Shops and bars will open in downtown Christchurch next month for the first time since the February 22 earthquake two years ago.

The city's inner business district has been off limits since the 2011 quake that changed the cityscape forever.

A red zone around the CBD, guarded by soldiers, has allowed demolition experts to safely bring down hundreds of crippled buildings, in a painstakingly slow but inevitable process which has paved the way for a rebuild.

Last year was a year of diggers and rubble trucks, says Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee.


The aftershocks have since tailed off, with GNS now predicting the chance of a magnitude 5.5 to 5.9 shake hitting in the next month being just 3 per cent.

And so 2013 will be the year of the $30 billion rebuild, Mr Brownlee told domestic and international journalists visiting Christchurch yesterday ahead of the second anniversary of the February 22 quake, which claimed 185 lives.

The media were given a tour of the red zone, which has shrunk from 387 hectares in the days after the killer quake to just 38 hectares today.

"It's a very different place to what it was two years ago,'' he said.

Business owners and property developers talked about their excitement at being the first to return to the city's heart, and be the first to take advantage of what they see as being a "once in a lifetime commercial opportunity''.

One of the most distinctive, and historical, areas of the city, New Regent Street, with its protected art deco buildings largely escaped structural quake damage.

The colourful 38 boutique shop fronts have gone under a major restoration and will reopen at the end of next month, looking "exactly'' like they did in 1941 when they were built, says developer David Manning.

Jewellers, retailers, cafes, and bars have already snapped up half the units, while the tram will be back operating in the landmark street by "about June''.

Local property tycoon Anthony Gough today stood on a sparse piece of land where his popular `Strip' once stood - a row of trendy bars on Oxford Terrace, running alongside the banks of the Avon River.

He has a team of 10 working on a new $100 million development of 20 food and beverage outlets, mixed with a 100-bed hotel, 10,000 sq m of office space, boutique cinema, and flats.

The flamboyant businessman wants it opened on his old site next year.

"We don't have time to muck around. Let's get at it,'' he said, adding that the new venues will be the safest in New Zealand, built to at least 100 per cent of the building code.

Housing New Zealand today announced work on the first inner city apartments will start work on Manchester St, in June.

The further easing of the cordon will also allow the reopening of Heritage Hotel group's apartments at the refurbished 100-year old Old Government Building in the shadow of the Christ Church Cathedral ruins.

After a multimillion-dollar spruce-up, the listed building will open on May 14, giving a "huge boost'' for Christchurch's tourism sector, says general manager Gary Jarvis.

"A lot of people are very keen to see it (the historic building) come back.''

Meanwhile, 250 students return to the central city in April with the reopening of Avonmore Tertiary Institute in the old triangle centre, in City Mall.

Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU) director Warwick Isaacs, also on today's media tour, said the 14-storey Novotel hotel's refurbishment is also expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Work on key projects included in the central city blueprint released last July was already underway, Mr Brownlee said.

The builders of the new convention centre would be selected later this month, with the Crown expected to have secured full ownership of the site by September.

The owners of 47 commercial CBD properties have already agreed to sell to the Crown as the purchase of city land for new developments gathers pace.

Early construction on the Avon River precinct will start in April, while work on a bus interchange is planned to begin early next year.

The rebuild was a "realistic vision'', Mr Brownlee said, and Christchurch remained on track to become the "best small city in the world''.