Wellington Scoop

Hidden and ignored: the 2013 report on the Central Library

by Helene Ritchie
In May this year, while researching my submission to the Wellington City Council requesting re-opening of the Central Library, I unearthed a 2013 report commissioned by council staff and written by the reputable firm of Holmes consulting engineers who had been asked to “evaluate the likely seismic performance of the existing Wellington City Library Building.”

I was a councillor then but at no time was I informed of the existence of that report, nor of the public dangers expressed. I doubt that any elected councillor or possibly even the mayor was told of its existence. Clearly the Chief Executive and some officers must have known of it and its recommendations. But even today it remains hidden. However, I would be surprised if the current mayor and councillors were not aware of it.

The Homes Report stated that the Library was not deserving of an earthquake prone building notice, (and it has never needed one since), but rather that there were “localised structural vulnerabilities”. These relate(d) in particular, to the depth (unseating) of the precast hollowcore floors, the stairs and precast façade panel connections. The report emphasised “potential collapse” of the floors, and went further to say “we do not believe liquefaction induced settlements would pose a significant risk to the library structure .. with bored piles throughout … and proximity to bedrock.”.

Holmes’ unequivocal recommendation in 2013 was “that Council consider a programme to implement securing works identified” and they “anticipated that these improvement measures would be undertaken at the earliest practicable opportunity.”

That was seven years ago. But instead of acting on the Holmes warning of potential floor collapse, the Council has called for more reports, peer reviews, more workshops, but over and over again, being told the same recommendations by professional engineers.

Since February 2013 until March 2019 when the Council suddenly closed, barricaded and emptied the library, over one million people have each year passed through its doors. But rather than taking the recommended action, the mayor and councillors have continued to seek officer reports, hold multiple council meetings and public consultations.

Had the Holmes recommendations been acted on, the library would be safely open now, and instead of being a symbol of Council procrastination would be a magnet drawing people into it and the City Centre. Ironically, it would have been one of the few safe large indoor havens, open during Level two of our Covid 19 requirements, just as Christchurch library has been.

When, six years after the Holmes recommendations, the Council suddenly closed the library last year, the then mayor subsequently said “there was a likelihood it would be demolished and rebuilt,” and a developer said it should be.

For some inexplicable reason, periodically there are attempts to demolish buildings in our civic centre.
(In the 1980s I was twice instrumental in preventing the demolition of two of those buildings, the Town Hall and the previous City Library now the City Art Gallery, and more recently I participated in the repeated fight to save the Town Hall from demolition.)

The Civic Centre used to be a highly utilised public place of great beauty, civic government, a
a place for the people, until the Council neglected to maintain it and then put up barricades around the library, the most poopular civic building in Wellington. The library and civic centre until recently held pride of place in the city. With Council commitment to urgent action to fix the library, Wellington’s heart, Te Ngakau, could again be beating.

As a former councillor and a ratepayer I dislike waste. I dislike civic vandalism. I dislike procrastination by the Council and I dislike my rates being diverted into unnecessary and expensive projects instead of into the multiple and fundamental infrastructure priorities which currently face the city.

In sum

The Central Library is neither earthquake prone nor damaged. The “localised structural vulnerabilities” identified by engineers as far back as seven years ago and since, need to be remediated and fixed.

The Holmes report said seven years ago “we anticipate that improvement measures … would be undertaken at the earliest practical opportunity to improve the performance of the overall building and eliminate localised risk.”

My request to the Council is to follow the science and the experts, adopt the recommendations in the Holmes report, and accordingly fix the Library forthwith in the most cost effective way, refurbish as necessary, and re-open it, as the Holmes engineers said, “at the earliest practical opportunity.”

Helene Ritchie made this submission to the city council as part of its consultation about the Central Library. She is a former deputy mayor of Wellington, and in the late 1980s she was chair of the Civic Centre Project which gave Wellington its heart and led to the design and construction of the new civic centre as an integrated whole. The project included the new library building, a new civic administration building, the development of civic square, retention and repurposing the old library building into the City Art Gallery, the unique City to Sea Bridge and its sculptures, and strengthening and refurbishing the Town Hall. (Sir) Ian Athfield, one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent architects, led the design of the Central Library.

300 submissions on Central Library – more wanted
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  1. Très Cool, 28. August 2020, 11:03

    Great detective work Helene. One wonders what would have happened had the Holmes report recommended demolition. Seems like the council keeps asking for reports until they receive the one they really want.

  2. Barbara Hodson, 28. August 2020, 15:19

    Bring Helen Ritchie back!!!! Very interesting report. Makes you wonder who is running things at the Council!

  3. Concerned Wellingtonian, 28. August 2020, 15:26

    I would like to know what new councillors think of this.

  4. Toni, 28. August 2020, 19:16

    This is disgraceful. To think the council has had this report since 2013 and had the audacity to imply they were acting in our best interests by suddenly closing the library in 2019, when they had known about the problem for 6 years and could have got on and fixed it. It seems council actions regarding the library have been disingenuous and more about a secret agenda. So why should we believe anything they tell us now?

  5. Andrew H, 28. August 2020, 19:23

    Good work Helene. It is outrageous that the council has not acted on this in the past. Council officers need to appraise the current councillors of the report. The Council then needs to act. We are facing huge cost pressures, so saving some of the potential $200m is civic duty. And who believes that the end cost will be the same as the budget? This should have been a a shovel-ready project, and it would get that part of the city open much sooner.

  6. Peter S, 28. August 2020, 19:34

    Seems like the council officers are the “organ grinder” and the elected councillors are the proverbial “monkey”. That is a major problem in local body politics these days. Who really is driving the machinations of the WCC?

  7. michael, 28. August 2020, 20:07

    Just another report the council has kept hidden and ignored. It is a total waste of public money. Where is the accountability?

  8. JohnK, 28. August 2020, 20:48

    Congratulations Helene, I received the report as a result of an OI request. Since then I have been dumbfounded by the arrogance of staff in promoting their wishes onto the elected representatives. The report was unequivocal in its recommendations and the language used was understandable by all.
    I have become disillusioned by the latest form of local government and can say with pride, this was almost impossible in my day. Councillors please perform as required by the new Act and please question everything presented.

  9. D'Esterre, 28. August 2020, 23:32

    Helene Ritchie for Mayor! I voted for her at the election won by Justin Lester.

    I’d very much like her to stand for mayor at the next election.

  10. Will, 29. August 2020, 9:34

    The Northern ward is particulate poorly served by the current trio of councillors. Helene is much missed.

  11. Wendy, 29. August 2020, 10:58

    If councillors did not see this report in 2013, I wonder how much more significant information has been withheld from councillors over the years? Does not inspire confidence in council decisions, or the way the council works.

  12. JohnK, 29. August 2020, 11:53

    Wendy after talking with the Mayor and our local Councillors it is obvious that the elected representatives appear to be given only selective and part of the information. One can speculate as to reason for this.
    It is a serious concern, but unless the representatives actually choose to do something about this it will continue as it apparently has done for quite a number of years. [See Helene’s comment].
    Prior to Local Government Reform in the late 1980s this was a possibility but then there were more senior managers who ensured that the full story was presented.

  13. wendy, 29. August 2020, 13:54

    @JohnK: If this is the case, why are councillors just sitting back and letting it happen? After all, if a life-threatening issue occurs because information was deliberately withheld, the buck still stops with them. Surely council officers have the responsibility to ensure our elected representatives are fully informed in an impartial and transparent manner and, if that is not happening, then steps should be taken to ensure that it does. Sounds like an independent investigation is required into the way the council operates.

  14. JohnK, 29. August 2020, 14:20

    The only way that will happen is if a Commissioner is appointed who controls Senior Management and replaces all elected representatives.

  15. Polly, 29. August 2020, 16:35

    Thank you again Helene and a reminder that back in 2013/14 the CEO Mr Lavery would have pulled down the Town Hall as he said it had “zero” return but thank heavens Mayor Celia did not agree, stating it was a historical building with world-renowned acoustics … A pity that work was not started then as no doubt costs would have been less than now.

  16. Simon, 29. August 2020, 16:41

    It is interesting to couple this with the statement made by the Wellington Central MP at the recent candidates’ meeting. He said that a review of current EQP legislation was being stymied by “officials” who did not agree with the Inner City Wellington position. I am beginning to think that the ongoing business that is Earthquake Strengthening is being driven by nameless people whose reasons are not open to public scrutiny.

    Our elected representatives should demand a review to shed light on why Wellingtonians are only being told certain parts of the story on legislation that is costing them Billions.

  17. Ian, 29. August 2020, 21:42

    If the report is so clear and unequivocal, why isn’t it available to us all?

  18. Toni, 30. August 2020, 0:16

    It seems that councillors are the proverbial mushrooms!
    Must be very dark in the council buildings.

  19. D'Esterre, 30. August 2020, 10:17

    Ian: “If the report is so clear and unequivocal, why isn’t it available to us all?”

    It’s on the Council website; you need to hunt for it though. Try an OIA request: that’ll give you the link.

  20. Ian, 30. August 2020, 17:03

    D’Esterre: “It’s on the Council website.” So give us the link – I like to be able to see the source of articles from the internet so I can make up my own informed decision. .. and where is the Council’s view on the report?

  21. JohnK, 31. August 2020, 10:53

    Ian, I have a copy of the report which I will be pleased to email you. The Council link has been closed and the only reports are the Aurecon and Opus reports on the stability of Hollow Core Floors. No surprises! Again I must congratulate Helene on finding it – The WCC website is one of the worst when it comes to searching for specific information.

  22. Toni, 31. August 2020, 11:26

    The website, like the consultation, only contains information the officers want us to see.

  23. Stuart Niven, 1. September 2020, 14:21

    My recollection is that this 2013 engineering advice to the Council was only recently strongly reiterated by Adam Thornton of Dunning Thornton – one of New Zealand’s most experienced and innovative civil engineers – in his presentation to last year’s public meeting on the future of the Library.
    If this advice had been followed we wouldn’t be staring at a walled-up mausoleum but we would be back in the warm embrace of our terrific Public Library.

  24. Jim, 1. September 2020, 14:41

    It never fails to amuse me how short people’s memories are on your pages Lindsay.

  25. Helene Ritchie, 1. September 2020, 17:56

    Stuart, thanks for this.
    Your recollection is correct re Adam Thornton.
    So many people expressed so much sadness and longing when the Library was suddenly closed in March last year and Adam proposed a cost and time effective solution at that public meeting.
    There is something special that we are all missing in our City – as you say, it is “the warm embrace of our terrific library.” What’s more we could have had that warm embrace even during Level 2 Covid times!

  26. Mavis, 2. September 2020, 11:30

    I have been thinking … As a longtime ratepayer and resident, I helped pay for the Central Library to be built. The question that councillors, as our representatives, need to ask of themselves is: “If this iconic Central Library used by over a million people in a year was demolished for no necessary reason, who would be pleased?” I think the answer would be a tiny handful of developers, if that. Expert engineering advice, since 2013, is and has been that Council just fix it.

    We have an opportunity to submit by September 7. We should.

  27. michael, 2. September 2020, 16:21

    A meeting last night regarding the library was told that the $200 million estimate for refurbishing and base isolating the Central Library can be reduced by 25%, while the cost of the new build at $160 million does not include base isolation and this would increase the cost. Evidently council officers are still working on the actual costs etc. So why have the council gone out to the public with published costings that are misleading? And why haven’t the council gone public to ensure people have the relevant facts?

  28. Trish, 2. September 2020, 20:54

    This will make a fantastic soap opera. I hope that someone is keeping notes!

  29. Richard Keller, 5. September 2020, 12:50

    Our current waiata singing council has great potential. But experience like that displayed here by Helene Ritchie is essential to help them mature. The Library is probably the flagship example of the neo-liberal attack on the ‘public good’. What more popular example of the public good is there than the Library? It should not be too late to reconsider the plan for the Library incorporating a wider discussion including the 2013 report.

  30. Dave B, 6. September 2020, 12:21

    Ok Helene, if you stand for mayor next time around you’ll get my vote. Other mayors in recent times have been serious let-downs.