Infrastructure report: Filling in the doughnut

As the rebuild turns its focus to the CBD, more and more businesses are returning to central city positions

The Promenade will create a broad pedestrian area along the east bank of the river from Lichfield St through to Victoria Square.
The Promenade will create a broad pedestrian area along the east bank of the river from Lichfield St through to Victoria Square.

Following the Christchurch earthquakes, substantial numbers of CBD businesses relocated to the peripheral suburbs while the Red Zone cordon remained in effect, sparking concerns that the slow pace would render it a "doughnut city".

Business leaders and stakeholders have been vocal in their critique of the process to date. NZCID research revealed serious concern from those involved in the rebuild.

Speaking to 71 stakeholders from across local and central Government, as well as industry, it found confidence in the leadership, vision and blueprint for the CBD sliding.

Fears of the rebuilding stalling are becoming less commonplace, as visible evidence of progress in Christchurch, particularly in the central city emerges. The excitement and positivity inherent in the early stages appeared to give way to concern and doubt about whether the CBD would return.

"Everyone is blaming everyone else. The hub will be recreated over 20 years -- it is not a sudden build. Council should have put a moratorium around building the doughnut," says one respondent.

But as the fourth anniversary of the first major earthquake in September 2010 nears, it's clear there has been a marked shift away from the disaster recovery and emergency remedial phase to a real focus on the CBD's future.

"I understand why people could look at the city and say 'that has been a problem," concedes Warwick Isaacs, Director of the Christchurch Central Development Unit -- an entity established within Cera with a mandate to rebuild the CBD.

"However I don't for one moment accept that we're going to have a doughnut city. I think that myth has been debunked now. A move back into the central city was always going to take more time because these buildings take longer than some of the others to develop, design and then find tenants for."

Isaacs believes the development schedule has enabled businesses whose needs were previously not best met with central city sites to develop more "natural fits".

"What we've found is that the central city would never meet all the requirements all of the tenants across the whole city have," he says. "You need a range of office blocks, not just A-Grade tenancies. I think it has just been a matter of people seeing an opportunity and grabbing it -- and good on them for that, we need as many businesses back on their feet as possible. It really isn't an impediment to the central city."

"As the central city continues to develop over time, I fully expect there will be a movement of some of the tenants currently in the outer rim of the so-called doughnut. The commercial uptake in the central city is certainly accelerating in a way, there's no question about that now."

Though Cera Chief Executive Roger Sutton would prefer to see as much of the business community as possible relocate to the new city centre, the reality is many will now remain in their new homes on the outskirts of Christchurch.

"Some guys who were in the CBD and went to the suburbs are going to stay out there and there's no point in fighting that," says Sutton. "Most of the major tenants are returning to the core of the CBD or those areas around the periphery, which is great."

Getting the commercial sector excited about the opportunities that the new look city will provide has been a major part of that process says Isaacs.

"The one I perhaps didn't fully understand was the need to communicate the same belief that we were going to deliver what was said we would. That was never a question in my mind, but we had to tell that story and give confidence to the commercial sector that this wouldn't be a promise that isn't delivered on."

Fundamental to that story has been the development of the anchor projects - the set of major infrastructural developments being led by the Crown and Christchurch City Council. These projects will lay the foundations for the city, framing the CBD for future development and attracting people back.

"Most of the anchor projects start coming out of the ground this year and I'm proud of the fact the we have got on with building some of those gutsy developments," said Isaacs.

The pace with which the developments have moved along has drawn widespread critique from those who want to get in and get on with it, but Isaacs remains confident that the process followed will produce the best outcomes for the future of Christchurch.

"Some of the areas for these large projects take substantial time to demolish and involve a huge amount of design work. These developments start in the tens of millions of dollars and it takes a long time to develop those ideas, get costings done and then tender the work. That's before anything starts actually getting built, but we're moving onwards and upwards."

As the commercial rebuild kicks up a gear, a stronger focus is also turning to residential development. The Government has a long-term vision for more than 20,000 CBD residents -- a substantial increase from the 7000-8000 people who called the central city home prior to the earthquakes.

"What we've done is look at the re-entry impediments that might have existed or could still exist around the redevelopment of the central city," says Sutton. "We've looked at factors such as height restrictions and urban design regulations.

"In the city there had been a number of specially amended areas where you had to build in a particular way. That may have been really good in the past but it's not entirely conducive to a larger population living in the central city, so we've looked at those and around tweaking those rules."

The Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) released the Draft Residential Chapter of the Christchurch Central Recovery Plan last month. A Livable City outlines the vision and framework for residential developments within the central city, featuring a revised planning outline and initiatives to stimulate development.

"It's crucial that we attract people to live in the central city to add vibrancy to what will be a modern, world-class environment, and the residential chapter is about providing a pathway to this," says Isaacs.

"We knew we wanted to do more work around residential regulation that would drive the development community to get involved in the central city."

Christchurch City Council is also actively pursuing a higher concentration of residential space within the central city.

A $10 million fund was established last year to provide rebates to developers building accommodation within the CBD to help mitigate development risks.

The Central City Development Contributions Rebate policy was adopted by the Council in the June 2013 Three Year Plan to encourage well-designed multiple dwelling units in the central city, explains Alan Bywater, Strategic Policy Unit Manager for the Christchurch City Council.

The inner city is challenging for both potential residents and developers with poor amenity, dust, noise and disruption cited as major barriers to living there.

Developers see increased risk due to lower potential returns, fewer interested buyers, high development contributions and restricted access to finances for unit title developments.

"The intent of the policy is to attract early residential development in the central city and result in more people living in the central city, with the flow-on benefits of a livelier, more vibrant centre supporting more retail activity, and workers who can walk to work," says Bywater.

The fund will be available until 30 June 2015 for qualifying developments within the central Four Avenues of Christchurch.

Developers are required to build at least one more additional residential unit than had been on the site prior to the earthquake to quality for the rebates. One year in, about $8.5 million of the $10 million fund remains available.

"In essence, it is first come first served for residential development," explains Isaacs.

"Developers may be able to have a full or partial rebate for their contribution to the development. It's a fantastic boost to the market to be able to get on with it and start some developments. It's about council putting up a financial stimulus to assist what the government is trying to achieve."

Clearing the way

Warwick Isaacs.

Warwick Isaacs' role in the Christchurch Rebuild began the day after the February 2011 earthquake, when he led a Civil Defence team in the devastated city.

He donned his hard hat again taking responsibility for Cera's deconstruction programme in the CBD. The programme is said to have set new international benchmarks for the speed achieved clearing the way for recovery. But the rebuild has been problematic.

A centre of excellence

A world-class Convention Centre - funded by the Government to the tune of $284 million - is expected to attract business, events, and conferences to Christchurch and help grow the region's economic base. The Convention Centre Precinct will have hotel and residential accommodation, food and beverage outlets, retail, office spaces and parking. The centre will be designed from the ground up to be walkable, close to public transport, and provide good access to key transport routes for service vehicles.

Who's building it?
Plenary Conventions New Zealand - a consortium of proven international infrastructure firm Plenary Group, and experienced local firms Ngai Tahu Property and The Carter Group - has been selected as the preferred consortium for the master-planning and development stage of the project. Leading international convention centre and hotel operator Accor has been selected as the preferred operator.

The Convention Centre Precinct will be jointly developed by Cera, the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu, Christchurch City Council and the private sector. Plenary Conventions NZ has produced a "fly thru" and images to demonstrate its vision of what the Convention Centre Precinct might become.

The exact design and layout of the Convention Centre Precinct is still to be finalised but these concept drawings demonstrate the exciting possibilities in front of Christchurch.

Where - in the heart of Christchurch
The Convention Centre will be on the block defined by Armagh St, Oxford Terrace, Worcester St, and Colombo St. Gloucester St will become part of the Centre itself, but will allow for retail use and public access.

Connecting the Square, Puari Pa, and Te Papa Otakaro/Avon River, the precinct will meld with daily city life, featuring ground-level shopping and several nearby hotels.

Victoria Square will provide a space (atea) for conference guests to enter and receive a cultural welcome (powhiri).

When - open for business in 2017.
The project remains on track for construction to begin in 2015, and for the centre to be open for business in 2017. It will be able to host several events at the same time, starting with space for up to 2000 people, and will complement facilities in Auckland and Queenstown.

International conferences bring global business connections to Christchurch. These will help open new markets and foster economic growth.

- NZ Herald

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