by Lindsay Shelton
At last, the Wellington City Council is doing the right thing to save the Town Hall, with today’s announcement by Mayor Justin Lester of a new plan that aims to strengthen the beautiful auditorium, though the work won’t be completed till 2021.
Councillors have already twice voted unanimously (in 2013 and 2015) to save and strengthen the Town Hall. But those votes didn’t result in any work starting. Next week, they will be voting a third time – to support the plan that the mayor announced today. They must confirm their previous votes – by being unanimous again.
There is, of course, a cost. It’s gone up from $58m to (hold your breath) $84.9million. But there’s no alternative. The arguments for saving the building have been clearly and repeatedly stated since it was closed in 2013 – the Town Hall must be saved and it must be reopened. (Even if the latest opening date will be eight years since it was first locked up.)
Here’s how the mayor reassures us about the cost:
“The impact of this project has been factored into this year’s Annual Plan and this year’s portion can be met within the 3.3% average proposed rate increase I announced on Monday. The cost will be spread across the lifetime of the asset in order to minimise the impact on rates.”
“It’s been clear for a while that the previous plan wasn’t going to be enough to see this building restored. It’s not going to become cheaper in the future and building a replacement venue would be much more expensive and lack the tradition, heritage and prestige of the Town Hall.
“That’s why our Town Hall team has been re-visiting strengthening options in light of technological developments and ground conditions. They’ve also undertaken a review of the building’s proposed foundation design taking into account the 2013 and 2016 earthquakes.”
The strengthening – to 100 per cent of code – is to include base isolators; new screw piles to replace the unreinforced foundations; concrete overlay walls to stiffen perimeter unreinforced masonry walls; fixing the masonry walls to reinforced concrete floors; strengthening parapet walls to prevent falling; and adding concrete columns to strengthen the north wall of the auditorium. The West Hall will be demolished and reconstructed.
The design needs to be further developed before a main contractor can be selected at the end of this year. With so much preparation to be done, work won’t be starting till August next year.
The $85m cost is of course much less than the council has agreed to spend on the new Movie Museum and Convention Centre, which is now delayed. But saving the Town Hall is not negotiable. It’s a Category One listed heritage building that has been a focus for the city’s social and cultural life for more than a hundred years.
Even Peter Jackson says the Town Hall must be saved, because it’s a world-class auditorium with exceptional acoustics. “This recording space is a rare gem and its acclaimed sound qualities must be preserved for future generations to enjoy.” said Peter, for whom the NZSO recorded soundtracks for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit in the Town Hall.
Back in 2013, when the NZSO committed to the Music Hub project, the orchestra’s chief executive Christopher Blake put things into persuasive perspective:
“The NZSO envisages a transformation of the Wellington Town Hall into a major and nationally significant centre of excellence and innovation for education, music, culture and the arts with its world class auditorium at its heart. The Wellington City Council’s Civic Precinct Master Plan would ensure the internationally acclaimed acoustics of the Town Hall auditorium are put to their best use….Under the proposed collaboration … it would be a vibrant home for the NZSO and a centre for performance, teaching, research and composition as well as music technology, recording and innovation. We believe this national centre for music would significantly advance progress towards Wellington City Council’s vision Wellington Towards 2040: Smart Capital in a unique and tangible way.”
The other Music Hub partner (with the council and the NZSO) is the Victoria University Music School. We were told today that the university’s agreement is expected in June.
Since the Town Hall closed four years ago, the Arts Festival has been urging the council to start work on strengthening, not wanting to prolong the loss of one of its major venues. Paul Eagle echoed the festival’s concerns today:
“The Town Hall being closed has left a huge hole in the performance space in our city… I’m excited we have the opportunity to restore it.”
Let’s expect every councillor to agree, when the project is considered next week.