The first step towards saving what is arguably Auckland's most magnificent theatre, the St James, has taken far longer than it should have. The case for restoration has been manifest since its closure in 2007. Yet, for one reason or another, not least council dilly-dallying, it has been left to rot on its Queen St site. But last week, there was finally good news for the category-one listed building. Relianz Holdings, a vehicle of Auckland-based Lijun Li and his family, has bought the theatre and adjacent land. This creates the potential for the curtain to go up at a rejuvenated St James in 2018.
If that happens, it will be a wonderful outcome for the people of Auckland. The theatre, which boasts an ornate colonial-style interior featuring a marble staircase and three tiers of seating, is worth every bit of the adulation that has been bestowed on it. It would find a ready niche among the city's entertainment venues, notably for ballet and opera. The purchase of the St James and adjoining cinemas appears to represent a happy marriage between Relianz's involvement in property development and one of its founder's passion for the performing arts.
For all that, it remains perplexing that the Auckland Council did not take charge of the project at an early stage. Four years ago, the mayor, Len Brown, described it as one of the most iconic buildings in Australasia. Yet the council made no direct move despite the apparent prompting of the former owner and a generally accepted price of about $11 million, the council's rating valuation, for the theatre.
There may have been some reasons for caution. At one point, the St James appeared destined for restoration as part of The Edge's plan for an international convention centre development next to the Aotea Centre. That proposal was trumped by SkyCity's deal with the Government. Additionally, there may have been concern about the cost to ratepayers of safety and strengthening work that must be done on the building. And of the new St James drawing events away from the Aotea Centre and The Civic.
Such worries, however, paid insufficient attention to the overwhelming case for council involvement. If not something as valuable as the St James, what did it consider worth saving? Sadly, the council's priorities became clear last year when it allotted $10 million to the Auckland Theatre Company's project in the Wynyard Quarter, only slightly less than the sum believed to be required for the St James.
The Relianz project does not come gift-wrapped. First, there will be obvious qualms about the scale of the 39-level apartment and retail development that will be built next door on the site of the Odeon and Westend theatres. The Civic and most of the buildings around Aotea Square will be dwarfed. Secondly, there is every chance ratepayers and other sources will be asked to contribute millions towards the St James' restoration. That cost has previously been estimated at $50 million.
The ownership and management structure of the reopened theatre have also yet to be finalised. That is to be worked out between Relianz, the council and the Auckland Notable Properties Trust, a privately funded body. If a ratepayer contribution is sought, that should also trigger a degree of council involvement in this body.
Clearly, Mr Brown believes this is the best path both for restoring the St James and for easing the burden on ratepayers. But much remains to be decided before it is reopened. At the very least, however, the future of the theatre now looks immeasurably brighter.