What’s going on with the Arts Precinct: Incompetence or Deceit?

In the last week there has been a long overdue rush of public announcements about the Performing Arts Precinct in Christchurch. These can be tidily split into categories of ‘why didn’t they announce this 6 months ago’, and the more bewildering ‘are you trying to make yourself look stupid?’.  I’ll explain this below, and by doing so try to work out a question that could easily apply to a number of projects in the city at the moment: is the current sad state of this project a result of incompetence or deceit? (It’s a long article, but there are specific recommendations at the end!)

I’ll start with the obvious announcement. The government has decided that a significant part of the area designated for the Arts Precinct is now no longer needed so they have wisely decided to remove the designation. This allows the owners of the land to avoid compulsory purchase of the land and to either sell the land or to develop what they want.  It has been obvious to everyone involved that this land was not needed for the arts precinct project with the Council’s repeated and consistent position to retain and repair the Town hall. For a department that has been given the mandate to improve the quality and speed of the rebuild it seems strange to tie up this bit of land for so long given that it has been known since late August last year when the Council voted unanimously (for the 2nd time) to retain the Townhall.  It was signaled long before this with the Council vote the previous year and the acknowledgment in the Cost Sharing Agreement between the CCC and CERA that the Town hall was likely to stay. This is from a famously fractured council, and not a single member voted against retention on two separate occasions.

Minister Brownlee is quoted as saying: “In fairness to private property owners I have signed off lifting the designation on 1.07 hectares of land that was originally earmarked for purchase by the Crown for the Performing Arts Precinct,” He is right, and this is a good decision. I think it should have happened sooner, but I’m sure there is lots of legal work involved in removing designations. Although the owner of the land did say this: “We’d been told by a number of senior [Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] officials that the designation would be lifted but for some reason nobody wanted to make the formal announcement.” (www.stuff.co.nz)

Then things start to get weird. Soon after the article announcing the abandonment of plans to buy the larger parcel of land (north of Armagh which was going to be used for the large replacement of the Town Hall) other information was also released saying that the government had also stopped purchasing land for the smaller area of land between Gloucester, Armagh and Colombo.  This is the land the CCC was promised as part of the cost sharing agreement to use for the development of a smaller arts precinct that is to include the CSO, Music Centre and Court Theatre.

Since the cost sharing agreement in June last year which gave the council the lead role in this project, work has been happening on master planning between the CCDU, the architecture firm Sheppard & Rout, and the other stake holders in this project.

Some background might be needed to make sense of how the project has become so confused.

The original master plan developed by the CCDU in their secretive 100-day plan assumed that the Town Hall was going to be demolished and made plans for a large modern arts precinct that was based on discussions with the leading arts organization in Christchurch. It is important to note that the financial details (who was paying for it, where they money was going to come from), the organizational details (who was going to run it, and who it was going to cater for) have never been open to the public, and may have never been developed.  As such we have little idea about what was being proposed.  We do know that similar scale developments in countries overseas cost anything from $300 – $800 million dollars and take 5 – 10 years to design and build. This might not be a fair comparison, but in the absence of any real information on the proposed large development, what are we to base things on, and how is the city and it citizens supposed to make decisions without being informed?

From what I’ve been able to gather it was assumed that the insurance money from the Town hall (max value of $69 million and minimum of $39 million, but still under negotiation) was going to be transferred to the new precinct, and the council had $40 million budgeted for a massive upgrade to the Town hall that had just commenced prior to the quake that would also be transferred.  So this comes to around $110 million. The total cost (at this stage) to repair the Town hall is estimated at $127 million. So if you took out the pressure to transfer the money from the Town Hall over to the arts precinct the repair is costing $18 million in new funding. $18 million is a lot of money and as the Mayor pointed out to me one day it is not an insignificant amount. I respect that.  But to me it seems like a comparatively small amount to save a building that is probably worth well over $200 million to build new.

This still leaves $30 plus million for the smaller arts precinct, which CCC have said is enough, but its unclear at this stage what this will provide.

In saying this, I acknowledge that some of the arts organisations were very excited about the promise of a new and contemporary facility designed to meet their needs, and that the Town Hall was not always meeting the requirements of a contemporary venue. (although repairs to the Town Hall have taken into account and will fix a lot of these concerns)  In these circumstances it would be prudent of those organizations to back the project offering the new fancy international arts precinct. They have every right to be vocal about their needs and financial risks, but this doesn’t mean keeping the Town Hall was the wrong decision.

There’s been  long running discontent with the Council decision to retain the town hall by various arts and business commentators, and this continues to surprise me. This was a council decision based on their knowledge of the state of things and on submissions from the community. I lobbied to keep the town hall and attended all the important council meetings.  Not once, to my memory did a representative of the arts or business communities, or any supports of groups stand up in public to the council and argue why the arts precinct was the much better idea, and why the Town Hall should be demolished to make way for it.  Yet The Press ran weeks of stories about what a stupid decision it was.  It was quite disorientating to see the scenes of reconciliation and relief that occurred in the Council after their decisions (to keep the Town Hall, review the design of the James Hay, and separate the budgets for Town Hall and smaller precinct) given the relentless negative press about this decision.

It’s very sad that a lot of the people that run this city think that media pressure and back room deals is the way to get what you want.  We need to develop a culture where people and organisations win public arguments by making them in public. (not by getting the government to sneak your project in through the back door by using emergency legislation like the cricket oval in the Hagley Park, which I personally think is a good project achieved through bad process and sets a terrible precedent. ) Secrecy, games of whispers, and private lobbying are destroying this city, and the public deserves better than this.

Another aspect about the support of the arts precinct over the town hall that has always bothered me is the criticism that the town hall decision was made without a business plan in place for how it is going to work.  Yes, of course the town hall needs a strong business plan. Yes, it would be awful to pay all that money and it not fit into the city culturally and financially.  But the arts precinct that was proposed by the government never had a business plan either.  So what people are really arguing  (this was the Ministers position) is that we should be demolishing one of the country’s great buildings so the money could be transferred over to a large sketchy development with no business case.  Now that in my mind would be crazy. It’s not hard to imagine another parallel world where we have a Christchurch at the moment with a demolished town hall and the dawning realization that we can’t afford the Art Precinct we were promised.  Given the state of other anchor projects and the CCDU in general this isn’t an outlandish scenario.

The arts organisations that are currently included in the newer smaller arts group are rightly concerned that they will not be able to afford to pay the rent in the new facilities. Again this is prudent, but this isn’t an argument that the bigger arts precinct option was better or that the CCC has messed this up. Again, there was never any business plan for the bigger arts precinct so it’s just as likely that those organisations would be facing the same issues now.

What a lot of this discussion amounts to is simply that for this project the difficult messy and complex process of planning, design and financial decisions are being revealed to the public.  It looks messy because it is messy, this is all difficult and complex stuff. This can only be compared to the black hole of information we have on the other anchor projects such as the convention centre (there is only one company tendering for this now and apparently the project has halved in size), stadium (everyone but the minister thinks the proposal is way too big), Otakaru/Avon river (they hired the wrong firm and lost 9 months worth of work on terrible designs), and others which I can assure you are just as messy and complex but are hidden from public view. I understand the media is there to build controversy and in some ways that is productive, but the suggestion that this project is in trouble because there are difficulties with it is misleading.  It’s mainly that those difficulties inherent in all the projects are visible in this one.

But back to the central issue, which is that the government has now signaled to the CCC and other parties, that they are going to stop acquiring the land for the smaller arts precinct because they are not happy with its progress.

The key couple of paragraphs is in an article by journalist Charlie Gates And Georgina Stylianou which states: The Government said land purchases were on hold until a plan for the precinct was confirmed, but a council spokesman said certainty around land was needed to develop a plan. Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) director Warwick Isaacs said the Crown had already purchased four out of 10 properties in the block.”

Firstly, how can the CCC and planners put together a business case and set of draft schemes if they don’t know what land is available. Secondly, I thought the CCC was put in charge of this scheme, if so why is the Government strong arming the council with this project and refusing to do their part of the bargain? Thirdly, I know that the designers have made attempts with support from CCC and CCDU staff to develop this project and adapt it to the changing city and these ideas have been rejected by senior CCDU staff (overruling their own internal recommendations). This makes it look like the CCDU is holding up the project and then blaming this on the CCC.  These ideas include things like shifting the CSO component next to the Town Hall so they have direct access to the auditorium (I have no idea what the CSO thought of this idea), and putting in access and laneways near the arts precinct to make that area work functionally.  These are the sort of ideas that happen when a plan is able to evolve and develop and are apparently being rejected because the CCDU is still operating under their original ideas (the ones developed in secret almost 2 years ago in under 100 days). They are not enabling a renegotiation of the project with the CCC because this might hold up the project, so to avoid that they are, quite ridiculously,  holding up the project. This continues the peculiar ‘we have to destroy the village to save the village’ logic that is leading the CCDU strategy in the rebuild.

Apparently the original Arts Precinct, a proposal by the CCDU in their 100-day plan has a $20 million dollar contribution from an international fundraising effort. After the Town Hall decision, this was dropped from the project and none of it passed on to the new smaller Arts precinct.  This seems vindictive, why not support the CCC’s plans and even if the target is smaller still use this mechanism?  Another $10 million might be the difference between an average and great outcome for the parties involved.

Again, all this is part of the messy processes and quite possibly the CCDU has reasons for these decisions that I don’t know about.  But the thing I don’t understand, is that the government could easily be smoothing this over and making it look like there is progress and the project is going well (like the way they operate with other anchor projects), and yet for some reason they are crying out crisis on this one.  This has the effect of making the council look incompetent, which is quite possibly their goal.  But it also makes them look regressive and unbending. It’s not a good look for the city, which CCDU is in charge of developing.

Frankly, the way these announcements were made makes it look like CCDU and the Minister are more worried about looking right in public and damaging the councils reputation than they are about the quality and progress of this project. The Minister is still making comments that the project is being ruined by the CCC decision to keep the Town Hall.  The CCC has been resolute and consistent in this decision. There has never been any serious consideration from the CCC to demolish it. The CCDU is the one struggling to adapt their plan to the reality of this city. The Minister needs to get over the fact that a decision has happened that he doesn’t like and get on with making this arts precinct and the city the best possible thing it can be. We really don’t care who is proven right or wrong, we just want the best possible outcomes. Perhaps he should build one of his beloved two lane off-ramps and get over it.

So to answer my question from the beginning about whether this is deceit or incompetence, I’d guess that half of the current trouble is just because this is complex and difficult, 25% is because of incompetence from leadership at CCDU and CCC, and 25% just political game playing, mainly from CCDU and CERA.  With a healthy margin of error.

What I reckon needs to happen: 

1. CCDU need to let the designers and the Council get on with allowing this project to change and support good and creative design suggestions. Drop the model that was developed in 2012 that is now acting as a straight jacket and focus on outcomes rather than outputs. The city needs arts facilities that fit the needs of the creative people and audiences in the city, and these need to contribute to the urban quality of the city. This is the primary thing, not some utopian dream of an arts precinct.

2. The CCDU should finish buying the land and give the Council the certainty it needs to do the project.

3. CCC needs to up its game. If they want to take over from CCDU they need to be leading projects better than this. Apparently stakeholders aren’t been consulted and this project is in danger of being derailed by a lack of vision and leadership. For example it has long been obvious that the James Hay Theatre needs a serious re-design, apparently this still isn’t being accepted by some people in the Town Hall team. This isn’t acceptable as the CCC was clear that a major review of this space is needed as part of the Town Hall repair.

4. Other organisations should be getting in on this project. I don’t understand why other organisations (visual arts, theatre, design) aren’t being included in this project. There is basically a big chunk of free land available for arts groups in the middle of the city. Other organisations should be falling over themselves to be part of this. They can bring their insurance money, save on the land cost and contribute to a great series of buildings and spaces. It’s a rare moment when a government will spend $12 million to support the purchase of land purely for arts in the middle of the city.