Wellington Scoop

Ignoring consensus for the Library

central library consensus ignored

by Helene Ritchie
With fascination I watched this week’s Wellington City Council meeting where councillors yet again discussed the future of the Central Library which sits empty, barricaded in the heart of Wellington as a sad symbol of Council paralysis.

The core of the debate was whether it was the Council’s preference to “reopen the Central Library” (i.e. the closed Central Library), or reopen a (any, anywhere) central library.

What fascinated me about this meeting was the discussion between Council and staff over “a” and “the”. Why were the staff insistent that the should become a ? Who would have thought that such hair splitting was a crucial sticking point for officers? Why? I decided to look further.

The Central Library was closed in March last year, and nothing concrete has happened since. The former mayor told us a year ago that there was “reasonable likelihood of demolition”, the barricades went up, a mural went around it, approximately 12 reports were written, and meetings were held. All the Council has done since was to appoint a lauded eminent Professor of Engineering, Ken Elwood (a diversionary tactic?), and to task him with bringing together engineers and architects to produce options for the Council.

He seems not to have produced a report. Instead, consultants told council staff in an October 2019 letter:

“Wellington City Council convened a workshop where the attendants, including a range of engineers, contractors and architects discussed the potential options for the library. The general consensus of the group was to consider three primary strengthening options…”

Council staff then use similar words in their paper for the May 27 meeting, noting “preliminary designs and costs for three structural remediation schemes for the Central Library Building have been completed in consultation with a cross section of senior structural engineers.”

Why then did a new build suddenly appear as three additional costed options in the report for the same meeting? Why did staff ignore the consensus and ask councillors to note that “a modernised library service could be accommodated in either an appropriately remediated and reconfigured Central Library Building, or in another fit for purpose building.”

Demolition and rebuild had not been one of the options proposed in the consensus of architects and engineers.

When this week’s meeting (adjourned from May 27) was over, the Council then told the media it had a “clear … preference” when it did not have one – it had a “bob each way” because it had made three conflicting decisions during the one meeting, and then wrapped them up as one resolution.

The first decision (2) was to

“agree that the Council will make the re-opening of a (not the) Central Library one of its top priorities given that Wellingtonians place a high value on this service and that there is a strong community desire to see this service return as soon as possible.”

The second decision (10) noted

“that a modernised library could be accommodated in either an appropriately remediated and reconfigured Central Library building, or in another fit for purpose building.”

(This would account for the staff insistence to replace the with a.)

There’s hope however – because there was also a third decision (13) in which councillors agreed

that the Council’s current preference is to strengthen and upgrade the existing central library building, noting that options to achieve this, and all other practicable options, will be considered as part of planned community consultation in August/September

What exactly did they decide, and which point of view will prevail?

The Central Library could have been fixed and reopened by now. Instead the Council continues to dither, without clear and unequivocal commitment. Further, it agreed at this week’s meeting to grant $2million to “advance developed design”, without having a proposal to design. Design of what?

The people have spoken over and over again. They want the Central Library fixed in the most cost-effective way and reopened at the earliest possible opportunity. Speaking at this week’s meeting as individuals, councillors seemed to agree with what the public wants.

Yet there was no “expediting” of the project. Instead it will take (according to the Council’s timetable) at least two and a half years from closure till tenders are awarded (in July to September 2021) before starting to remediate (I prefer fix) the Central Library.

It is not good enough to let the library continue to deteriorate, with the only visitors being rats and mice.

Helene Ritchie is a former deputy mayor and former Chair of the Civic Centre Project which included the Central Library.


  1. Michael Gibson, 6. June 2020, 10:31

    Come back, Helene!

  2. Polly, 6. June 2020, 11:35

    Thanks Helene. I would like to quote from the WCC’s 2011/12 Draft Annual Plan:
    Libraries are places to read, listen, find information and get together….they contribute to making Wellington more liveable, more inclusive, more actively engaged, better connected, healthier and safer. The Central Library has a substantial collection of reference information and a large and frequently updated selection of books, magazines and audio visual material. Surburban branch libraries offer a similar range but on a smaller scale. We’re preparing plans for a refresh of the Central Library which is 20 years old. A final funding decision on whether to go ahead will be made as part of the next long term plan in 2012.
    There is more of interest but enough for now.

  3. wendy, 6. June 2020, 14:04

    When the Library was closed last year, the public were told by CEO Kevin Lavery (on RNZ March 19) that, as strengthening was in the council plans, the council would find the investment to make this “cherished and much-loved venue “ safe for Wellingtonians. In July 2019 seismic engineer Adam Thornton pointed out how the library floors could be made safe and the building reopened within months for approximately $32 million. This was ignored and the WCC set about spending millions and millions opening central city hubs instead of spending that money on the cause of the Library closure to get it open, as the public were expecting and wanted.

    Now 15 months later, a controversial council-generated report with questionable costings for council-proposed solutions generated a massive backlash from the public, with some councillors finally coming out in support of the public wishes to get our iconic Library fixed and opened as soon as possible. Or have they really supported this? We now learn that council staff pushed for and received $2 million dollars to cost out designs for ‘a’ central library in preference to ‘the’ central library. So, when do we get consulted? Will it be at the start before any plans or designs are produced, or after the council has decided what it wants? We seem to be back to where we started, with years of delays ahead, while council officers continue to control the process and information, and more money is wasted.

  4. Northland, 6. June 2020, 16:43

    It’s clear that the Council are not providing the kind of consultation we need. The very first step, which could have been taken in the winter of 2019, should have been to consult with the public on whether to ‘immediately take appropriate strengthening measures on the existing library to bring it back to a good percentage of NBS and reopen it as soon as is practicable’, OR ‘to demolish the existing earthquake prone building and plan for replacement library services in a new building or buildings’. Instead, the Council decided to do what the Council seems to excel at – kick the ball down the round and tell the public ‘like it or lump it’.

  5. Scott Wilson, 6. June 2020, 16:55

    The council’s work environment is dysfunctional. They can’t attract or keep good people, the turnover is horrific. External employment professionals avoid them. The library debacle is a manifestation of this issue.

  6. michael, 6. June 2020, 16:58

    It now appears the council has had their own agenda, which does not match that of the public nor the initial assurances that their priority was to make the library safe and reopened as soon as possible. Some might think it an attractive idea to strengthen the library and add a new and very expensive fit-out, but surely it would be a far more effective strategy to fix the floors immediately, without spending millions on library hubs, and then work later toward a staged strengthening programme, as proposed by Adam Thornton.

  7. Trish Molloy, 6. June 2020, 21:59

    Procrastination of the highest degree. There should be accountability for this fiasco as ratepayers’ money is being frittered away on endless reports. The Mayor should call for immediate public consultation before another cent is spent.

  8. James, 8. June 2020, 10:24

    Polly quoted the 2011/12 draft annual plan: “We’re preparing plans for a refresh of the Central Library which is 20 years old. A final funding decision on whether to go ahead will be made as part of the next long term plan in 2012.”
    So I thought it would be interesting to check the long-term plan from 2012. It said “The Central Library is a significant city landmark which contributes to civic pride.” But the only library project mentioned was the new Johnsonville Library.

  9. Richard Keller, 8. June 2020, 11:37

    Thanks Helene. The current elected council would surely be amenable to a stabilize / open process. But being less experienced than previous councils, will they be able to stand up to the council officials?

  10. Concerned Wellingtonian, 8. June 2020, 11:54

    James, I regret that there has been something fundamentally wrong with WCC for many years. One can only hope that having a new CEO from New Zealand will make a nice change and that the fundamentals of keeping the best staff and infrastructure are now observed.

  11. Johnny H, 9. June 2020, 17:40

    I recall that the reason for the ‘the’ / ‘a’ change was covered in the meeting by the CEO; it was to protect the WCC from a legal challenge (which we as ratepayers ultimately cough up for) in case demolition and rebuilding is the only real option. The building is a true classic of post-modern NZ architecture which I’ve loved for years and I was really pleased that an agreement was passed that the preference of the council is to fix it up. However there HAS to be SOME point at which the cost of fixing the building reaches such a high cost that demolition and rebuilding is the only sensible thing to do without spending time and money in the environment court. The problem is that if you do major consented work on a building (which a seismic restrengthening is), you are legally obliged to bring things like fire protection systems, environment control, disabled toilets etc up to current standards and I seriously doubt that what was installed back in c. 1990 is still compliant. You legally can’t just do a $32m cheap-as-chips repair job by sticking in cross-bracing RSJ beams and angle-brackets and not bring all the other stuff up to code at the same time.
    I’m more surprised that what was discussed during the first half of the meeting hasn’t yet been raised here; that being the idea that Capital E should move into the library, which all the councilors seemed to think was a terrific idea. I imagine that if the building gets repaired and this proposal goes ahead, Capital E (which comes under the Museums Trust) will be expecting a substantial proportion of an entire floor.