Council quick to pay for sports fields, but a city icon needs help too

In the week before Christmas last year, Auckland councillors dipped deep into their secret Santa sack and handed over $60.7 million to Auckland University in return for the university's 20ha Colin Maiden Park in St Johns.

It was the university's only outdoor sport grounds, and will remain so. But the academics were threatening to sell the land to the highest bidder and had councillors over a barrel. To preserve the green space, they had to act quickly.

What the university's bullying did highlight is that, in an emergency, Auckland Council can find the money.

So why the lack of action to save the historic St James Theatre? Closed since a fire in the adjacent Odeon/Westend cinema complex in 2007, the A-listed heritage building - on both council and Historic Places Trust records - remains shut.


After his election as the first mayor of the Auckland super city in 2010, Len Brown praised the 1928 theatre as one of the most iconic buildings in Australasia, but described it as an "open sore in the community ... sitting there rotting".

A few months later he called for an urgent report into securing its future. "We cannot afford to lose another iconic building," he said. "All of Auckland needs to work together to ensure we don't lose the St James."

Two and half years later, on the eve of last year's election, the mayor said he was "actively working to secure the future of the St James. It is a fantastic theatre space and an important part of our heritage."

Full marks to the mayor for his concern. But if the St James is so fantastic and important, why haven't we seen the action man performance he turned on for the professors?

Yesterday was more of the same. Councillors deferred discussion on a confidential update on the progress of negotiations with the St James' owner, property developer Paul Doole.

The reason for the delay is unknown, but it is typical of the soft-shoe shuffle between council officials and Mr Doole that has been going on for years.

In November Mr Doole told TV3 he'd been trying to sell the theatre to the council for several years but it was not responding.

"The ball's in their court," he said. "I've got to have an offer from the council before I can sell it to them. Simple as that."


The generally accepted price seems to be around $11 million, which is the council's rating valuation.

Mr Doole also owns the adjacent Odeon/Westend Theatre site and in 2009 gained resource consent to build a 39-storey apartment complex on it. He has until April 3, 2018, to complete the project.

The council must also consider buying the adjacent site. This was suggested by Auckland Theatre Company when it proposed building a smaller drama theatre alongside the St James and sharing front-of-house facilities with the existing theatre. The theatre company got the cold shoulder and moved to the waterfront.

Owning the neighbouring space would give better access to the St James during its refurbishment and it could subsequently be sold on - enhanced in value by the fully functioning theatre alongside.

Part of the political paralysis is triggered by the estimated cost of a full, luxury makeover - figures from $50 million to $80 million are raised.

This rather loses sight of the fact that the old theatre, while a tad blowsy, was a popular, much-loved venue until its sudden closure. This was triggered not by the state of the furnishings or by fire damage, but issues like inadequate fire exits and the like. Sort out these problems, check the wiring and the toilets and such, and the place could be back in business.

Margot McRae, the co-chairwoman of Devonport's Victoria Theatre Trust, summed it up well a few months back when she wrote "the key to saving the St James Theatre is not to aim for a grand restoration but simply to make it safe".