Wellington Scoop

Deciding on the future of Civic Square

civic square council drawing

by Helene Ritchie
I mourn the loss of what was until recently our magnificent inviting active world class Civic Centre. It is first and foremost the people’s place, a public amenity, not private property or property to be privatised.

The concept for our Civic Centre was a public space enclosed and sheltered by world class old and new architecture – the Town Hall, the Michael Fowler Centre, the Central Library, the City Gallery, and offices for council staff – as well as water features, nikau sculptures, and linking to the waterfront.

In 1987 we determined to give Wellington a heart and we did. Earlier, former councils with foresight had brought together a series of separate land titles. We closed Mercer Street and the Civic Centre was developed, approved and completed. That it ever was agreed, achieved, and funded fully by the Council was frankly a civic miracle.

It became a key flagship place for the Capital. It was once a very active place with the thoroughfares, demonstrations, capping events, festivals, music, concerts, events, people relaxing, civic governance and council services; it was open at night with its two concert halls – not only for concerts but also for all kinds of other public activity.

But since 2010, it has been shamelessly run down by the City Council. Fully occupied buildings have been emptied and closed, and pedestrian access has been closed off.

Misinformation seems to be the hallmark, blaming ‘earthquake prone’ for the need to demolish or close buildings. But contrary to Council ‘spin’, the truth is that neither the Library, nor the CAB (‘pink building’), nor the MOB were ever listed as earthquake prone. The Town Hall itself is listed as ‘earthquake rating unknown’.

Having closed it off and neglected it, the council now proclaims that the Civic Centre needs to be ‘activated’. But how? Does that mean inviting alcohol, retail and commercial activity, night and day noise into the area, as proposed in the draft Framework. Like Courtenay Place? Or will it be a new park and green space? Or both (so called ‘mixed use’)? Or something else?

The draft Te Ngākau Civic Precinct Framework is being considered by councillors today. The plan is for ‘consulting’ the public on ‘developing’ the Framework to define the future of Te Ngakau, but gives this only four weeks (19 May-15 June) through a ‘process’ of ‘sharing of information’ in a plethora of websites, social media etc.

In other words, it is less interested in listening to advice from the public, and more focussed on telling them what it is proposing. The Council has already made decisions, without any meaningful public consultation. It has had officer-driven workshops away from the public eye. It intends to demolish one building and likely another, and it is about to approve an officer-driven draft Framework produced by a property group and staff, which was written after consulting a few people listed as including the hospitality sector, council’s tourism organisation and one member of the public.

‘Partnering’ aka Privatisation

The draft Framework is replete with proposals to privatise (‘partnering’ is the euphemism). Officers may already have had discussions with developers eager to lease land and erect privately-owned buildings.

Mayor Andy Foster, despite losing his plan to privatise part of the library building, has again said he thinks it is inevitable the council will need to bring in private developers.

(I ask rhetorically: “Would we ever consider selling off parts of Parliament and its open space?”)

Fiscal constraints may now force a piecemeal approach, but there needs to be an eventual integrated outcome. We need to ensure public access, maintenance of the remaining public open spaces, and restoration of a sense of quality and safety as soon as is possible.

Next steps

• Top priority: immediate action – A quality well designed open space green park. If the council decides to demolish, it should then ring-fence the insurance claim for the damaged ‘pink building’ ($36 million) as ‘green park funds’, and use some to develop an open space green park where the buildings once stood, starting with a landscape architect competition (as was done for Waitangi Park). That should proceed with urgency.

Eventually this would form a green open space ‘necklace’ through to the waterfront parks of Kumototo, Frank Kitts, St Johns, Waitangi and Oriental Bay.

The pedestrianisation of Wakefield Street, which I support, should be a later consideration.

• Top Priority: public safety – the Capital ‘E’ and the City to Sea Bridge must be strengthened.

The Council needs to focus its mind on Capital ‘E’, the earthquake prone listed building which props up part of the heavily used unique City to Sea Bridge, with its splendid views of mountain and harbour, and the unique sculptures by Para Matchitt, tangata whenua, known for combining traditional art forms, with those of modernist art. But reading between the lines of the Council officers’ draft framework, it looks as if that too is in the Council’s demolition sights.

• Framework Development – an iterative process must be negotiated with the public to reach consensus about its future. The Framework development must start with agreement on underlying guiding principles such as – a place for open public pedestrian access, safety, public ownership and management, significant green open space, civic and associated amenity, etc. The process must start with the question: “What are the agreed underlying principles to be?” and not as now, with “What buildings can we do next?” (which we cannot afford).

• Public engagement – I am establishing a public organisation, Civic Watch, (CW), not to fight the council but to work with it in a constructive way. There is much more to be said and achieved.

Most public amenity in central Wellington has only been achieved with a fight, often but not always in Court. But Wellingtonians are used to that. We fought to save the Town Hall (twice), we fought for open and green space on the Waterfront through the Courts, on the streets, and in a historic Town Hall meeting. Last year, we fought to save the Library.

The civic centre was however achieved without a public fight, and so was the successful protection of the Town Belt where a careful constructive iterative process was successfully negotiated with the public over time.

Debate regarding the Civic Centre should be first around the guiding Principles; then whether or not the council should privatise part of this public and civic amenity; whether the public wants a family friendly, safe alcohol-free space or whether it wants more day and night noise (aka ‘activity’); or whether we need green places for contemplation and calm relaxation; and whether we should allow demolition of the Municipal Office Building. Will this be a heritage-centred discussion, or will we protest and go to Court?

Rome was not built in a day, nor will our civic centre be ‘rebuilt’ for years, despite the miraculous achievement 30 years ago. But now that the heart has been broken, it needs to be healed, not broken up into privatised pieces. I know the Council can do it. I saw it done 30 years ago.

Helene Ritchie, a former deputy mayor, led the civic centre project and the project to have Town Belt protected in law.


  1. David Mackenzie, 8. April 2021, 9:13

    “Framework Development.” Usually the public are consulted only when plans are formed and costed and firmly committed to. Let’s consult for ideas and concepts. Free of guidance and direction from those who already know better than the public what is possible and what will actual be done. In other words real gathering of opinion with open questions would restore faith which has totally been lost in civic governance processes.

  2. Traveller, 8. April 2021, 9:21

    At a Committee meeting on 4 March, councillors passed the following resolution: “Agree the Framework for Te Ngākau Civic Square precinct is developed on the basis that Council is committed to Te Ngākau Civic Square being the musical, creative and democratic heart of Wellington, with the main Wellington City Council premises returning to Te Ngākau Civic Square as part of its development.” And today’s meeting is being told: “The affordability of restoring Te Ngākau is a major issue for Council and given the current and future financial constraints cannot afford to fund this alone.”

  3. Ralf, 8. April 2021, 11:59

    “Would we ever consider selling off parts of Parliament and its open space?” to which I answer: If Mayor Andy becomes PM then yes, of course we would find “partners” to revitalize our parliament.

    I also would like to see some work being done on the City To Sea Bridge. This is an example where the council did not close it off because it was “earthquake prone” since that would have meant a fight with car users, something the council avoids at all costs.

  4. Claire, 8. April 2021, 13:27

    I do not see a problem in pulling down some Civic Square buildings and maybe only one going back up. A new building could have some apartments and shops also. This is not evil. The buildings are not really assets at all. Parliament is a historic precinct with much better buildings. Also Govt groups are not all there but in buildings they do not own. Why would they own them – it’s more expensive.

  5. Greenwelly, 8. April 2021, 13:43

    @Ralf, its not the “bridge” part that is the problem… It is the roof of Capital E which is used as the access promenade that fails the earthquake standard…

  6. Art Vandelay, 8. April 2021, 15:25

    @Claire, I think the vast majority of the city will disagree that owning the buildings is more expensive. If renting was cheaper than buying, we wouldn’t all be desperately buying houses like our lives depend on it. Selling off the city’s assets was, and is a huge mistake; why do you think the council needs to hike the rates up so much? Because it’s the last and only income stream they have left.

  7. Claire, 8. April 2021, 15:47

    Art: if you factor in having to strengthen a building or rebuild it such as the WCC has with three or four buildings, it becomes a millstone as are the other 600 or so round the city needing work. Also the astronomical insurance. Houses are a different proposition – as long as you spend a few grand a year on maintenance, no problem. They generally don’t suffer major failure as bigger buildings have in Wellington. So renting office space starts to look cheap now.

  8. Wendy, 8. April 2021, 18:04

    So, the Council is committed to Te Ngākau Civic Square being the musical, creative and democratic heart of Wellington. What about the inner-city residents who are now the biggest suburb in Wellington in terms of population, and who have extremely limited community and green spaces. As major stakeholders in the inner-city, why has it not been acknowledged by council that the civic square is also the only community hub for inner-city residents, and therefore their needs in this regard should incorporated into the design.

  9. Meredith, 8. April 2021, 19:35

    Claire, the Civic Centre as a whole is listed and protected as a heritage precinct in the District Plan. All of its buildings, dating back to the Town hall 1904, are historic heritage architecture, some category one (the highest) from Heritage New Zealand, and all part of the heritage precinct.

    So you want any pre 1990 house (when the last building in Civic Centre was built) to be bowled and replaced with apartment blocks? I thought you did not want such demolition of our architectural heritage? Or is it only when it belongs to the public.

  10. Peter, 8. April 2021, 21:39

    Meredith, I am finding it difficult to understand why buildings erected up to 1990 are protected, I am unclear why an 1989 building has historical importance.

  11. Claire, 9. April 2021, 8:00

    Meredith I am for heritage protection. But at least two buildings (the pink one and the large white one) probably can be replaced by one. Private work is okay and there may be some apartments and shops to liven up the square. WCC cannot afford to fix every building there. Does the square have to be exactly the same. Can we think out of the box.

  12. Hel, 9. April 2021, 9:09

    Civic Square is an important part of the city but you’d have to be blind not to see the issues there. There are only a couple of buildings remaining in use, the square is not well connected and the buildings are basically islands that don’t work with the public spaces. Seems to me we can be nostalgic and be a slave to what was there and Council pick up the bill, aka ratepayers, or we can rethink the approach and how it can be paid for. Nice to see the Council not straight away reaching for the ratepayer blank cheque as the only option.

  13. Meredith, 9. April 2021, 9:15

    Claire. More apartments and shops equals heritage protection?? What about a shop free space? Have you noticed how lively apartments are at night? They are all asleep at night, and at work during the day. Private work is not the same as privatisation and the sale of public assets built up over generations for generations to enjoy. Do you agree with a wonderful park/green space/trees/planting and competition as suggested by Helene?

  14. michael, 9. April 2021, 9:39

    If Civic Square turns into another “Courtenay Place” then it will become an area that many people will avoid. It should be an alcohol-free community area with relaxing spaces, especially as the Library is the main attraction there.

  15. D'Esterre, 9. April 2021, 13:43

    I agree with Helene’s comments. I liked Civic Square the way it was when we returned to Wellington. I’d like it to be restored to what it used to be. I don’t favour the idea of apartments in that area. It’s supposed to be a public space: I’d prefer it to remain that way.

    Greenwelly: “… it’s not the ‘bridge’ part that is the problem … It is the roof of Capital E which is used as the access promenade that fails the earthquake standard. That would be a relatively straightforward problem to fix, I’d have thought. The bridge has become an integral part of access to the waterfront from that part of the city, and vice versa, of course. It’s difficult to imagine Wellington without it.

  16. Conor, 9. April 2021, 20:42

    Claire – great to hear you coming round to the need to replace some buildings past their use by date with apartments. Next stop Newtown!

  17. Claire, 10. April 2021, 10:30

    Conor: the square has some buildings that WCC cannot afford to fix. To demolish is their call. And to use privatisation to put up or help with any of those buildings may help with the costs. It could be a good place for some apartments.
    Building apartments in low rise suburbs is a totally different proposition. WCC should do what Christchurch is proposing and instigate land rating. That may free up suitable unused sites.

  18. Mickey Mouse, 10. April 2021, 14:33

    Claire have you factored in the cost of demolitions, legal costs, landfill costs, environmental costs, cost of Council rent to remain in a private building hard to access away from the Civic Centre, and additional costs now to add on to the Library … This is all contrary to the public interest. But we will just pay for it.

  19. Claire, 10. April 2021, 17:52

    Mickey: the council intends demolishing the pink building and the taller white one as they cannot be fixed at a reasonable price. As with any demolition you would need to factor in those costs. So I assume they have. It’s not my plan.

  20. Helene Ritchie, 13. April 2021, 13:46

    Claire, you say that the ‘pink building’ could not be fixed at a reasonable cost but you do not give costs. If it is only a cost question, we have some:
    the insurance company and the Council settled at $36 million to fix that building.
    Council staff said a replacement Library there would cost about $200 million as a new build there.
    Which cost is reasonable?

    However, it seems that Council is intent on demolishing the two buildings for whatever reason (neither is earthquake prone). If that happens then the insurance money should be used for a competition on agreed green open space there as I advance above, and as the priority to reopen our civic centre, and to invite the public back in.