For four years, restoration of Auckland's historic St James Theatre on Queen St has been mothballed but a Government minister says a $15 million plea won't be enough for a project estimated to cost $100m to fix.
"It has indeed been four long years since the main works stopped," said Steve Bielby who has tried to have the category 1 heritage structure restored and re-opened in a programme which he said could cost $65 million to $70m.
But Kiritapu Allan, Associate Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, says it could be far more than that.
"It has been estimated the full restoration costs could be up to $100m," she said.
Auckland Central MP Chloe Swarbrick is championing the cause so, this month she hosted a Zoom meeting of 68 people, opening with the whakataukī: "Kia mate ururoa, kei mate wheke [Fight like a shark, don't give in like an octopus, never give up]."
The meeting heard from Bielby, who blames the lack of a neighbouring apartment project where services for the theatre were to be developed.
Swarbrick and Bielby want the Government to pay $15m to help re-open the theatre.
But Allan responded to the Herald: "The Government absolutely values our heritage buildings and has invested heavily to conserve and restore large numbers of them. However, spending many millions on one project in the middle of a pandemic is not a top priority. The restoration of St James Theatre is a challenging and complex project, involving various parties and commercial interests and $15 million would not be sufficient funding to complete the work."
Swarbrick told Thursday night's meeting: "What I'm looking at doing is making that proposal for a contribution from the Government of that $15 million to bring this back to life for the Auckland city centre."
She encouraged people to write to the minister and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern "to ask them to fund this critical piece of infrastructure".
Allan responded afterwards: "There are, of course, other avenues to raising money, including partnering with private investors. Because of the way the theatre ownership is currently structured, the theatre upgrade project is closely linked to the adjacent apartment development which was also going to provide building services for the theatre. The apartment development is not currently being progressed, and while this remains the case, the theatre project is on hold. Ministers and the ministry have been in regular contact with the owners over a number of years."
Swarbrick cited growth in the CBD including the development of the City Rail Link and venues for live music. The Auckland town hall had bookings well in advance "and there is very much a missing piece in our infrastructure. On top of that, there's so much history in St James."
Bielby said the 1928 theatre was built in just nine months, a vaudeville theatre not a movie theatre "and has been everything from a rave cave to the theatre with several large-scale productions there over the years. It's got a pretty bad case of deferred maintenance."
It had always been privately owned which contributed to ups and downs.
"Granny's got wrinkles so we don't want to use Botox," Bielby said of the restoration process.
The theatre takes up about a quarter of the wider site which includes the former West End and Odeon theatre sites as well as the ex-Regent site. The eastern end was to be an apartment site next door.
St James had lost its lifts, toilets and fire exits, so its future relied on the development of apartments next door, Bielby said. The two developments were tied together and in 2014, the apartment scheme was planned, prices stacked up and it was viable.
"The wheels fell off in 2017. Since then the theatre has really just been sitting, waiting for that development to happen. We've tried lots of things," he said.
So the theatre development could not begin until the apartment project did, he said and there are no announced plans for the St James Apartments project to be reignited by landowner the Li family.
"We just want to see it open again," Bielby told 68 meeting participants.
He was open to discussion with the council about its use and future.
Two years might be a realistic timeframe for a re-opening and possible lease of the building, he said.
But the structural and seismic upgrade of the building was first necessary. Base isolators like those beneath the Beehive in Wellington were planned to be installed under the theatre, he said. The theatre's floor is dug up, meaning it can't host any events.
Asked by Swarbrick about how much was spent so far, Bielby said: "We've already spent many millions of dollars. We have not taken any public funding yet."
Around $15m was needed from the Government "and that will open St James, dollar for dollar with the council", he said referring to Auckland Council's $15m pledge, conditional on Bielby meeting certain completion targets.
Asked why it didn't become a shovel-ready project, Bielby said it was approved as that. But it went before ministers including Shane Jones but he didn't choose St James."
Auckland had a real need for a venue for around 2400 people, he said.
Swarbrick said the Kings Arms Tavern had been a venue for around 500 people and she named capacities of other venues.
Bielby referred to the base isolators as 'roller skates'.
Asked if the foyer would be available for events this summer, Bielby said: "In short probably not. It's a real challenge to separate that off as part of the venue, you've got sprinkler and fire systems so not really. In terms of bands, not really. It might create a bit of a health and safety nightmare. We're always open to suggestions. Yeah, yeah."
Swarbrick said another venue of 2400 seats was unlikely in Auckland.
"It's irreplaceable," Bielby said, citing $30m to $40m to replace what he sees as cultural infrastructure.
"We looked at that option - a Te Papa in Auckland. There was just no appetite at all."
The most expensive part of the work was theatre infrastructure, structural upgrade, foundation work and seismic upgrade.
"The reason we can't build separate lifts, shafts, etc is that it's linked to the apartment building next door. It needs to be done in the most efficient development of the apartment site. That's fundamentally in a different building and on a different title so it's complicated from a design point of view to make that stuff work. It's easier for us to have other parts in the new building built to the new code and the theatre and lobby will be seismically upgraded as part of the St James theatre"
On the $60m to $70m costs to restore and re-open, he said: "Some of the things we scoped would be nice to have but not essential but rather than increasing the budget ... some of the costs have already been incurred like design work, bought isolators. Lighting might be more $1m than $3m to $4m."
The council funding could not be touched until it became an operational theatre, he said.
"It might be the bottom two levels were fully restored and the third level was a little more chic."
Asked how accessible the theatre was for the disabled, Bielby said: "We do have a special seating arrangement. There is a plan for that and disabled parking as well at the back. A lot of work went into that."
Asked about whether a functioning orchestra pit could be built, Bielby said there were two plans and "one does include an orchestra pit and the other did not. We haven't decided which it will be yet." Talks would be held with authorities on what was wanted because it was a pretty substantial cost to put in an orchestra pit.
Asked how bad the decay was on the exterior, Bielby referred to problems with concrete walls.
Heritage campaigner and film-maker Margot McRae asked if the Li family still owned the neighbouring site.
Bielby said they were still the apartment developers "and there is still interest in developing the apartments. I can't comment too much there on the current plans. We're in discussions with parties which is ongoing. Would they sell it? I guess anything's for sale. I think they actually wanted to go ahead and build and they were incredibly disappointed when it fell over the first time. We went through questions like is it actually worth saving the theatre? I believe they do want to see the theatre resorted and build the apartments."
Asked if it would be a council-run venue, he said: There will be a separation between ownership of the theatre and operation of the theatre."
Bielby said he was optimistic about the future of the project.