Please do not attempt to claim that the building is past its use-by date. That’s just nonsense. I draw your attention to the multiplicity of ancient libraries overseas which are still in use: the Long Room at Trinity College Dublin, the Bodleian in Oxford, the marvellous library at Melk Abbey in Austria. We have visited these places. Where the Athfield building is concerned, age simply isn’t an issue.

    A family member has been through the engineering report. The strengthening which is needed – including the base isolation – can be done much more economically than the quoted price of $200 million. It won’t be cheap, but it’s nowhere near the above price. And nowhere near the cost of a new build, either.

    I remind the Mayor and all of the Councillors: the ratepayers of Wellington have just been beaten about the ears economically by the severe quarantine. Many people have lost – or will lose – jobs and businesses. Council officers may have grandiose plans for the library, but it by no means follows either that they’re justified, or that we the ratepayers can afford to meet the cost. We do not care what Council officers think. Except insofar as they’re also ratepayers, their opinions are irrelevant. We can’t afford the nice-to-have stuff: just give us back our library, as it was when the wrong-headed decision was made to close it.

    The strengthening could have been done long since; Council must have that work carried out pronto.

  20. KatieR, 25. May 2020, 14:44

    This is going to be a repeat of the bus fiasco. A whole lot of empire building, talking and expense, when getting on with the job is apparently far too efficient for some councillors. Might I suggest earthquake strengthening for now, and consider a refurbish much later? Maybe after the Pandemic costs are known?

  21. K, 25. May 2020, 16:46

    How many people actually use the library every year? I see the figure “1 million a year” but obviously that is 1 million visits (~2,750 a day) – not 1 million different individuals. It could be 10,000 people twice a week, 20,000 people once a week, or 80,000 once a month. Before we spend ~$150-200 million repairing/rebuilding a library of similar size, it needs to be established how many individuals use the library. It might be appropriate to replace it with a smaller ~$90 million structure if only a fraction of Wellington ratepayers use it. And does that annual visitation include the hundreds who frequent the cafe and toilets and don’t use the library? Does it include people who use the building as a thoroughfare? [The latest figures from the Central Library show that there were 1,240,000 visitors in the 2017/2018 year, an increase of almost 200,000 on the previous year. The papers for this week’s meeting tell councillors that the Central Library “played an important role in social wellbeing and community life.”]

  22. Traveller, 25. May 2020, 17:39

    For the same number of daily visitors, you’re proposing to squeeze them into a smaller space? Doesn’t make sense, specially when the council wants to expand the range of activities in the library when it eventually reopens.

  23. Northland, 25. May 2020, 20:03

    An excellent article that can only bring feelings of sadness for where Wellington finds itself at the moment. Troubled by earthquakes and poor infrastructure, we look in vain for dynamic, intelligent, agile and financially prudent leadership. Instead, we find only a huge Council gravy train that likes nothing more than proposing the most expensive solution to be delivered in the very longest timeframe.

    – The Town Hall has been closed since 2013.
    – The Central Library has been closed for over a year now, since March 2019. No sign of any opening until 20?? – (your guess).
    – Frank Kitts Park redevelopment has been happening (or not) since 2015.
    – Island Bay Cycleway – a mess since 2015 and still not done.
    – Let’s Get Welly Moving was, and still is, a talking shop that has delivered nothing.

    It has not always been this way. Once, not so long ago, Wellington really was a cool little capital. Now its almost the opposite.

  24. Leviathan, 25. May 2020, 21:06

    For a different viewpoint, see the Eye of the Fish.

  25. Henry Filth, 26. May 2020, 12:59

    When did Wellington stop being able to do stuff? Can anyone put a date on it?

  26. Ross, 26. May 2020, 14:35

    If I had any say, I would have got independent engineers from Japan or San Francisco. People who know about earthquake proofing buildings but whose thinking is not “tainted” by the NZ building codes. That is, they could view the issue with an open mind and tell us all if the initial report conclusion was warranted from purely an engineering point of view.

    Secondly I would say the Council staff need to be reminded of “the value of a dollar”. It is all very well to have these “nice to have” dreams but Wellington has much more pressing basic issues to address, such as fixing the sewage and water infrastructure issues.

    I would like to see the library reopened as much as anyone, but talking about $200 million to restrengthen is nonsense and any Councillor who accepts that figure should resign. It is the same nonsense that happened over the Island Bay cycleway –$1.4 million to install but to remove it they said it would cost $4-5 million.

    Council staff seem to think ratepayers are stupid and only the staff can think of what is best for the city.

  27. Wendy, 26. May 2020, 15:13

    I would like to know why has the WCC refused to release the full engineers’ report BEFORE they get councillors to discuss their $200 million proposal?

  28. D'Esterre, 26. May 2020, 20:53

    Ross: a member of this household has gone through the engineering report. As I noted above, the strengthening which is needed – including the base isolation – can be done much more economically than the quoted price of $200 million. It won’t be cheap, but it’s nowhere near the above price. And nowhere near the cost of a new build, either.

    Our impression is that the report is intended to steer Council decision away from the option just of strengthening, and towards a rebuild and reconfiguration, designed to fit into a “new concept” Civic Square. This new concept has yet to be presented to Council: it has all the fingerprints of the former CEO and former Mayor.

    It scarcely needs to be pointed out that we the ratepayers – who must foot the bill – know absolutely nothing about this revamped Civic Square, either.

    Our best hope is to persuade Councillors to cut through the report to the basic strengthening costs, and to choose that option. Then we’ll have a chance of getting our library back.

  29. D'Esterre, 26. May 2020, 21:00

    Wendy: “…why has the WCC refused to release the full engineers’ report BEFORE they get councillors to discuss their $200 million proposal?”

    We’d like to know that too. If anyone needed evidence that there’s another agenda being pursued, here we have it.