- Fiona Farrell

Like some mighty Behemoth, Christchurch’s new convention centre lumbers closer. A deal has been struck between Government and City Council that will enable construction without ratepayer funding. The Government will “bankroll all of the $284m new convention centre” reports the Herald. It is recorded as a triumph. “A great day for the city”, says John Key. “Incredibly bold and brave”, says Mayor Bob Parker, thanking his “earthquake buddy”, Gerry Brownlee. With only $30m expected from the insurance payout for the old convention centre, the nation’s taxpayers will pay for the new centre, along perhaps with some of those overseas investors who exist somewhere over the rainbow, like gods with enormous pockets, as our fabled saviours in the 2013 version of an island cargo cult.

Back in 2012, the convention centre was just another twinkle on the blueprint that displaced the City Council’s first modest plan for the rebuilding of the central city. In 100 days, the Government had come up with its own plan, described by its designers as “the vision that will inspire the world”. At its launch, the Prime Minister, reaching for superlatives, hoped that Christchurch might eventually come “to be a bit like Melbourne”. Given that ambition, it came as no surprise that a convention centre would feature as a major component. Melbourne has its convention centre, one billion dollars worth of plenary hall, 32 meeting rooms, grand banquet hall, hotel (Hilton), residential and retail space. It was one of Jeff Kennett’s major projects during Victoria’s Liberal State government of the 90s, and one of its two architects was the same company, Woods Bagot, which played a major part in that feverish 100 day dash to redesign Christchurch’s central business district.

Christchurch’s convention centre too will have its plenary hall. The Minister for Earthquake Recovery, Gerry Brownlee, has said it will be “world-class”. It will have “state-of-the-art facilities”, “multiple breakout rooms” and “opportunities for the health sector and tertiary education” (which sounds a little odd: does he mean that delegates might have heart attacks and require attention? Will university students be required to waitress for the conventioneers’ grand banquets?). The convention centre will “act as a catalyst for the surrounding area”, as one of the city centre’s much touted “anchor projects”. Which means, in essence; that it will be very, very big. 

Big, like the metro sports complex planned for a site near Christchurch Hospital occupied by a former brewery and also a number of smaller-scale businesses: automotive repairs, electronic firms. Some were damaged in the quakes, some not, but they’ll all have to go, compulsorily purchased to accommodate the aquatic centre with competition-sized swimming pool and spa, the eight indoor courts with seating for 2,800, the movement centre, the retail outlets and administrative offices. Then there’s the roofed rugby stadium whose massive walls and lighting towers will anchor the eastern border of the central city. Three hundred million dollars worth of state of the art corporate boxes, broadcast facilities and seating for 35,000, while fuddy-duddy old Latimer Square will be transformed into its leafy fan zone. The city’s big new convention centre will anchor the city centre, covering a couple of existing city blocks, stretching from the Avon River bank to the Square.

Supersized Priorities

It is interesting to see what cities prioritise in the aftermath of devastation. Coventry built a cathedral. Hiroshima created a Peace Park around the molten shell of the former Industrial Promotional Hall. London created the State-funded national theatres and concert halls of the South Bank. Reconstruction reveals something of a nation’s character. And right now, our character seems to be supersized. Houses are the size of art galleries, the family car is a tank, tiny children attend super schools, barbecues are big enough to roast an ox, even the ginger crunch in the bakery cabinets has plumped up to slab proportions.

In Dunedin a big white bubble has risen on the waterfront, dwarfing the University, the Hospital and the city’s mercantile buildings. Driven by an unholy alliance – a friend calls them “the tartan mafia” – of local politicians, businessmen and Rugbycorp, a roofed stadium was rushed to completion. Construction of this monster blew out from a proposed $198 million to $224.4 million, while ongoing operational costs continue to multiply. Exact figures are hard to pin down, obscured in a thicket of entities and acronyms – DVL, DVML, CST, DCHL – and close argument over accounting practices. But what is absolutely certain is that Dunedin’s ratepayers have seen their rates rise to pay for this empty shell, that they and their children will continue to pay for it for another 40 years, and that other civic projects have been forced on hold indefinitely: a library for South Dunedin, a harbourside walking and cycling track to Portobello like the one that has revitalised the New Plymouth waterfront.  And for what? A few minor matches during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and an Elton John concert for which the ratepayers actually footed the bill.  An “anchor” suggests something that will hold us steady in troubled waters. Stadiums are not an anchor. Nor is a convention centre.

Out of curiosity, I Googled “world class convention centres” just to check out Christchurch’s competition. Paris comes top of the list. And Singapore. Barcelona. Vienna. I looked up Melbourne too, since that is to be our model. What do these centres promise in their pitch for the corporate punter? Shopping. Theatres. National cuisine. The charms of historic architecture. Melbourne even offers specific brands: Versace in the convention centre’s retail precinct, and the ubiquitous luggage of Louis Vuitton, alongside Nobu for fine dining and “friendly locals, cultural creativity, and fine wine”. Curiously, the site also cites as an attraction the city’s “outstanding public transport system…that is clean, safe and efficient and rated by delegates as a Melbourne highlight”.

Interestingly, no one mentions “breakout rooms” as a reason for choosing their city above all other competitors. Instead these “world-class venues” promise the vibrancy of a city designed for the primary benefit of its own citizens. Melbourne’s transport is fantastic, but it’s not there to please the tourists. In Melbourne a tram is for transporting ordinary citizens to and from work or school or to the beach. In Christchurch, before the quakes derailed it, a single tram clattered round the central city as a ride for tourists. A ride to nowhere, when once it would have offered a cheap and efficient means of travelling to New Brighton or Sumner. It was like watching a dolphin, half mad and destined for an early death, swimming round and round a tiny pool performing tricks.

Maybe when the city was presented so brutally with a blank canvas, some of those taxpayer millions could have been redirected to investment in trams that would actually go somewhere, cleanly, safely and efficiently, as they do in Melbourne and in cities across the world. But the necrotic glow of that blueprint hangs over this city, colouring everything in its reach. The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority’s calls for registrations of interest, for example, in creating an “Art Trail’ for “the Avon River Precinct” in the central city, which sounds well and good, except that this art is not intended to express something of the heart of its creator nor lift the spirit of the people here, but “to see Christchurch develop as an artistic destination by showing visitors Christchurch’s distinctive character through art”. It’s as if a Medici called up Michelangelo and said: “Hey, Mike, we need some kinda attraction for that spot in the cathedral precinct next the gelato precinct. Something that’ll stop the tour buses shooting through to Rome. Got any ideas?”

TNCs Only Beneficiaries

Christchurch’s new convention centre exemplifies this top down, back to front thinking. Suddenly a venue that in Auckland must inevitably make a loss, according to the Prime Minister himself, unless subsidised by hundreds of pokies and gaming tables, becomes an anchor for a city in crisis. A dubious anchor, designed to deliver profits not to small, local businesses, but to the large transnational corporations (TNCs) whose hotels ring the centre, and to the foreign-owned tour companies, airlines and souvenir shops selling those cute fluffy kiwis. A dubious anchor in a city where sewage bubbles up from a bath pipe, water pours through the sitting room roof, and the road to work floods with appalling regularity. Other cities in crisis have chosen other priorities. In New Orleans, another kind of reconstruction has been taking place over the past eight years. In a democratic vote, the citizens elected Frederic Schwartz to direct the reconstruction of the area worst affected by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Schwartz is an architect with an explicit social conscience. When elected to office he issued a press statement defining his priorities. The redesign of a city following calamity was “a chance to reassert values of environmental care and social justice, of community building and helping the poor with programs for quality, affordable and sustainable housing”.

An Anchor Or A Millstone Around City’s Neck?

The words were directed at a different city with a very different social makeup after a different kind of natural disaster. But they resonate. You cannot help wondering how another kind of leadership might have handled things differently here. Small local, properly funded public schools for our children perhaps, weather-tight homes, an insurance industry that has to adhere to Government controls in its operations within this country, maybe a new transport system, neighbourhood swimming pools within reach of kids on bikes, art for art’s sake and because it makes us feel good? There is nothing inherently wrong in building a convention centre. They are part of the make-up of many cities and they may indeed bring in those tourist dollars. But right now? A priority? In a city requiring $2 billion of infrastructure repairs? In a country that professes to be unable to afford a full complement of teachers, nurses, wildlife officers and a whole raft of civil servants? An anchor?


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