Yesterday, we had some rare good news about a heritage building: an independent business case supported the Council’s plan to restore the Town Hall. The numbers add up – in fact, it’s the best value proposition. That didn’t stop the sad but predictable chorus of opposition. Gerry Brownlee doesn’t think it’s a goer – but admits that he hasn’t actually read the report.

“It does have a ring of ‘it is too good to be true’ about it,” said Brownlee, who acknowledged he had not read the Deloitte report.

So the man responsible for the destruction of Christchurch’s built heritage doesn’t think the restoration is a goer, and he is basing that decision on literally nothing, as he’s too lazy to read the report. Why is his uninformed opinion even being quoted then?

But Brownlee’s opinion is uninformed and easy to dismiss. More concerning is the undying resolve of the Press Editorial to have the Town Hall demolished. In this editorial, they again question the decision, and back it up with a series of factual inaccuracies and half-baked agendas. Firstly, they muddy the figures about how much money is or isn’t available.

Under its insurance policy, if the building is repaired the council could get a payout of up to $68.9 million. If the building is not repaired, the payout would only be the indemnity amount of just over $32 million … But something other than full restoration may be possible. Restoring the auditorium and the foyer alone would cost $91 million. Restoring and reconfiguring the James Hay as a venue for symphony orchestra performances and the like would cost $109 million.

So the total cost for repairing the complex is listed at $127m – and yet the Press is advocating for two options which would see only half the building repaired, but cost much more than half of the full complex? This is also seems to be based on the assumption that if you knock down half the building, you get half the insurance money. If we’re generous, and assume that demo’ing the Town Hall but leaving the James Hay, results in a payout halfway between the repair and indemnity values, that puts the insurance payment around $50m (I think this is on the high side, but let’s play along). The council would still have to find $60m to restore the James Hay. Compare that with the difference between the full restoration cost ($127m) and the payout ($69m) and you find a similar sized gap ($60m). So the city ends up demolishing half of it’s best building for no apparent financial reason. This isn’t how the Press sees it:

Both of these lower-cost options would leave more for whatever is left of the idea of the performing arts precinct.

This seems to be the main reason for all these financial gymnastics.

The original plans for the precinct have long since evaporated but the council is still publicly committed to spending $30.5 million there. That is clearly not enough for any theatre or venue of any distinction, and probably would not be enough to lure the Court Theatre back to the centre of town.

So is the main goal of this exercise to “lure the Court Theatre back to the centre of town”? What no-one has sufficiently explained to me about the “Performing Arts Precinct” is why the ratepayer should be stumping up cash – in part generated by knocking down civic buildings – to try and lure a privately-run company to move their business back into town. The Court Theatre and the Symphony Orchestra might be Good Things®, but they are private businesses. Private businesses, which in the case of the Court, are doing very well in their new locations. The people who write the editorials at the Press, as well as the people who lobby for the Court like Felicity Price, don’t seem to think there is anything out of the ordinary about this.

More than anything, this reflects an ambition for those in power to see a privatisation of public space and the advancement of select private interests. The civic functions of the Town Hall complex – which was, on the 22nd of February, hosting two giant PPTA meetings – can be pushed to one side as the Right aim to frame this as an argument about “poorly used performance space”. The social and cultural benefits of a public space are near impossible to monetise, and thus don’t factor into the calculations of a Minister who will dismiss reports without even reading them.

I can only hope that the Council stays strong, and continues with the full restoration of the Town Hall this Thursday. Despite the best attempts of the Minister and the Press to make this a live issue, their arguments don’t stack up. A full restoration makes financial sense, it makes architectural sense, it makes cultural sense. More than that, it makes sense symbolically, in both showing that the Council still has the power to control the direction of this city, and that in the face of so much needless destruction of our built heritage, Christchurch can pull together to restore one of our greatest buildings.

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