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.
“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.”
“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.”
“A Central Library should be the heart of the city. A place for people, learning, culture, and being with people without expectations”
“A central library is one of the most important spaces and places that is valued by so many people in the city.”
“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.
Save our library: a failure to recognise public concerns