Archives for posts with tag: convention centre

Documents released today under the Official Information Act (OIA) reveal the size and scale of the CERA’s covert “money pit” operation. Whilst the secret project has been a topic of frequent whispers around Worcester St, these documents are the first hard evidence that has come to light of the scheme. Located between Armagh and Gloucester St, the pit is approximately 12 metres in diameter, with an unknown depth. CERA engineers launched a series of recognisance missions into the pit, but these were abandoned after a 3-man team was lost somewhere between 270 and 280 metres below the surface.

A statement from CERA attempted to deny that the pit existed. “The money pit that you refer to is in fact a metaphorical money pit, not a literal money pit. And I mean “literal” in the “literal” sense of the word “literal”, not in the “figurative” sense of the word “literal”. This is literally a metaphorical money pit. A figurative money pit. No actual pit exists.”

However, documents released under the OIA to Rebuilding Christchurch today clearly indicate that the money pit has been included in plans for the central city since as far back as 2011, when a number of prominent Christchurch property developers started lobbying for the inclusion of the money pit in the Blueprint. When a black circle first started appearing in planning documents, it was initially believed that this was because part of the map had been redacted. However, we now believe that this black hole is in fact the symbol for the money pit.

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Business advocate and legendary rock guitarist Pete Townsend was enthusiastic about the money pit project. “This is good news for the rebuild, good news for Christchurch, good news for New Zealand taxpayers. This will create jobs, with up to 15 people required to shovel money into the pit, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. For every 100 dollars hurled into the pit, 1 dollar will go into the wider Canterbury economy. This is a good deal for Christchurch.”

When asked about whether a money pit was part of National’s “Brighter Future” campaign, Prime Minister John Key responded that it was the ultimate realisation of his vision. “What we have here, actually, is a future that has shined so bright that it has collapsed in on itself, creating a black vortex that will suck in money and ultimately end all of life on earth. We’re pretty relaxed about it.”

Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee assured the residents of Christchurch that the money pit is safe, although it should not be approached without the appropriate hi-vis safety equipment. He said that the current plan was to continue throwing money into the pit, and added that they are also investigating the practicalities of trying to house some of CERA’s expanding communications department in the entrance to the depression.

They’re one of our societies most maligned groups, never asking for anything, never getting the breathless media coverage they so clearly think they deserve. But the property developers of Central Christchurch are going to the public this winter, to ask for your money to help them to realise their dreams of seeing their egos manifest in glass and concrete. Yes, that’s right – if you’re a taxpayer or a ratepayer, or even better, both! – these old, white, rich men want your money to help fund their vanity projects. That’s right, for a just the price of a cup of coffee, you could be helping one of Christchurch’s monied elite to construct the convention centre you didn’t ask for, or the retail centre you’ll never be able to afford to visit. Don’t delay, donate now!

Yesterday, as the council debated the budget, and headed towards an asset sell-off we’ve been told is a the only way to balance the books, they also found time to relieve property developers of the contributions they provide to council. This move was led – of course – by Cr Gough, the nephew of one of the main benefactors of this change, Anthony Gough:

Cr Jamie Gough, who led the push to scrap the development contributions, said effectively the council was making the central city a “DC-free zone”.

It was signalling it would “never be cheaper than it is today” to build in central Christchurch.

I’m sure Jamie knows this, so it doesn’t really need repeating, but the main reason why it is prohibitively expensive to build in central Christchurch is that the cost of land is so high, because the government used the Blueprint to buy up land and artificially limit land supply. This was what the developers wanted – but now they are complaining that the costs are too high. The Blueprint was a document that gave a small group of influential developers what they wanted (government intervention to prevent the collapse of central city land values, and thus the collapse of their property portfolios), and now they have successfully lobbied for a broke council to scrap one of their much-needed income sources.

But wait! There’s more!

Clearly feeling emboldened by the Council rolling over and letting them scratch their bellies, these brave developers are now demanding money from the Crown for delays to the Convention Centre:

City Owners Rebuild Entity (Core) spokesman Ernest Duval said the more the project was delayed, the more money would be needed. There was a natural increase in construction costs of about 8 per cent a year, he said, “It will cost more simply to build the exact same thing that was planned in 2013 because of rising construction costs.”

The government is already pouring at least $284m into something that no-one asked for and many have questioned whether we need. While there have been delays, we still haven’t seen a business case for the project. We don’t know how it’s going to operate. Instead of ploughing good money into a giant hole the size of two city blocks, it makes sense to wait. But these asshole developers know a sweet deal when they see one, and feel like they might as well try their luck at the Taxpayer ATM. For a bunch of people convinced that the free market will fix the central city, they aren’t too proud to repeatedly milk the public teat for money. These winklepickered parasites need to jump in their Maseratis and take a long drive on a long road out of this town. We will survive without them. There are plenty of good people who can rebuild this city without repeatedly blackmailing the place they’re claiming to save.

Tim Hunter, the CEO of Canterbury Tourism, writes a stirring opinion piece about the pros and pros of the proposed convention centre. It’s his job to promote this boondoggle, so you can’t criticise him for that. You can criticise him for the very poor arguments he puts up. He says there are “eight compelling reasons”. Let’s go through them:

1. Job Creation

There is a long, convoluted paragraph which takes a bunch of hypothetical numbers, inflates them, multiplies them, and then uses this to say that it will create lots of jobs. I think you could go through all the assumptions, but rather than that, just look at the final sentence:

The good news is that many of these jobs will be available to students and younger employees on a part-time basis.

Good news? This is good news? Essentially, what he is saying is that $500m plus of investment is going to result in a handful of low-paid, part time jobs in the hospitality sector. This is not good news. There are many ways in which the government could better spend $300m if the outcome was “jobs”. They could start by putting that money back into fixing the city’s horizontal infrastructure, which would not only directly employ a large number of people, but would also improve the quality of life for everyone in the city, not just the few who attend conferences.

2. Significant economic benefits

Yeah. The economic benefits of convention centres have been wildly overstated. Probably the most comprehensive piece on this is from Gordon Campbell. But long story short – we’re a small country with a tiny domestic convention market at the arse end of the world, in which at least half a dozen regions are building conventions centres to try and attract hypothetical conventions away from the other centres. It doesn’t add up.

3. Government gift

The taxpayers of New Zealand are bestowing a “gift” upon Christchurch that they haven’t been asked to give to a city that hasn’t asked for it. Bizarre reasoning from Hunter.

4. Stimulating our knowledge economy

If the government wanted to stimulate our knowledge economy, then they would take this $300m and put it into the research and development sector. Hobnobbing at a $1000 plus registration conference might make the Minister for Business and Innovation feel good, but it doesn’t contribute much to innovation and development. This money could be put aside in a fund to stop some of our best Post-doc researchers from leaving the country when they don’t get a piece of the pittance of money that is available through competition research funding.

5. Tourism and hospitality boost

I don’t really see how this differs much from point number 1, except this is meant to help the hospitality sector over the quiet winter months. If your business can’t plan for things that happen every year, like the seasons changing, then I think you’re doing businessing wrong, and I’m not sure how a convention centre is going to magically fix that.

6. Investment catalyst

A good number of investors have new hotel projects planned for Christchurch that will only be activated once construction of the Convention and Exhibition Centre commences.

Another way of putting that sentence would be: “Philip Carter, brother of the current speaker of the house and one of the South Island’s richest men, is waiting to see if the government puts money into the convention centre that he is a partner in the construction of, before he invests to fix the hotels he owns which have been given favourable terms of operation.” That these hotels “will only be activated” once the convention centre begins sounds vaguely threatening, as if Murray McCully needs to come down with some sheep and a facilitation payment.

7. Attractive precinct design

Well, I think we can agree to disagree on this point.

8. More efficient

This centre is going to be more efficient than the last one, which was of course built less than 20 years ago for $15 million dollars. If a centre being built two decades later, for more than 30 times the cost of the previous one, wasn’t “more efficient” than the last one, then we’d have to find some new and more efficient ways to fire the project managers.

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.

Barnaby has written a very long investigation about the Convention Centre, which you can read here. There is one of thing that doesn’t come up, which I have been thinking about. Pre-quake, and actually still to this day, the council-owned company V-Base runs conferences in the city. They also ran Lancaster Park. At the moment, their main conference facility is Wigram Airforce Museum. The new convention centre is done in a deal with Accor, who are meant to be running the conventions. What I’d like to know is whether this means that the government is putting money into a convention centre that will be run by a French company in direct competition with a company run by the ratepayer? If so, what does this mean for V-Base? Will the council have to wind it up, or will it try and out-compete? Seems like a relevant question to have answered before we spunk out $284 of public money.

So it’s been a long time between posts. That’s a little to do with me having a proper job, and a little to do with post-election exhaustion. I’d like to think I will be writing a bit more regularly in the coming months, but I’m not going to promise anything. However, a few thoughts have been rattling around in my head, so I thought I’d put pen to paper, and words to blog.

The best of the rebuild 2014:

The deconstruction of the Pallet Pavilion

In the same way it went up, the Pallet Pavilion came down in an orderly fashion, with assistance of hundreds of volunteers. After hosting scores of events over two summers, Gap Filler knew that the pavilion had done it’s time, and as proactively as they put it up, they pulled it down again. The pallets, veggie bins, plants, and pretty much anything else was put back into use. Even in it’s deconstruction, the Pallet Pavilion set a great example for the projects going on around the city.

Food Trucks

One day, as I left my house for work, there was a taco truck across the road. Literally straight across the road, sitting along in the wasteland of rubble and weeds where McKenzie and Willis used to be. I know that food trucks are very “on trend” at the moment, but here in Christchurch, they are more than just an excuse to sell overpriced burritos to hipsters; they’re a necessary part of the hospitality ecosystem. When cheap rentals are hard to find, and you don’t know where the demand is going to be in a still sparsely populated CBD, a semi-movable truck is the perfect solution. This year saw the rise of the food truck in Christchurch, from Loco’s on St Asaph St, to the Food Collective at the Commons, to the launch of food truck Fridays in the Square, where at least a dozen trucks converge, and bring plenty of energy back to a dead space.

New bars and eateries

In addition to the food trucks, we’ve seen the addition of plenty of more permanent, more serious establishments. While many of the bars will rise and fall, hopefully the eateries will stay around for a bit longer. Johnny Moore’s BrickFarm and the St Asaph St Coriander’s are both excellent, and will surely see a good return on the risk they took to open in the centre of the city.

WORD festival

For a brief period in late August, the centre city was buzzing again. Authors, poets, cynics, journalists, musicians and hangers-on all descended on poor, broken Christchurch for a short period, and made it feel a live again. The programme was so well put together that picking out highlights is almost redundant. But even more important than the people who spoke was the – and I’d like to find a better word, but I can’t – vibe of the event. While it might have only been temporary, it was a reminder of what the city could be at it’s best – and why we should keep struggling on.

The demise of Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton was always the happy face of a bad organisation; now he’s the creepy face of a bad organisation. With him gone, we can stop pretending that CERA are our benevolent overlords, just doing what’s best for the city, and see them are the reactive, unimaginative, bureaucratic brakes on the recovery that they really are.

Free Theatre

The gymnasium at the Arts Centre opened up cautiously mid-year. Free Theatre have been experimenting with the space, with plays and other events. More importantly than that, it shows the success of the forward thinking repair model that the Arts Centre have put in to place. The site is a hive of activity, with dozens of tradespeople going about their business everyday. Parts of the centre will be opened in stages. It shows that heritage buildings can be repaired, and that it can work financially. Other organisations could learn much from this.

The Cricket Oval

Grassy banks, beautiful setting, done on the cheap and in record time. What’s not to like?

The worst of the rebuild in 2014

The Cricket Oval

I’ll probably write more about the rights and wrongs of the oval another time, so will limit myself to this: the fact that the government could utilise it’s emergency powers to get this built in such a short time, for a small amount of money, and using public land, shows just how little they care about those people in vulnerable housing situations since the quake for whom they have done less than nothing to alleviate their suffering. They jumped through legal hoops to get this built, whilst at the same time, forced the Quake Outcasts to take them through the court system just to try get a fair payout for the land which they compulsorily acquired. There is no better symbol for the inequity of the rebuild than the Hagley Cricket Oval.

Council Asset Sales

The City Council’s debt position is quite magical: somehow, it is both So Serious that we must consider selling off profitable assets, but yet Not Serious Enough that we should reconsider any of the monumental anchor projects which the government is forcing on the ratepayers. Whoever the government tasked with softening up the Mayor and the Press has done a great job, so this looks like a done deal now, despite any reasonable objections.

Victoria Square re-development

Nothing shows the ineptitude of the CCDU better than their proposed Victoria Square redevelopment. Take one of the few bits of the central city that isn’t broken, and then propose a way to fix it. I sit down at Vic Sq for lunch, and there are often dozens of others doing the same. Yup, some of the pavers look a bit dated. But when you consider that most of the rest of the city is either gravel or chain-link fences, it’s pretty good. That the idiots at the CCDU would not only consider doing this, but also spend $7m from what we are told is a very tight budget into it shows how totally out of touch they are. It’s a case of the egos at the CCDU wanting to exercise their power over the council – and we’re the ones who have to pay for it.

The Convention Centre

A completely unjustified waste of public money and public land. A massive public subsidy being given to a handful of cosy developers, who have been pushing for this since before the Blueprint even came out. If this gets anywhere near completion, it will just go to show how docile and complicit the shattered population of the city has become.

Needless demolitions

As we move into 2015, we are still watching as historic buildings are being pulled down across the city. One high profile example was the Majestic Theatre. It was demolished this year, to make for road widening. The block that it was on, bordered by Lichfield, Madras, Bedford Row and Manchester St, now has no buildings on it, and no plans for any buildings to go on it. That sums up the ambitions of the men behind the bulldozers; knock it down, don’t worry if there’s nothing planned to replace it.

Empty new builds

The rise and rise of the glass facades along the Victoria St / Durham St corridor is one of the brightest spots of development in the city. Each week it seems like the soil on a new site gets broken. But if you’re going down there to marvel at the new buildings, stop and take a look at how many of the completed sites are tenanted. You’ll notice that much of the space is yet to be leased. Whole floors, even whole buildings are sitting there, untenanted. The Potemkin Offices of Victoria St may look like progress, but this highly speculative development is yet to even peak.

The Middle Class Rebuild

In the last year, there have been a number of projects which have been celebrated as the “best thing to happen since the quakes”. The cricket oval and the Isaac Theatre Royal are two examples that spring to mind. These are good things, no doubt. But they also speak volumes about who the rebuild is serving. Cricket and opera are two of the most rich, white people pursuits on the face of the planet. Everyone living in Christchurch has had a rough time in the last few years, including the rich white people. If they feel like it’s time to put the rebuild behind them, to enjoy the cricket and the ballet, that’s great. But there’s a danger in forgetting that as the north and west of the city move into a post-rebuild phase, some parts of the city have barely been touched. If you go out to New Brighton, you’d be forgiven for thinking the quakes were 4 weeks ago, not 4 years ago. As we approach the anniversary, prepare for the government to tell us that we’re moving on, that the hard work has been done. Prepare for many, many people to agree with them. But also spare a thought for the people who rarely have a voice, the mute underclass of National’s burgeoning have-nots.

On August 7, the Prime Minister was in town to announce the convention centre plans. This was done in a special marquee that was erected on the site, and to a very select group of delegates. I used an OIA to ask CERA how much hosting this shin-dig cost; almost $16,000. This was an event for around 90 people; this works out at around $170 a head (on the taxpayer). I’m sure Key and Brownlee thought that the convention centre announcement would lead the news. Instead, their trip to Christchurch was derailed by the real hardship that their government is responsible for, as Paulette Barr approached the PM directly with her case.

On the PM’s trip to Barrington Mall last week, he was again approached by a resident at wit’s end. This pattern will repeat each time he visits the city until he does something to address the growing divide between those who have done ok through the quakes, and those who are still battling on a daily basis. Whilst Key and Brownlee eat canapés, there are people in this city living under canopies. Mr Brownlee needs to explain to the public of Ilam and Christchurch how he can justify spending almost $16,000 on a swanky party for him, the PM and a few exclusive guests, to announce a facility that very few residents of this city will ever have a need to use. If Mr Brownlee spent more time in the electorate he represents, he’d know that his constituents don’t care about convention centres: they want their houses fixed, their EQC claims sorted, their rents to stop increasing at double digit rates.

I’ve written about the idea of the Convention Centre before, but it seems relevant to do so again given that we now know some of the facts around it. So, to recap:

  • it will be build by a consortium of Carter Group, Ngai Tahu, and Plenary Group
  • the taxpayer will pay $284 million
  • the consortium will pay the remaining $200 million +
  • it will take up most of the area between Victoria Sq and Cathedral Sq
  • it will have a 2000-seat conference facility, hotels, residential development, hospitality and retail outlets
  • the facility will be run by Accor, an international convention centre and hotel chain which has hotels in the CBD (Novotel and Ibis)

Here are some other facts, not considered relevant:

  • the previous Christchurch Convention Centre, which opened in 1997, cost $15m to build and could host 2,250 people
  • the Auckland convention centre, being constructed by SkyCity as part of a controversial deal, will be able to host 3,500 people and is costing $402 million to build. That consists of $87m on land, and $315m for the build and fit out

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But probably the most intriguing aspect is the involvement of Plenary Group. Despite claims of a competitive tender process, they appear to have been the only company involved in the tender since earlier this year. They are a mysterious Australian company which specialises in PPPs (public-private partnerships) and have built a number of convention centres in Australia and Canada. Michael West at the Sydney Morning Herald has done some digging to try and find out how they work, with limited success:

The three investment bankers [John O’Rourke, Ray Wilson and Paul Oppenheim] parted way with the Dutch giant ABN Amro in 2004 and set up Plenary Group to invest in, develop and operate privatised assets in partnership with governments … Although a few entities within its burgeoning corporate empire do disclose, Plenary’s ultimate financial position is unknown. A byzantine maze of companies winds to a cul-de-sac: a private trust controlled by the three Plenary principals and associated entities.

Stepping back from any argument around the merits of the convention industry itself, CERA and Gerry Brownlee need to be more forthcoming with the public about the amount of their money that is going into this. Who will ultimately own the facility? Why are the council not going to operate it, as their subsidiary VBase did with the previous centre, and currently do with the Wigram Airforce Museum, which doubles as a conference facility? Given that more than half of the funding is from the public, will more than half of the benefits accrue to the public? How will the taxpayers know whether they have got a good return on their $284 million investment? How come it is going to cost more than 30 times more to build a 2,000 seat facility than it did in 1997? The public of Canterbury, and indeed the whole country, need to see a compelling business case for this convention centre before any money from the public purse is committed to it.

 

Here’s a surprise: the convention centre industry that will directly benefit from the government using taxpayer and ratepayer money to build a convention centre are “optimistic” about convention centres. It makes us a “serious destination” – which I suppose means that until we get one, the rest of the country will just be laughing at us and our lack of convention centre. Bloody amateurs.

Further details for the much-awaited convention centre are coming in July, Christchurch & Canterbury Convention Bureau manager, Caroline Blanchfield says. That is according to a Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) statement she received.

The CERA statement reads: “The convention centre precinct development is running to schedule, CERA is currently evaluating the proposal to select the preferred consortia and preferred operator. The announcement of the preferred consortia for developing and building the convention centre, and the preferred operator . . . will happen in July.”

I’ve written about the Convention Centre project a number of times – click through on the Convention Centre tag and you’ll bring up a stack of posts. A brief summary:

  • The convention centre was initially going to take up a whole block, bounded by Gloucester and Armagh St, Colombo St and the River
  • This block contains the old central library, which initial estimates for repair were put at $9 million
  • The old central library would have to be demolished to make way for the convention centre, and a new library would be built about 100 metres down the road for a cost estimated at around $90 million
  • The council can’t afford to spend $90 million on a library, so might have to the education of our city up for sponsorship
  • the market” suggested that a 2,000 seat convention centre was too big for the city, and the project should be scaled back
  • despite a competitive tender process that has gone on for what seems like an eternity, it was understood that there was only one company interested in building the damn thing

 

 

As we know from the Sky City / pokies deal, this government seems convinced by the merits of convention centres, and isn’t particularly concerned with evidence. So this is probably in vain, but here is an article from the US (via Eric Crampton) about the highly competitive convention centre industry, and how it ends up taking taxpayers and ratepayers for a ride:

And that illustrates the larger problem with convention center subsidies — that they tend to generate meager public returns and generous private ones.

So by all means, let us celebrate the beautiful new convention facilities we have built on Mount Vernon Square. At the same time, let us resolve not to dedicate any more public funds to a convention center arms race that no city can win.

 

One of the government’s main anchor projects, is increasingly looking like a farce. The Press reports that there is now a grand total of one company bidding to build the convention centre:

Five groups, out of 23 initial responses, were asked to submit proposals for the $284 million precinct – one of the Government’s key blueprint anchor projects – to the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) … The Press understands (Australia-based infrastructure business Plenary Group) Plenary is the only bidder left.

The CCDU have repeatedly stressed the importance of a convention centre. The tourism industry has described it as “pivotal”. The shortlist of five was drawn up in late 2012, and reported on in early 2013. That is well over a year ago – which seems like a pretty long time to be on a “shortlist”. In June of last year, Alan Trotter said he expected an announcement on the convention centre “soon“. The CCDU aimed to have the first sod turned on the site in 2013. After that deadline whizzed by, the viability of project is increasingly being questioned. If they read reports from the US, they might question whether they should be building convention centres at all.

The big problem around the convention centre – and this is one of the main criticisms of the Blueprint plan as a whole – is that it is intricately linked to a number of other projects. The money-spinning part of the convention centre was to be the associated hotels. However, these became a less viable proposition when the council refused to bowl the Town Hall in favour of the “performing arts precinct”. With a smaller arts precinct, and potentially a smaller convention centre, there is likely to be less demand for hotel rooms. The developer of the hotels were going to be offered an advantage, by being permitted to build without the 7-storey height limit. Christchurch’s richest man, Philip Carter, expressed an interest in being said developer. It’s also worth remembering that the mega-convention centre is the reason why the central library is to be demolished and built somewhere else, for almost 10 times the cost of simply repairing it.

Which brings me to my main point: I have a suggestion for Minister Brownlee. It’s a solution that can save money, save a building, save time, and save face. What we should be doing is converting the old Government Life building into a convention centre.

IMG_1890The Government Life building isn’t many people’s favourite building. I kind of have a soft spot for it, and as the new City Council building has shown, mid-century modernist buildings can be successfully re-purposed. Before the quake it was in a state of disuse, home to pigeons and artist studios for Tony De Lautour and Mike Hewson, amongst others. Hewson did this fantastic work on the back-side of the building:

Hewson Government Life

What do we need in a convention centre? The old one on Kilmore St wasn’t much more than a two-storey tilt-slab barn, with adjustable partitions on the ground floor and some small rooms on the first floor. It cost $15 million to build in 1997. I’m no big-city architect, but surely it would be possible to fit out the Government Life building so that it can host a couple of thousand people, house some smaller rooms and maybe the offices for VBase (the company who runs conferences for the Council.) It may not be the most glamourous building, but it does have the best location in town. And on top of that, the guy who owns it – Philip Carter – happens to be one of the people the government wants to build hotels. This would save not one, but two buildings, as it would spare the old Central Library from the wreckers ball. It would save time, and would prevent a building-sized load of waste going to the landfill.