by Helene Ritchie
Congratulations to the mayor for again expressing an intent to strengthen the Town Hall. The new Council should support the strengthening and just get on with it so that the Town Hall can be reopened at last.
But it is not scheduled to open till 2021 – which will be 12 years after it was declared earthquake prone in 2009. The decision to close it was made in 2012, so it will have been closed for nearly a decade.
The loss of income and the loss of a vibrant and beautiful music venue and auditorium have been considerable and will continue to be so long as the Town Hall remains closed.
It is a national shame that it will remain closed for nearly a decade. All effort should be made to open it before 2021 – why four more years?
The Town Hall is the centre of arts and culture for the capital city. It is our premier public building and is (or was) our seat of civic democracy. It is listed in the top category of heritage buildings and is an integral part of the heritage-listed Civic Centre which displays an interesting architectural juxtaposition of heritage and modern architecture.
Thirty-five years ago I moved at the Council (in 1982) to save the Town Hall from demolition, and councillors agreed. I will only be convinced that the strengthening project is cemented in when the tender is let and construction starts. That seems to be more than a year away at the earliest.
Every effort does need to be made to control the cost. However, significantly more capital expenditure is budgeted in the Council’s long term plan – amounting to $250 million for unnecessary vanity projects. The Council could transfer some of that budget to the Town Hall project.
Much strengthening and making-safe work has already been done. After the 1942 earthquake, the building was made safe and major parts such as the clock tower and external decoration was removed. Further significant strengthening took place in the early 1990s. The Town Hall has withstood thousands of earthquakes since 1904.
Personally, I would like to see a nod to the past character of the original Town Hall with a replica clock tower, perhaps with funding external to the Council. Just as the chimneys on the old wooden Government Building are safe replicas, so could a clock tower replica grace this important building.
Finally I suggest that an independent oversight/leadership group (similar to the waterfront leadership group and made up of members of the public), should be established, to help the Council accelerate the project, monitor the project-design, budget and timeline and progress the strengthening so that the Town Hall can be reopened at the earliest opportunity for the least cost possible.
As a former deputy mayor and chair of the Civic Centre project, and now a member of the public not holding any elected public office and with no political barrow to push, I would offer my time and experience to be part of such an independent group.
I want our premier building to be functioning and open again in our lifetime!
Helene Ritchie is a former deputy mayor and city councillor, who led the civic centre project which ultimately became the group of multiple heritage buildings, and the creation of the heart of the capital known today as Civic Square.