Wellington Scoop

Saving the Library “if you had the will to do it”


by Lindsay Shelton
The most powerful statement at last July’s public meeting about the Central Library came from a Wellington structural engineer with 40 years experience. He said that work to reopen the building could start in two months – “if you had the will to do it.”

The question after the meeting (and still unanswered): is the city council serious when it says reopening the library is a priority?

Cr Iona Pannett said: “We’re getting the message. People want it reopened as soon as possible.” But she said that no decision could be made till after the October elections. And six months after those elections – there’s still no decision. A pretty good indication that she and the council are not “getting the message,” in spite of what they may be saying.

The Council’s then chief executive Kevin Lavery had an even longer timeframe. He said the future of the library was a high priority for the council but insisted no decisions would be possible for “more than a year.” He should have reconsidered his belief that there are “no quick or easy fixes,” after the statement at the meeting that work could be started within two months.

Structural engineer Adam Thornton described how the library building had been assessed at 60 per cent of the new building standard, but then new guidelines had pointed to a risk with the hollow-core floors – but only in the event of a big earthquake. “This,” he said, “is an easy mode to repair..all do-able.” Bracing would be added to fix the floors more securely to the columns and beams. Such strengthening would be a “relatively straightforward” project. And the existence of a basement car park would provide space for installation of base isolators. There would also have to be work to strengthen the stairs, and to further secure panels on the Victoria Street facade.

He estimated that demolishing and rebuilding would cost $140m, with the added problem that 18,000 tonnes of concrete would have to be moved, adding to the city’s carbon footprint at a time when it was aiming to become a carbon zero city. But strengthening could be done for $68million. And the work could be carried out in stages, with re-entry being possible after the first stage.

Cr Pannett said one of the issues was “how are we going to pay for it?”

In terms of priorities, this question should have had an easy answer. I asked her why the council wasn’t postponing construction of the convention centre, so that the budgetted $154m could be transferred to fixing the library. Surely a good idea when, as architect Gordon Moller pointed out, a million people use the library every year. But she said this could not be done, though she didn’t give reasons.

Hard to believe that the convention centre should keep this top priority, when it’s likely to lose money, and there’s no way that it will ever be used by a million people a year. In fact, it won’t attract much community use at all, and it’ll be closed for much of the time except when it has succeeded in attracting an occasional big event. Whereas the library is open to everyone every day of the year – but not till the council reconsiders its priorities and works out how it can be reopened.

The council should be aware that, as Adam Thornton told last July’s meeting, there are “lots of other Wellington buildings like this,” with extra support being added to ensure the seismic security of hollow-core floors. But there’s a difference. These buildings have not been closed, but continue to be occupied while strengthening work is carried out, floor by floor.

In the words of Gordon Moller: “The library isn’t damaged. It can be remediated.”

But when?

[This article is an edited version of the original which was published on July 16, one day after the public meeting.]

Read also:
Library could be strengthened for $151m or $200m
Gordon Campbell: What’s wrong with Wellington


  1. lindsay, 23. May 2020, 9:24

    Adam Thornton’s warning about the dangers involved in demolishing the Central Library are being overlooked in the current unfocussed discussions. His quote (made last July) for the cost of rebuilding is close to the estimate that the council is giving us in its selective extracts from the engineers’ report that it is failing to release. So Thornton’s statement that the Library could be strengthened and reopened for $68m must be given proper recognition. Of course, first the council must show that it has the will to do it.

  2. Joanne Perkins, 23. May 2020, 9:32

    If you add the cost of demolishing the library to the cost of building a new one, suddenly that makes the fixing of the existing structure somewhat more reasonable. Of course this depends on the truth of what we were told this week regarding costs, something I don’t take for granted. It’s time all the papers associated with the Library were completely open to the public, you know, the people who the council are supposed to represent and who, in the end, are the ones who will pay for whatever choice is made.

  3. michael, 23. May 2020, 12:29

    The issue of the central library is an example of how far removed councillors are from their constituents and how councillors’ claims to listen are empty rhetoric. The public meeting made it very clear how Wellingtonians felt about their library and Adam Thornton said the work required to strengthen the library could start in two months, if there was the will. Yet the council dismissed this in favour of engaging an Auckland academic to write a report. So much for supporting local businesses and experts. And now we are faced with a report which includes massive additional costs to reconfigure the library to a new council agenda, with years of more talk and consultation. As a result, post-covid, when we so desperately need it, the Wellington public continues to face the enormous loss of the only facility that provided so much to the community.

  4. Peter S, 23. May 2020, 15:06

    The decision to build the convention centre was the dumbest WCC decision in several generations. With the library, and the entire civic centre, this council has the opportunity to make the boldest decision in decades. But given their past record, I am not expecting much, except that rates will keep going up, and up. How about this idea? Do the bare minimum on the Central Library building to get it open again ($33m for basic EQ strengthening), then consider knocking down the CAB (civic administration building, the brown curved building) and building a new iconic library on that site.

  5. Michael Pringle, 23. May 2020, 15:23

    Totally agree with michael above, and Lindsay and other commentators. This whole saga unfortunately points to an enraging lack of commitment and will on the part of our councillors – yet their “will” to pursue the Convention Centre white elephant seems to know no bounds.
    There is no public mandate or licence for the Council to present their various options before us when there already was Adam Thornton’s option which they have chosen to ignore. We could have had the library reopened by now. So I will not be contributing to the bogus consultation process that they are about to embark on, and regret my vote for Foster in the belief that he would fix the library. The sort of library that Christchurch and Johnsonville now have is one where there are few books and people come in to use the free Wifi. That, I fear, is what Cr Fitzsimons and others want for our library. But they have no mandate at all for this from the people of Wellington. More than one million people a year used it, and still they seem not to understand its importance to Wellington.

  6. Wendy, 23. May 2020, 16:14

    Dozens of buildings in Wellington have been strengthened over past years and very few of them resorted to massive make-overs. Why does everything the council do seem to have another agenda, and how can we ever trust that any consultation carried out will not be slanted to ensure they get what they want. A whole year has been wasted thinking up expensive changes and additions, while all we want is our library back. Just listen to the public, strengthen the building, open the library, and worry about massive changes in the future when the city is in a position to afford them.

  7. Geraldine, 23. May 2020, 16:44

    Where is the two stage option for strengthening? Is the 40%NBS (base) option really an option when WCC’s policy position has always been to strengthen to above 67%NBS to get buildings out of the ‘earthquake-risk’ category. If this is a stand-alone option, it raises questions about why the other WCC-owned EQprone buildings have been strengthened to a higher threshold at higher costs.

    A 40% NBS option (or similar) as stage one is viable – get it strengthened and operating asap. Then budget for the base-isolation strengthening. There will be trade-offs, but that is the reality that is facing apartment owners in earthquake-prone buildings and the majority of people in their daily lives.

    Achieving a modernised library service will have to wait or be delivered in another way. Such as using the satellite branches that are being established to provide aspects of that service.

  8. Phil, 23. May 2020, 23:42

    The WCC doesn’t appear to recognise the importance of the library as a community focus point. Nor do they appear to recognise the poor look for the city to have this large structure in the centre of the city effectively in a state of dereliction.

    Also, why does the WCC continue to ignore structural engineer’s Adam Thornton’s sensible low cost library strengthening proposal’s ?

    Why does the council persist in using rate payers money in strengthening its buildings to far higher standards than appears warranted ?

  9. Northland, 24. May 2020, 8:29

    The Council can’t help themselves. Give them a molehill and they will surely make a mountain.

  10. Martin, 24. May 2020, 9:13

    We’ve had 100% compliant buildings in Wellington that have had to be demolished, while buildings with lower ratings still stand strong.

    We Wellingtonians do not trust the council and their rating system.

    The C-19 event clearly shows that a convention centre will not be in high demand for use and is no priority.

  11. John K, 24. May 2020, 10:37

    We are now (finally) aware that the building is not an Earthquake Prone Building but does have a structural weakness resulting from a fixing detail commonly used for the past 45 years. It seems to me that the officers have difficulty disseminating the difference between resilience and a structural weakness. Adam is correct – the remedy is simple and quite cost effective. By introducing base isolators, the seismic demand on the existing structure can be managed so as to control future costs. It appears that we ratepayers are being flanneled by council staff into believing that the library is “munted” when it is not. By introducing other issues, they are clouding the discussion and hope to create yet another “monument” so that they have their legacy left after they have gone.

  12. Maurice, 24. May 2020, 13:06

    If there is a will to do something stupid then should we do it? It’s that sort of logic that gave us the convention centre.

  13. Bob, 24. May 2020, 13:14

    Watch out for the old “bait & switch”; from their behaviour they’ve clearly decided to reduce the central library service. A million people went to it because they wanted the service it provided – the council is planning a fake shell of a service instead.
    The “bait & switch” will be when they propose a quite pricey for what it does rubbish solution, then a fake inflated cost violently expensive one, then a middle priced one of reduced services, inaccessible books, small footprint, scattered locations (flogging off floors to businesses), that they have decided to do anyway. They’ll say we consulted the public and we’re going with most people’s 2nd choice.
    They’ll try to fool you and reduce the backlash by saying “a better fit for the community,” we’re doing “more with less” because of new technologies, we’re “cutting-edge!” All while not providing what the capital city’s central library has done for its citizens for over 175 years – tools for the community to build careers, lives, and better themselves with the breadth & depth of society’s shared knowledge.
    The costings will be understated till it’s too late but will immediately balloon, the new tech will prove more expensive and instantly out of date/not fit for purpose and will be paid for by buying fewer books, employing fewer librarians, and reducing the programmes they run.
    The capital’s Central Library deserves better than short-term (& more expensive in the long run) fixes just for the next election cycle. Libraries think in terms of future decades and growing communities and individual lives, it’s time our elected representatives do so too.. we need it back asap to support people in the coming covid19 recession.

  14. Iona Pannett, 24. May 2020, 18:24

    Thanks everyone for your feedback on whether we strengthen the library or build another one, really useful and a good starter for engagement on this very important topic! [via twitter]

  15. Northland, 24. May 2020, 22:02

    Iona, please can we scale back on the ‘grand plans’. The public has no appetite for them. It’s not just the eye watering $200m price tag, it’s also the interminable wait for anything to happen.

  16. Peter S, 25. May 2020, 0:40

    Thanks Iona. But the engagement should have started the day after the central library was closed!!! Instead, we have lost a year while waiting for the elusive engineer’s report, while the council officers, and whoever they collaborate with (certainly not the citizens of Wellington), have built up all the layers of spin around future options, with the inevitable result that the public will be “herded” towards an unwanted and unsatisfactory solution. And the rates will keep going up, no matter what.

  17. James, 25. May 2020, 10:11

    The engagement plan includes ‘acknowledge people’s frustrations about the building being closed.’ At least that is recognised, but the plans suggest reopening would not be until the middle of 2026. Frustrations will only build over the next six years, especially when so much time has already been wasted.

  18. Henry Filth, 26. May 2020, 12:53

    Bob, you are a cynical, cynical person. I suspect that this may well be grounded in experience.