Wellington Scoop

Bringing life back to Civic Square

civic square perfect ex expedia

by Andy Foster
Te Ngakau – Civic Precinct should be the beating heart of our city – a place for events, music, entertainment, relaxation, casual fun, protests, celebrations; a place that reflects our heritage and our stories, a beautiful, flexible, resilient, connected place to enjoy and be proud of – a place for everyone, a place for life!

It must be so much better than the broken precinct it is today, or indeed its original design. It is a big challenge and a big opportunity. For the sake of our Central City, action is imperative.

This week the City Council will approve a draft Framework for consultation to guide redevelopment.

The 1980s vision to create a Civic Square from what was once Mercer Street was a great one. However the delivery has not stood the test of time seismically, and the design is fundamentally flawed. The Square is poorly connected to outside streets. There are large areas of poorly activated space. Not one of its buildings activates or engages the Square well.

Capital E leaks and is earthquake prone. It of course forms the City to Sea Bridge access.

MOB Wcc photo

The Municipal Office Building (MOB) barely avoids being earthquake prone (c 35% of code).

These vulnerabilities aren’t merely theoretical.

civic square two buildings

The adjacent Civic Administration Building (CAB) was significantly damaged by the Kaikoura earthquake, to the point that propping the structure was required to allow engineers to assess it as part of the insurance negotiations. The advice we’ve had is it was merely the direction of earthquake waves that meant the CAB, and not the Central Library, was damaged. I suspect only the 2015 removal of the portico linking the two buildings meant the library avoided damage.

Building services (heating, ventilation, air conditioning etc) are at the end of their lives. Ground levels are a hotchpotch. The Square itself is the roof of a carpark which can leak (from above and below) and is itself seismically challenged.

However we have begun the green shoots of repair and rejuvenation.

town hall without floor

Work on the very challenging and complex 1904 Town Hall project is thus far going well, a credit to the dedicated teamwork of Naylor Love, consultant engineers, subcontractors, and the Council’s project management team. Internal heritage features have been carefully removed and catalogued. 462 piles are being screwed into the ground. In my last visit at Christmas a new reinforced and concreted floor was going into the old Ilott Chamber. Some beams and base isolators were in place.

The building superstructure will ultimately be separated from the ground and sit on beams resting on 140 base isolators. What was also apparent was the limited above ground strengthening done in the late 1980s – early 1990s, and that crucially nothing had been done underground.

As a place of public assembly, if it were not being strengthened now it would now be red stickered and off limits.

Unfortunately this is the pattern around Te Ngakau Civic Precinct. Techniques and decisions of earlier times are now found wanting. But remarkably, some people are advocating we should keep relying on old techniques, deliberately limited strengthening, or that we shouldn’t do anything.

Wellingtonians responding to what was an excellent special consultation process on our central library last July – September were utterly clear that we should reject calls to do another ‘cheap’ strengthening job that would only just get the library above being a seismic life safety risk. Whether people preferred a new building or strengthening the existing building, the emphatic message was ‘do it once, do it right’ so that the building can survive a substantial earthquake. 80% of our 1456 submitters and 79% of our 1000 survey responders supported a high resilience option. Only 12% of submitters and 18% of survey responders wanted a less resilient option.

We agree. We do not want a future Council and future ratepayers to have to do it yet again. There was also strong support for integrating the library properly into Te Ngakau Civic Square and Harris Street. Again we agree. The Central Library will be a base isolated, fabulous, welcoming building, equipped for the diverse needs of modern Wellington, including service centre, Archives, Capital E and more. I look forward to unveiling interior design thinking shortly. We’re procuring professional services with complex detailed design to follow.

Discussions continue to bring the totality of the National School of Music (our New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and Victoria University School of Music) into Te Ngakau Civic Square.

NZ School of Music Director Sally Jane Norman has encouraged us to ‘fill Te Ngakau Civic Square with contagious new rhythms. People will come when they feel that vibe.’ The concept is enormously exciting for music, education, the life of the Square, and for our City’s cultural credentials.

civic-square council pic 2 buildings

So now to the MOB (1951) and damaged CAB (1992).

The clear advice is neither building is realistically or economically able to be made resilient enough to survive a substantial earthquake.

MOB next to town hall

Last December the Council agreed that the MOB should go as soon as possible. MOB shares a wall with the Town Hall West gallery and delays in decisions about MOB will impact on our Town Hall, delay accommodating the School of Music, potentially the Council, and delay delivery of a revitalised Te Ngakau Civic Square.

Our draft Long Term Plan proposes redevelopment of the MOB and CAB sites.

We also agreed that in the New Year we would put a draft Framework for redeveloping Te Ngakau Civic Square to Wellingtonians in the model of the successful Waterfront Framework.

civic square council pic 1

I want a framework that drives and guides action. The draft Framework we will approve for consultation this week proposes that Civic Square should be a resilient place of mixed use, as well as the Council’s principal home, and a centre of arts and culture, alongside principles such as resilience, inclusiveness, accessibility, connectedness, activation, safety, versatility, telling our stories, beauty and architectural attractiveness. It will be a place for performance and events.

The Framework proposes including a mix of private activity to bring more life and help pay for redevelopment. Most of the world’s great squares enjoy a mixture of uses. I’d like to see us use rooftop space, and consider shelter.

We, Council and community working together, now have the exciting opportunity to rethink and rebuild Te Ngakau Civic Square as a far more resilient, more accessible, more connected, more attractive, more active, better designed precinct than it ever has been. There are relevant elements in the draft LTP, and consultation on the Framework is proposed to follow immediately. We are also supporting the Civic Trust to hold a day-long forum on 15 May. I look forward to our community discussion.

Andy Foster is Mayor of Wellington


  1. Claire, 4. April 2021, 12:17

    I would like some apartments in the square. This would ensure some nighttime activity. And even a bit of retail and restaurant presence. And for the square to flow into the city and connect. And let’s have some trees.

  2. ICW, 4. April 2021, 12:59

    Inner City Wellington (ICW) maintains it is vital that any redesign of Te Ngākau-Civic Square recognises how inner-city residents now make up the largest suburb in Wellington in terms of population (in the smallest area of land in Wellington) and, as this population is expected to grow considerably, it is vital the Civic Square is recognised and developed as the heart of the Inner City Community, as well as the civic and cultural hub of the city.

  3. Pam, 4. April 2021, 13:04

    Let’s worry about the basics: sewerage and water. WCC has many projects on the go and the proposed rate rises are unacceptable without adding more costs.

  4. Local, 4. April 2021, 15:07

    Privatising? Demolishing?

  5. Conor, 4. April 2021, 15:42

    If you’re going to bowl MOB and CAB, you should probably close Wakefield Street to cars and ensure good pedestrian access from that side

  6. K, 4. April 2021, 17:01

    Knock down the MOB and CAB (which are currently not being used) and leave the area as a public park in the short/medium term. Take the insurance money from these buildings to help pay for other council capital costs (like the Library strengthening). Once Wellington has its horizontal 3 waters infrastructure up to standard & the LGWM project is finally done, then the council can start considering what sort of new buildings/facilities can replace the MOB/CAB (or whether it should remain a public park).

  7. Ralf, 6. April 2021, 12:10

    I like the idea of building a park in place of MOB/CAB if those are demolished. And of course I never oppose removing cars so making Wakefield Street a pedestrian zone would be welcome as well (this means that Lower Cuba Street would also be pedestrianized and would make the Civic Square the end point of the Cuba Street mall).

    The council has no money to build something in its place currently and privatizing that space would be a big mistake. Which naturally means that it will be an open space. I would oppose strongly a parking lot.

  8. Ben Schrader, 6. April 2021, 12:41

    I agree with those who suggest opening Te Ngākau on the Wakefield Street side so its easier and safer to access. Having only one entry/exit point on the city side where it’s hard to see what you’re entering into isn’t particularly inviting.

    I’d also reduce the amount of paving and replace it with lawns where you can sit and eat your lunch or kick a ball. Having a kinetic water feature in which kids could play on summer days – like the one in Auckland’s Britomart precinct – could attract families.

    Street cafes about the edges would encourage people-watching and make the place more vibrant and safer.

    The Council should also make a commitment to return to the space. This would not only mean that it lived up to its civic name but it would also provide customers for cafes and other enterprises within it.

  9. John H, 6. April 2021, 13:37

    You want the Central Library to include the Council Service Centre, the City Archives, Capital E “and more”? That doesn’t seem to leave a lot of room for the actual library…

    Also, with the Council (i.e. ratepayers) currently paying $3.6 million a year to lease a privately-owned building to accommodate their staff, why has there been no discussion about the Council itself returning to Civic Square?

  10. A J Corlett, 9. April 2021, 10:24

    1. It would seem prudent for the Council to lease office administration space for the foreseeable future, as it seems likely that there will be a surplus of office space available. This avoids further horrendous levels of reckless capital expenditure and even more damaging levels of ratepayer debt.
    2. When the Library and CAB buildings were opened, there was a report in the DomPost about how the linking portico between the two was engineered to allow decoupled movement in an earthquake. A somewhat different view to the Mayor’s (above). The whole design was, of course, signed off by the incumbent Council at that time.