by Helene Ritchie
With fascination I watched this week’s Wellington City Council meeting where councillors yet again discussed the future of the Central Library which sits empty, barricaded in the heart of Wellington as a sad symbol of Council paralysis.
The core of the debate was whether it was the Council’s preference to “reopen the Central Library” (i.e. the closed Central Library), or reopen a (any, anywhere) central library.
What fascinated me about this meeting was the discussion between Council and staff over “a” and “the”. Why were the staff insistent that the should become a ? Who would have thought that such hair splitting was a crucial sticking point for officers? Why? I decided to look further.
The Central Library was closed in March last year, and nothing concrete has happened since. The former mayor told us a year ago that there was “reasonable likelihood of demolition”, the barricades went up, a mural went around it, approximately 12 reports were written, and meetings were held. All the Council has done since was to appoint a lauded eminent Professor of Engineering, Ken Elwood (a diversionary tactic?), and to task him with bringing together engineers and architects to produce options for the Council.
He seems not to have produced a report. Instead, consultants told council staff in an October 2019 letter:
“Wellington City Council convened a workshop where the attendants, including a range of engineers, contractors and architects discussed the potential options for the library. The general consensus of the group was to consider three primary strengthening options…”
Council staff then use similar words in their paper for the May 27 meeting, noting “preliminary designs and costs for three structural remediation schemes for the Central Library Building have been completed in consultation with a cross section of senior structural engineers.”
Why then did a new build suddenly appear as three additional costed options in the report for the same meeting? Why did staff ignore the consensus and ask councillors to note that “a modernised library service could be accommodated in either an appropriately remediated and reconfigured Central Library Building, or in another fit for purpose building.”
Demolition and rebuild had not been one of the options proposed in the consensus of architects and engineers.
When this week’s meeting (adjourned from May 27) was over, the Council then told the media it had a “clear … preference”  when it did not have one – it had a “bob each way” because it had made three conflicting decisions during the one meeting, and then wrapped them up as one resolution.
The first decision (2) was to
“agree that the Council will make the re-opening of a (not the) Central Library one of its top priorities given that Wellingtonians place a high value on this service and that there is a strong community desire to see this service return as soon as possible.”
The second decision (10) noted
“that a modernised library could be accommodated in either an appropriately remediated and reconfigured Central Library building, or in another fit for purpose building.”
(This would account for the staff insistence to replace the with a.)
There’s hope however – because there was also a third decision (13) in which councillors agreed
that the Council’s current preference is to strengthen and upgrade the existing central library building, noting that options to achieve this, and all other practicable options, will be considered as part of planned community consultation in August/September
What exactly did they decide, and which point of view will prevail?
The Central Library could have been fixed and reopened by now. Instead the Council continues to dither, without clear and unequivocal commitment. Further, it agreed at this week’s meeting to grant $2million to “advance developed design”, without having a proposal to design. Design of what?
The people have spoken over and over again. They want the Central Library fixed in the most cost-effective way and reopened at the earliest possible opportunity. Speaking at this week’s meeting as individuals, councillors seemed to agree with what the public wants. 
Yet there was no “expediting” of the project. Instead it will take (according to the Council’s timetable) at least two and a half years from closure till tenders are awarded (in July to September 2021) before starting to remediate (I prefer fix) the Central Library.
It is not good enough to let the library continue to deteriorate, with the only visitors being rats and mice.
Helene Ritchie is a former deputy mayor and former Chair of the Civic Centre Project which included the Central Library.