Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Give the mayor the keys to the Town Hall

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Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Jason Dorday
Mayor Len Brown. Photo / Jason Dorday

Mayor Len Brown's desire to reconnect the entertainment end of the Town Hall with the pointy bit of the complex that holds the council chamber and the mayoral suite makes perfect sense.

But it hardly needed a press release announcing "I'll be talking to the council's property and heritage officers to see how we can better welcome Aucklanders and visitors into this magnificent building."

All he needed to do was ask for the key.

Mr Brown wants the public to be able to visit him via "the main grand entrances" rather than through the pokey Queen St door just up from the building's apex. No problems.

All that's stopping that happening is a door or two, electronically bolted because of the security concerns of the previous tenant, former Auckland City mayor John Banks.

He insisted, when he set himself up as a hermit in this building, that the access doors from the entertainment end of the building be locked.

Mayor Brown also wants to investigate "if we can simply and efficiently reconfigure parts of [the Town Hall] while respecting its historical integrity," in order "to improve the sense of welcome to visitors to the building".

Oh dear. It's obvious he hadn't met the council's formidable guardian of heritage, George Farrant, when he said that. There'll be no reconfiguring while Mr Farrant is around. Not of the structural kind anyway.

A better question for the mayor to be asking is, why has he chosen to follow Mr Banks' odd precedent and hide himself away from the main hub of the city administration, which is across Aotea Square in the main city office building.

Access to the suite of offices he has chosen to occupy, by the very nature of the historic building, conjures up words like intimate and cosy, rather than grand. But welcoming nevertheless, in a Hobbiton sort of way.

Of course, there will be a cost. Keeping the main entrance open all day will require extra reception and security staffing, both upstairs and down. The last time the council-owned operators, The Edge, looked at this option, I recall a figure in the vicinity of $30,000 a year.

But while the mayor is looking for doors to unlock, could I point him a few steps down Queen St to the fairy-tale splendour of the Civic Theatre. A decade ago, Auckland City ratepayers spent $42 million on this wonderful folly of a building.

It's a unique remnant of the flamboyant movie palaces of the 1920s, the most ornate built in New Zealand, and one of the few "atmospherics" still standings anywhere in the world.

It's a magnet for movie buffs worldwide, the sort of destination-tourist attraction that Auckland so lacks, yet for the past 10 years, the only chance for tourists is a peer through the locked glass doors. That's unless they pay for a show, organise a large tour group, or are aware they can sneak in with the pre-show crowds for a free look around the foyers.

In February 2001, a year or so after it reopened, the Friends of the Civic lobby group pushed for the building to be open for regular public viewing.

The Edge argued that it was paid $175,000 by the city to keep the Town Hall and Aotea Centre open year-round for public viewing, but was not funded as far as the Civic was concerned.

Mayor Christine Fletcher approached The Edge and was told that opening the foyer area five days a week from 9am to 5pm would cost more than $100,000. She quickly backed off.

Later in the year, The Edge proposed free guided tours at 2pm every day but Christmas Day. The price was $90,000 for security cameras and other set-up costs, plus $60,000 a year. That proposal sank without trace.

Of course, everything comes at a cost. Keeping the foyer areas of the Aotea Centre open all day costs ratepayers around $200,000.

Part of this cost is linked to the appeal of the centre's superior toilets, and the lack of up-town public alternatives.

I'm not sure who counted, but management says the Aotea toilets have 40,000 flushes a year that aren't associated with either the administration or shows.

Opening the Town Hall up would cost much less. But getting back to the Civic: As far as opening up buildings go, that's the one Mayor Brown should be working on.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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