Tomorrow morning, the City Council will vote on the Town Hall. I hope that they do the right and and vote for full retention – as they have done in the past. In the past couple of months, the Minister – aided by the Press – has waged a fairly unsavoury campaign to undermine the arguments for retention. Barnaby Bennett has documented some of that in his latest blog post.

In the last week, the Press have run two opinion pieces from people in the art community – as well as one from Jane Bowron, who has transitioned gently into full-on middle-aged crank and shan’t be considered along people who could be argued have an informed opinion –  who want the auditorium retained, but the rest of the facility pulled down. These two people represent interests that would / could / might benefit from having the James Hay pulled down. Felicity Price has been on the board of the Court Theatre, CSO etc. Luke Di Somma is a conductor. Both argue that the James Hay is not fit for purpose and should be pulled down. While they have an argument about the use of the James Hay, I don’t agree that it should be pulled down.

Firstly, it doesn’t suit the purposes that these two people represent; for Price, the Court Theatre, and Di Somma, musicals, opera etc. But who said it had to? For one, the Court Theatre is a professional theatre that has established a new facility in Addington; of course, before that it was in the Arts Centre. I’m not sure at what point it was decided that the Ratepayer was building the Court Theatre a new facility – and if that was ever voted on (it wasn’t) then was there an agreement to demolish a building with a civic function, and reallocate the resources to a professional group? No, of course there wasn’t. Though perhaps after the Hagley Oval decision, the Court were emboldened by CERA’s decision to reappropriate public assets for the commercial use of the few.

I am not averse to the James Hay, the Limes Room and Boaters restaurant being reconfigured when they are repaired. What I am averse to is two people who represent interests with very specific building requirements trying to confuse this issue in the hope that they can get the council to stump up for what they want. They seem to think it’s just as simple as moving money from one line of the balance sheet to the next. It isn’t. This is Felicity Price’s Wishlist:

Save Town Hall auditorium and create new iconic foyer $78m

Remaining budget for Arts Precinct $80m

– Court Theatre

– Music Centre

– Purpose-built music/rock music/drama theatre/hall

– Creative hub, offices etc

There are two major problems with this. First, it assumes that if you only repair the town hall, you get the rest of the money to do what you want. From Barnaby’s piece:

This is based on the legally questionable idea that the insurance money from the Town Hall can simply be transferred to a new arts precinct.

Secondly; Price has drawn up a long wishlist of things that she reckons you could get for the $80 million. Looks good on paper, but it hasn’t been costed and I doubt that it is in anyway realistic. The central library is budgeted to cost a whopping $85 million – so I find it very unlikely that even half of this wishlist would be affordable. The worrying – and I think quite real – scenario would see the council vote for partial retention, only to find that they’re only left with $40 million after the auditorium is fixed, and that’s only enough for a severely compromised performing arts hub. Is that worth destroying the architectural unity of what is the most significant building still standing in Christchurch?

The final point that these people – and indeed, the Press editorial team who seem to have taken the Minister’s talking points to heart – miss, is that the Town Hall is a Civic facility, not just an arts facility. While it was used for concerts and orchestras, it was also used for conferences and Cantamaths, school choirs and music festivals. It was also used for union meetings, church meetings, political meetings. The last thing I went to in the James Hay was between quakes, when the council called a meeting for central city property owners who were worried about their buildings. It is central, it has plenty of seating and in that situation, no-one was complaining about the acoustics or it not having the right lay-out backstage. It is the Town Hall. What Gerry has done has looked at all the assets on his book – cos it is his book at the moment, even though we own it – and tried to find the places he can scrounge money. By knocking down the James Hay, he’s taking a civic asset, and giving the money to people with commercial interests in the arts. That that in itself is no longer outrageous shows just how far removed this rebuild has got from being moral, just and equitable.

UPDATE: Luke Di Somma would like it to be known that his misguided views are all his own, and that he doesn’t represent anyone but his own interests. Glad we cleared that up.

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