Eight years to the day since the earthquake that tore Christchurch apart, James Dann takes stock of the city rebuild.
For most of the country, it’s just another Friday. For an increasing number of people in Christchurch, it’s just another Friday too. For many of us though, it is the 22nd of February, quake day. It’s not an important anniversary, this one being the 8th – the council, who are running the event, have themselves described this year’s commemoration as “low key”. The 10th will probably be a bigger deal. But for those whose lives were shaken, liquified, red-zoned, EQC’d, or just generally munted, it doesn’t matter if it is the 8th or the 80th; it is the 22nd of February, when at 12:51pm, everything changed.
Anniversaries are of course a time for reflection, and it’s natural to look back at the progress that the city has made since the last one. Christchurch has had a long, hot summer, and that has certainly contributed to a lift in the mood. A hot summer means a busy city, and we’ve had a full calendar of events, with music and festivals in and around the city. Also contributing to the optimism has been the opening of Tūranga, which I wrote about here back in October. The new library has continued to bring people into the city, injecting some much needed life into the area north of the square.
Two blocks north of Turanga, the restored Town Hall is opening its doors for the first time this weekend. The city council had to fight hard to keep the iconic building which didn’t feature in the previous government’s blueprint for the city. Though there were inevitable delays and cost blowouts, the enthusiasm for the Town Hall proves that the council were totally justified in digging in and fighting for the building. The sight of the iconic Ferrier Fountains once again blowing like a broken shower head has brought back the nostalgic pangs, an increasingly rare link to the more modern past of the city. Two of the opening weekend’s concerts, with local legends Shapeshifter and Marlon Williams, have completely sold out.
The council’s determination to restore the Town Hall speaks to an increased purpose. It may just be because there is a local body election later this year that is front of mind, but the council seems to be asserting its role as the leader in the city. Ever since Brownlee stepped out of the role of earthquake recovery minister, first passing it on to Nicky Wagner, then with the change of government, to Megan Woods, it hasn’t felt as though there was someone in charge. That’s not to say I want him back – I disagreed with much, if not all, of his decisions. But there was never any question as to who was calling the shots. When CERA came to an end in April of 2016, its responsibilities were passed on to a number of other entities. The government was responsible for Development Christchurch, Regenerate Christchurch, and Otakaro Ltd, while the council had their own development agency, which has now been wrapped up into their tourism and events agency, ChristchurchNZ. While they all have different remits and roles, they are all meant to make the city a better place. In some instances, this has led to some bureaucratic duplication, and not a whole lot of progress. Last week the council “declared war” on Regenerate Christchurch, suggesting they cut their funding contribution to the organisation as the city has too many rebuild agencies.
For most of the rebuild, the council has had to take a back seat on the city it nominally controls. After the chaos of the Parker-Maryatt years, which culminated in the council being stripped of their ability to issue building consents at a time of acute housing shortage, Lianne Dalziel’s reign has been characterised by a quiet stability. Though the council is taking back control, that doesn’t mean it has everything its way. In many cases they are playing with the cards dealt to them by the government. One example is around parking in the central city. As the new developments in the CBD started to open, foot traffic and customers remained stubbornly low. At the behest of the property developers, the council introduced an hour of free parking at two of their centre-city car parking buildings. Of course, there is no such thing as free parking – the ratepayer was footing the bill for this. Just last month, the council decided to end the offer. But the demand from the central city retailers for this subsidy shows just how fragile the recovery is.
For all of the positive stories, there are still a steady number of businesses in the CBD going under. Business churn happens in every town, whether it is recovering from a disaster or not. However, the state of the hospitality sector has been a useful barometer for monitoring the mood of the CBD. Last winter was a particularly bleak one for bars and restaurants, with a number of high-profile closures. This has continued into 2019, with Bamboozle, notorious for its racist menu rather than the quality of their food, the latest to shut their doors.
The struggle for bars and restaurants in the city is in part due to the one nut of the rebuild that remains stubbornly impossible to crack: central city residential. Though both government and council have repeatedly promoted the idea of 20,000 people living in the city, the number of residents who move in each year makes this a laughably remote goal. As with most other places in the country, cost is the barrier. Fletcher Living recently opened the first of their new builds in the city’s East Frame, with prices ranging from $1.1 to $1.6 million dollars for a 3 bedroom townhouse. While these are at the luxury end of the scale, even the more modest offerings that Fletchers hope to bring to market later in the year are still multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars more expensive than a bigger house on its own land in the suburbs. It will be interesting to see whether the government uses Kiwibuild to add some genuinely affordable homes to the mix, remembering that they already own all of the land in the East Frame.
With most of the office and retail buildings largely completed, and most of the road cones finally cleared away, it does feel as though we are in the final phase of the rebuild. The controversial convention centre project continues at pace, and we should get confirmation of the design and cost of the stadium this year – though Eden Park’s well-publicised financial issues surely can’t have gone unnoticed by the people trying to justify a $550m stadium in a city a third of the size. But aside from these two anchor projects (and at half a billion dollars each, they are the two biggest), the government-led rebuild is either done, or well underway. We have a very good idea what it will look like when it is “finished”, which is an odd thought, given how much empty space there is.
To get an idea of the scale of East Frame, join me in my mind-palace for a quick walk through Auckland. You’re on Queen St, and you walk up Victoria St to the corner with Albert St. Now imagine that the whole block on your right, from Albert St to Hobson St, is an empty space. Then, stretch out your mind’s eye like Dr Strange, and imagine that empty space runs from Victoria St down to the water’s edge. That should give you an idea of how much empty space there is in Christchurch, and how close it is to the main street. Unless there is an uptick in the number of people buying $1.5 million town houses, this land could stay empty for decades.
So as the scaffolds come down from each of the latest new builds, it becomes easier to envisage what the future Christchurch will be – because the future is now. Yet you can still walk around the corner from the shiny facades that they include in the tourism brochures to be confronted by a crumbling reminder of the recent past, propped up with steel, hidden behind a shipping container. Buildings that dodged both the wrecking ball and the red pen of the insurer. Some will be repaired and reopened, some will be quietly broken into pieces and carted out to a landfill. Many will still be here for years to come, a reminder, if one was needed, of the tragedy of February the 22nd, 2011.