The central bus exchange opened yesterday. I went down at the evening rush hour, just to see how everything was going, and it seems to be fine. I’m sure there will be some initial teething issues, but I’d like to see how it develops. I have two questions. The first is how the zig-zag bus bay structure works. If you haven’t been there yet, what happens is the bus pulls into a docking bay, where people can get on and off. When the bus is ready to leave, it then has to reverse back into the circle, before heading out again. While I was there yesterday, there were maybe 4 or 5 buses in the complex, and they didn’t seem to be getting in each other’s way. I wonder whether that will stay the same when all of the complex is open.

Secondly, is there any capacity for intercity buses? I suspect the answer is no, but it would seem to make sense if the buses that leave the city for Dunedin or the West Coast – of which there aren’t a huge number – could also use the facility. That would make travel more convenient for travellers from around the country and around the world.

Image of one of the new car-parking megastructures planned for Christchurch’s CBD (image source: CRUDE)

In a move that has been welcomed by the frequently ignored property developer class, the Finance Minister is expected to outline plans for a new focus on housing for cars in the Christchurch CBD as he delivers his 7th budget tomorrow. The plan will finally address the dire need for more carparks in the central city, a housing crisis which the government has repeatedly denied was an issue.

While the details have yet to be announced, Rebuilding Christchurch understands that the initiative, known as the Central Road Users and Developers Entity (CRUDE), will be focused on the East Frame. Stage One will see all remaining buildings in the government-owned East Frame demolished and replaced with car parking. Stage Two will involve a state-of-the-art, 4,500-berth facility built for the protection and security of cars. Stage Three of CRUDE will involve the repurposing of “people parks”, such as Latimer Square and the Margaret Mahy Playground, into parks for cars.

After years of being ignored, central city property developers are delighted with CRUDE. “We’re finally being listened to”, says developer Tony Trough. “We’ve been telling the government for years: you can’t have a successful city without cars. Just look at some of the great cities of the world: Los Angeles, Swindon, Los Angeles, Birmingham. They all have spectacular spaghetti junctions. With CRUDE, Christchurch finally has a chance to compete on the world stage.” Trough went on to say that the rights of cars have been ignored in the rebuild. “On any given day, there will be more cars in the CBD than people. Yet what are we doing for those cars? Nothing. They have no voice. Unless you have a late-model European car like I do, which tells you to put your seatbelt on. But apart from that, they’re silent.”

People living in the quake-damaged Eastern suburbs of the city who spoke with Rebuilding Christchurch on the condition of anonymity were supportive of the idea. Shoshanna, not her real name, lives with her 3 daughters, 2 sons, husband, de-facto partner, de facto partner’s ex, de facto partner’s ex’s nephew, de facto partner’s ex’s nephew’s wife and twin daughters, a wolfhound, two cats, a guinea pig and Jason Gunn in a 3-bedroom house in the suburb of Dallington. “After the quake, my whanau had nothing. No water, no power, no place to go. So I just opened the doors and let them all come here. It was a tight fit, so some of us had to sleep in the garage. Of course, that meant that the car had to go out on the street. We just never thought about the car. It’s been out there on the street for the best part of five years now. It can’t go on. So I’m grateful that the government is finally doing something [to house the cars].”

Rebuilding Christchurch understands that CRUDE will be partially funded by a series of toll-gates for pedestrians along the perimeter of the Four Avenues. Developer Trough thinks this is only fair. “For too long, people have just been walking along the streets without paying anything at all. They walk into shops, they walk up to the windows, but they don’t pay for anything. Foot traffic is welcome, but it needs to start paying its way, like real traffic does.” When asked about cyclists, Trough was less charitable. “Everyone knows you can’t ride a bike to go shopping. It’s political correctness gone stark raving mad. There is no place for them in this city.”

Given some of the recent bad publicity about the delays to key anchor projects, the government is very keen to see CRUDE up and running as soon as possible. Stage One is expected to be complete by the time the Finance Minister has finished delivering his speech; construction companies are working double-over-time to have Stage Two completed by Queen’s Birthday, when the Queen herself is expected to open the building by ceremonially driving her Bentley through a cavalcade of homeless people. Stage Three has no concrete completion date, as the repurposing of “people parks” is an ongoing project which the government is looking to roll out across the country.

The deadlines for a number of the apparently critical anchor projects were pushed out late last week. If you’ve read this blog, you know what my feelings are on those projects, so I won’t go into them again. However, there was one thing that especially concerned me: the cost. The delays were to three projects – the convention centre, the metro sports facility, and the Margaret Mahy playground. When defending the decision, Gerry Brownlee said that these were a billion dollars of projects and it needed to be done right.

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the three projects would cost about $1 billion between them, and it was important not to rush them.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment, but when did these three projects get to a billion dollars? I’ve looked back through the costs to try and find the original estimates. The playground is budgeted at $20 million. Metro Sports is meant to be around $225 million ($147m CCC + $70m Crown). The convention centre is meant to be around $500 million, with $284m of that being Crown money. Those of you with School C maths will have worked out that those totals come to $750 million, which is a full $250 million short of a billion. We know that the Prime Minister can’t rule out the Convention Centre cost rising – is that what is being signalled here? With the Council under the pump to sell assets or raise rates, it must be incredibly dispiriting to be working with a government that can’t even manage their end of the bargain without the costs blowing out by a third.

An opinion piece from Felicity Price ran in the Press last week, putting the case once again for the Council scrapping the Town Hall and spending the money on a performing arts precinct. Price used to be involved with both the Court Theatre and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and documents the hardship that people in the arts in Christchurch are going through.

Right now, our city’s musicians, actors and all the people they rely on for the show to go on, are enduring some pretty appalling conditions. The Council and Cera need to get back together and come up with a solution that doesn’t have our actors and musicians freezing to death for the next five years or more.

Court audiences love the funky, vibrant theatre in Addington, love being able to park for free right outside and have a better view of the stage than at the cramped Arts Centre venue. But they don’t have to build sets wearing battery-heated Antarctic-issue jackets and fingerless gloves, or get headaches from the strip lighting while they either freeze or fry in the poky portacabins out the back where wardrobe, ticket sales and admin are based.*

I’ve bolded that particular sentence, because I think it highlight’s Price’s argument. In her view, it is the responsibility of either the Council or CERA to come up with a scheme to stop actors and musicians from freezing to death. Call me old fashioned, but I thought it would have been the responsibility of the employer to ensure the wellbeing of their employees. As Price mentioned on a number of occasions, arts attendances are higher than they were pre-quake. Huge amounts of money were donated by individuals and businesses to help arts organisations. And yet, calls from these organisations – privately run organisations, I should add – for hand outs from the public continue with a depressing regularity.

If the attendances are up, as boasted about in the article, then surely you should be putting some of that revenue towards improving the wellbeing of your staff, or looking to improve your premises. But instead of taking responsibility, Price suggests that the already cash-strapped Council should be finding money in it’s budget to build facilities for a professional theatre company. While she is claiming that Court technicians are metaphorically freezing to death, the Council is having to debate whether it will put money towards people literally freezing to death. To me, this shows how detached from reality, and hand-out dependant, some of the top-level arts bureaucrats in this city have become post-quake (speaking at Gap Filler event a month or so ago, Jenny Harper suggested people submit to the Long Term Plan, asking them to postpone infrastructure works for another year or two so she could have her art acquisition budget restored.) Artists are notorious for having their heads in the clouds, but you could argue it’s the administrators – not the practitioners – who have taken leave of their senses.

* I am willing to bet that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people working in the building industry in Christchurch right now who suffer similar, if not worse conditions, every time the weather packs it in. But they don’t have PR people extolling their virtues in sympathetic opinion pieces in the Press, so they don’t count.

About a month ago, the incredibly useful FYI.org.nz website was relaunched with help from the NZ Herald. I had a few ideas for OIA requests in my head, and once the site was up again, I fired them off. One of these requests was about the app produced by Future Christchurch, call “Chch Story“:

Chch Story, a brand new mobile app packed full of inspirational stories from real people who’re making their mark on the city, as well as anchor project updates and interesting facts and figures about the rebuild and recovery. Stories are geo-tagged, so when the app is opened, viewers will automatically see a map with the stories that are closest to them.
“Initiatives like Chch Story are bringing to life the stories behind the bricks and mortar and giving people the opportunity to see what’s happening in the medium they like best,” says Mr Ombler.

This app cost the best part of $80,000 to develop (GST exclusive). I also asked for the number of times the app has been downloaded, which was 1447 times. That works out as $54 per app. Try and find another app in the app store which costs $54. CERA is throwing money and people to get their version of the rebuild story out to the public, with their rugby-team sized communication department, and this well-meaning but expensive foray into the digital world. The paltry number of downloads shows just how interested the public is in the official take. It’s hard to reconcile the brightly coloured, optimistic version portrayed through the official channels with the empty sites and road cones of the central city. Throwing good money at an app is clearly not the way to generate any meaningful engagement.

UPDATE: to quote Barnaby:

$80,000 on an app 1500 people have downloaded. Thats twice as much as we spent making and printing 2000 copies of the 500 page our book on the rebuild.

One the one hand, I think this is a good initiative. The council land from the old Henderson deal being using for housing. They look good and Welles St would be a great place to live at the moment.

On the other hand, the old “affordable” chestnut comes up again. $450,000 is affordable? Affordable for whom? There are still actual houses with actual backyards for sale in Christchurch under $400,000. Some aren’t much more than $300,000. So I can’t see how an apartment, with no land attached, on the outskirts of a CBD with little to no amenity value, can justify a $450k price tag. Or more than that, as 80% of the units will be. It might be affordable relative to Auckland, but this isn’t Auckland.

I’m genuinely interested in what the comparative cost of something similar in Wellington or Dunedin might be, and whether the economics of this stack up.

You have until midday today to make a submission to the Council on the Long Term Plan. You may want to make a submission to tell them how you feel about say asset sales, or the arts budget, or cycle ways, or councillor’s facial hair. All you have to do is go here and fill in as much or as little as you want.

I heard the front page story from yesterday’s Press second-hand from some guys in the tea room. I’m paraphrasing, but it went along the lines of “bloody hell. You hear about this cycle way crap? They could take all the money their going to spend on the cycle ways and buy everyone a car instead”.

I thought that sounded like an idiotic, Chinese Whispers version of the story. But alas, it isn’t:

University of Canterbury finance professor Glenn Boyle and PhD student James Hill have analysed the Christchurch City Council’s business case for the major cycleways programme and say it is “excessively optimistic”.

Boyle said the 18,000 increase in cycling trips expected as a result of the new cycleway network roughly translated into an additional 9000 people cycling. For $156m, the council could buy all those people brand new Suzuki Altos.

This is what happens when finance professors – cost of everything, value of nothing – sit down to try and analyse social projects. It’s a waste of money! It doesn’t add up! The council is wasting your money!

You could spend $156 million buying 9,000 people who might cycle a car. Did you consider what the impact of 9,000 more cars on our already congested roads might be? Did you consider that people who cycle and don’t own a car, like me, don’t necessarily want to own a car? I like getting around on a bike, I pay rates, and I shouldn’t be treated as though I’m just a wannabe car owner, biking around because I’m cheap. I’m not. I’ve made a conscious decision to ride a bike around, and shouldn’t be penalised for that because a wonk economist can’t see the financial utility in someone with different ideals and values to himself.

On Tuesday evening, Canadian urbanist Charles Montgomery gave a couple of lectures about his thoughts on Christchurch. I wasn’t there – it was cheap Tuesday date night* – but it sounds like he had some good things to say. The headline was the Convention Centre:

Putting a convention centre in the middle of Christchurch’s city centre is a mistake, Canadian urban experimentalist Charles Montgomery says.

“If your interest is in creating rich, social, connected enviroments in your core you should be very wary of plans to drop mega structures into that fabric. Convention centres are notorious, because of their architectural requirements, for killing street life around their edges,” Montgomery said.

The response from CCDU director Baden Ewart is straight from the CERA play book. He also had some interesting thoughts about residential density:

Montgomery said Christchurch should be encouraging higher density housing and aiming to have far more than 20,000 people living in the central city because that would increase opportunities for people to connect socially, which was the most important ingredient for human happiness. Within the central city core and the eastern frame, there were tremendous opportunities to create the kind of density people loved, he said.

“Young people want more freedom. They don’t want to spend their lives mowing a lawn. They want more freedom to spend time with their friends and families, to go out, to access the riches of the city. How do you get that? By moving a little closer together.”

This is all great stuff and I’m glad to see it getting some attention. But it does bring up a point that was raised to me by former mayor Garry Moore a few weeks ago – Overseas Expert Syndrome. Moore described how when he was mayor, people were far more likely to listen to someone with a funny accent coming here and telling us things, than we are to listen to our own experts. Which I’m sure is a thing worldwide, but we New Zealanders, with our sense of inferiority of place, seem more susceptible to this sort of approach.

The irony of which is that one of our very own experts, Gap Filler co-founder and Once in a Lifetime editor Dr Ryan Reynolds, is currently in Copenhagen, where he is lecturing on urban design and activism. Maybe when he gets back off the plan, we should listen a bit more carefully to what he has to say.

* I went to see Dior and I, which was very enjoyable, much of this was due to the performance of Raf Simons. If you would like to come and see another suave european named Raf, then tonight I’m hosting a debate with council finance supremo Raf Manji on asset sales. It’s at 5:30pm at the EPIC centre. Free to come along, and hopefully informative! More details here.

Tomorrow night at 5:30pm, the team who brought you Once In A Lifetime are hosting their first “Talking Heads” evening. It will feature Councillor Raf Manji in conversation with myself about the council’s asset sales plan. I’ll be asking him some questions, and if you’d like your question asked, then fire me an email (James dot Dann at Gmail dot Com). It’s free to come along, and we might head out after for a beer and to continue the conversation. 

TALKING HEADS #1: ASSET SALES

Cr Raf Manji in conversation with James Dann. 

5:30pm at the EPIC centre, corner Manchester and Tuam St

Free to come along

Email any questions to me before hand 

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