by Diane Calvert
The irony is not lost. Karori Campus (the old Teachers College) is among the best examples of the “Brutalist” style of architecture in New Zealand. To some people this type of building may well seem austere and cold. To some of us it is just like the decisions now being made on its future.
The current owners of the campus, Victoria University, publicly advised a year ago that they were considering disposing of the site. In September they finalised that decision and gave a three month deadline (subsequently extended three months after the earthquake) to central and local government, to identify what was required to be retained as “public works”. This is part of the formal process before the land can be offered back to previous owners and/ or sold on the open market.
The Council and the Ministry’s needs for public works are limited under legislation – some space for pool parking, tennis/netball courts facilities and some bare land for a future technology hub. No other crown agency put their hand up showing any interest. However the local community and the wider city certainly does have an interest – past, present and future.
Last week, Wellington city councillors publicly criticised the university’s handling of the situation. Victoria University’s vice Chancellor-Grant Guilford hit back saying ‘If Councillors had done their due diligence, there might be more informed debate”. I have some sympathy for Professor Guildford’s comments. However there are always two sides to a story.
The University did decide to dispose of the property shortly after ownership was transferred to them. The University maintained the buildings over a number of years. However they had free use of them and in my mind this is what I’d classify as ‘rent’. The Council offered to work with the University and the Ministry on a “masterplan” for the site to maximise benefits for all. This was rejected by the University.
Those “brutal buildings”, if not repurposed, will take some knocking down. So much so that the cost of doing so is probably close to the actual value of the land.
The Karori community is now rightly concerned that well-used community facilities will be lost. Part of the problem I believe is we all been following the “process” in an orderly but rather bureaucratic manner. We have also only viewed this as a local community matter when, if we think of the potential benefits to our city’s economy and resilience capability, the issues are much broader.
In my view the process was flawed right from the start when the government allowed the Campus to be transferred for $10 without any future conditions for its use. The situation that both the local community and city now faces is real with the loss of a wonderful set of facilities (large hall, catering area, office space and creative spaces) because we’re insisting on following the ‘process’.
This should not just be a concern to Wellington city ratepayers. New Zealand taxpayers funded the campus so the government has responsibility to maximise this investment for public good. And where has central government been on all of this? Grant Robertson, the local Labour MP is doing his best, however Bill English, the Prime Minister (who lives in Karori) and the local National list MP, Paul Foster-Bell have been noticeably silent. Has their silence encouraged the wider Ministry and other government agencies to show no interest either?
Wellington already has a shortage of office space in its CBD. Another major earthquake aftershock would have significant consequences. The Karori Campus (only 15 minutes away from the CBD) is approximately 100% to code. The university offered the campus for office space after the earthquake. No government agency took them up on the offer.
So what next? We need to start viewing this issue from a Wellington city perspective and take back control from the dictated process. We need the Government to step up and take a lead, as it was their agencies that brought about this situation in the first place.
Get senior advisors from MBIE, Ministry of Education, Tertiary Education Commission, MSD and NZTA around the table to find an integrated and creative solution. The council needs to be at the table too, along with the Wellington Region Economic Development Agency (WREDA) and local resident and business communities..
The Karori Campus architecture is graceful and elegant. It deserves a graceful and elegant solution fit for the future and not to be brutally destroyed to the detriment of our city.
Diane Calvert is a Wellington City Councillor for Onslow-Western. – Karori is in her ward