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Saving the Town Hall, and more great ideas

by Lindsay Shelton
Our city councillors have this week been reviewing their eight great ideas, as part of the debate on their long-term plan. A longer runway and a convention centre have stayed on their list. But Ian Apperley reports that some new items have emerged and others have disappeared.

As a result there are now eleven great ideas and Ian points out that several are long-term leases which could be seen as asset sales. The leases would allow new buildings on Jack Ilott Green and the Michael Fowler carpark as part of a Civic Centre plan – they’re defended as a way of financing the strengthening and reopening of the city’s priceless Town Hall. This project was announced in December, when I welcomed the fact that the Town Hall – which has been closed for too long – would be brought back into use.

by Lindsay Shelton – December 10

Let’s be pleased that the city council is developing a plan for strengthening the Town Hall without blowing its budget. And let’s be even more pleased that the plan includes long-overdue schemes for making better use of Civic Square – which has too often been an empty space.

But yesterday’s council announcement does raise a question or two.

The council put the brakes on, earlier this year, when the costs of strengthening the Town Hall went up to $60million. In the words of the mayor:

“The costs were well beyond the budget so we needed to take a more comprehensive approach. Now we have a very exciting proposal to complete the Square, attract more people and ensure our best music venues are fully utilised.”

Though $60million was a problem, we’re now told it’s possible to spend $96million on a wider range of projects including not only the town hall but other civic buildings and spaces, at a cost which will be “without undue burden on ratepayers.”

The council hopes to earn up to $25million of this total by allowing private developers to build 27-metre-high buildings on Jack Ilott Green and on part of the Michael Fowler Car Park, and by finding someone to pay a lease for the Municipal Office Building and use it as offices or a hotel. Not surprisingly, “a number of developers have made offers and expressed interest in a range of proposals and uses for the buildings and sites around Civic Square over the years.”

Such income, if it was confirmed, would bring down the total cost of the redevelopments that were announced yesterday. And central to the plan is what everyone agrees is necessary – strengthening and reopening the city’s magnificent 1901 Town Hall.

The NZSO has long been hoping that the Town Hall could become its permanent base. This now seems to be a secure plan, with even broader possibilities that are still being worked out. The mayor says

Once strengthened, the Town Hall would house a National Music Hub and the Council has engaged with Victoria University and the NZ Symphony Orchestra about how we ensure the world-class acoustics of the Town Hall auditorium are put to their best use. The recent Convention Centre decision frees up the Town Hall and MFC for a focus on music and performance, and this would also build our ability for recording film scores, as was done for the Hobbit trilogy.

And yesterday’s DomPost report confirms that the restored Town Hall would become a concert venue once more.

NZSO chief executive Christopher Blake said the Town Hall would be a “vibrant home for the NZSO”. Because the orchestra toured, the hall would still be available for public use, while also acting as a cultural hub for the city, he said.

It’s also creditable that the council at last recognises the need to do something about the neglected and under-used space of Civic Square, though $10million seems a lot of money to fix this too-often empty area. If the final budget has to be trimmed, Civic Square could easily be made more active for much less money. Just look at the popular sandpit and the colourful beach chairs.