At the weekend, Philip Matthews had a fantastic piece on the Town Hall in the Mainlander section of the Press. Reading between the lines, it seemed like the Town Hall was to be saved. Cut to Monday’s Press, with a front page headline and a perspective piece from Gerry Brownlee in which he states that he wants the Town Hall flattened. He’s goes through the usual arguments, says that “Share An Idea” gives him a mandate to do it, and has a bizarre swipe at the Sydney Opera House. Dr Ian Lochead rebuts all of these bizarre claims in an opinion piece in today’s Press. 

So why is Brownlee so eager to fire up the bulldozers? As with most things, sadly, it comes down to money. Of the rebuild cost of the Town Hall, $69 million is meant to come from insurance. The council is going to be stumping up the remainder of the cost. However, if Brownlee pulls down the Town Hall, he can pocket that $69 million, and use it to fund the “Performing Arts Precinct“, which is set down in the blueprint. 

This Precinct aims to accommodate a range of facilities in the event that the Town Hall cannot be repaired (my emphasis)

What happens in the event that the Town Hall can be repaired? It would follow that the Performing Arts Precinct would then be called into question, which would probably be ok: The Town Hall would be able to accommodate a lot of the performances; the Court Theatre has a new home in Addington; the Theatre Royal rebuild seems to be going along with Gandalf’s help.

So why is this a big deal? Well, the Performing Arts Precinct ties in to that other great white elephant: the convention centre. The convention centre project has similarities with the SkyCity deal: the government will offer favourable conditions to the developer or developers who build the convention centre. In this case, it’s not a casino, but the ability to build multi-storey hotels. Remember how the CBD was going to have a height limit on buildings? Well, that wouldn’t apply to the developer who built the convention centre:

Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee said the limit would not apply to the two convention centre hotels because of “the economics of the hotel industry”.

So if you build the convention centre, you get a monopoly on CBD hotels. These hotels just happen to be right next to the performing arts precinct. How convenient. You can see Gerry’s thinking behind this: I build the performing arts precinct, to sweeten the deal for the people who are going to build the convention centre. Knocking down the Town Hall is the first domino, the one that leads to the seed funding for the performing arts precinct, which leads to the convention centre. If we can keep the Town Hall up, the rest of Gerry’s plan will fall over.

It seems as though the hard word is being put on CERA from Treasury. In their attempt to get the books in the black, it seems as though no extra spending will be available for Gerry’s pet projects. He has responded in two ways to this: demand the council pay more, and then threaten them with asset sales, or looking at the insurance payments for big ticket council buildings and trying to put them into other projects. I have heard it suggested that he even looked at the $30-40 million payout he could get from bowling the public Art Gallery, before someone reminded him of the intense emotional connection that most Cantabrians have with that building. As with the Town Hall, this anecdote shows the intense ignorance that this man has for anything cultural or heritage, anything that has a value that can’t be mapped as a stock price or pocketed as a dividend. That’s why the battle for the Town Hall is one that pits heart against hammer, and is one we can’t afford to lose.