Published 17 September 2011; Watch out for trains & political comment
Our urban designers, planners, councillors & vested interests have been unable, over many years, to redesign a sloping cbd rectangle in a way which they all like, but they keep trying.
It was the turn of the Auckland Council’s regional development & operations committee to have another bash on Thursday at a lasting “solution” for Khartoum Place & its 18-year-old suffrage memorial. The majority on the council like the memorial where it is – tiles on the walls of a stairway between the place’s upper level fronting Kitchener St and lower level opening on to Lorne St. They also supported an entry to the art gallery from the mid-level of the staircase.
One councillor, Michael Goudie – who confessed to being “a simple boy from Orewa” and said he & his mates wouldn’t go to Khartoum Place – preferred to see the memorial decommissioned and new artwork in a redesigned staircase: “I think the women of Auckland deserve something far better. It’s an embarrassment of a place at the moment.”
Cllr Cathy Casey, an ardent memorial supporter against various campaigns to decommission it, including attempts to give the gallery a grander entrance, told Cllr Goudie that if he visited Khartoum Place any day between 11-3 he’d find “hordes of students enjoying lunch in a leafy space”.
The memorial was created in 1993 for the centenary of women getting the vote. A 2006 revamp, leaving the tiles in place but brightening the bottom area, cost $2 million and there’s still $1 million in the council budget from the cbd targeted rate to upgrade the top area.
The cbd board (renamed an advisory board after the Waitemata Local Board elected last November laid claim to its role as the true representative of the cbd) doesn’t want the $1 million spent on that work. The money is now in the council’s cbd transformations budget and, regional & local planning manager Penny Pirrit noted: “It’s Auckland Council that makes the final decision on how the targeted rate is spent. If this recommendation is successful, the transformations team will be prioritising the work.”
While they’re there, the transformational team might also fix the fairly new & expensive footpath across the other side of Lorne St, which has been designed to make life easier for crossing vehicles rather than pedestrians.
The recommendations supported by the committee included the nomination of Khartoum Place for heritage status being prioritised by the council’s environmental strategy & policy department and a full assessment being conducted.
On the way past, Cllr Sandra Coney suggested a heritage assessment might not be the right tool to lead to the memorial’s preservation and Cllr Mike Lee commented: “Given all the other work we have to do, I would have thought Khartoum Place would be a local board matter – we still have work on demarcation to do.”
I walk along Lorne St frequently but venture into Khartoum Place only rarely – usually to take a photo because somebody wants to argue about it again. Its lower level certainly attracts people at lunchtime, but the buildings around it guarantee it will never be bathed in sunshine for long periods. It’s not a shortcut to anywhere, so it doesn’t attract people from outside the immediate vicinity. It’s a haven, but not a particularly welcoming one.
In contrast, the new shared space between the city library & the St James Theatre building will prove far more attractive for people to loiter, especially once vehicles are kept out of it completely (not on the books yet, but give it time) – and would probably be a more appropriate place for a memorial to a step in national maturity.
Cllr Coney said that if the heritage assessment didn’t result in a recommendation to schedule the memorial area, “we would then not necessarily have the long-term protection people are seeking. I would still like comment on my suggestion that staff look at other options for protection.”
One of the tricks of the planning regime is that places can be found to have character – which can be a component of heritage for scheduling purposes – but the elements making up “character” can be whittled down to a point where it becomes insignificant, and therefore counts for nothing in a heritage assessment. It would be easy to reduce the memorial to its tiles, removing the surrounds from the assessment, finding the memorial has no direct relationship with Khartoum (or Lorne or Kitchener or the art gallery) and defining it as having no status whatsoever.
This thus pulls the Environment Court into the political play, as arbiter on the significance of character elements of a building or place, as it ended up doing at the art gallery.
Cllr Lee also questioned the value of a heritage assessment: “I support option 2 (keeping the memorial, with the opening to the gallery), the local board does, the National Council of Women & other parties who want to protect the memorial do.
“I am concerned about heritage assessments. We all know the heritage process we have inherited is conservative, minimalistic, reductionist. In the recent past heritage assessments have been used to give the death sentence to sites or buildings which the local community appear to love dearly.
“The reason there is so much concern about the memorial is not really standard heritage reasons – it’s relatively new. We know there’s a vociferous minority who want to see it gone. A heritage assessment is only going to make the argument go on and, in this particular case, is not appropriate.”
The issue arose this time because the Zonta Club asked the council’s culture, arts & entertainment forum for a heritage assessment and the mayor & forum then called for a report.
Options rejected by councillors on Thursday were to preserve the memorial in perpetuity with no changes, reconfigure the memorial in a redesign, shift to a more visible cbd location, commission new memorial artwork and redesign the staircase, and commission new memorial artwork elsewhere and redesign the Khartoum Place staircase.
The day before, the Government kicked the council off the wharves because the council couldn’t run a party well enough – or was that, ran a party that proved too successful? – and couldn’t deliver the required train service to Eden Park.
There are tensions round the roles of central government, the Auckland Council as both regional & local government, the role of the council’s various commercial units and local boards.
All of them are partners at various times, but the Government deal with Ports of Auckland Ltd to use more wharf space for Rugby World Cup Party Central involved the Government making a demand of a council subsidiary (Ports) which the council itself couldn’t make because of the separation of powers which the Government established.
The rail debacle showed people will use trains if it looks to be a sensible option. The willingness to use public transport should encourage the NZ Transport Agency to revise its calculations on costs & benefits of Auckland’s proposed rail loop, but the party central & rail decision-making morass will make the council wary of entering any deal with a government that’s prepared to shaft its partners with maximum humiliation.
A longer-term outcome of that little piece of grief should be a push from political Auckland to have more sway over its affairs, which must include financial sway. The central government will find that unpalatable, but the battle between the 2 political levels is likely to increase once the Auckland spatial plan is released next Tuesday.
The Government insisted on this plan but the council hasn’t shifted anywhere near where the Government wants on proposals for reducing the metropolitan urban limit and increasing the scope for cheaper fringe housing.
That intransigence from both sides guarantees more confrontation over fundamentals between the 2 levels of government. Meanwhile the chant is rising from local boards that the council is ignoring them and that the “co” of cogovernance isn’t working.
Cllr Lee’s point about work to be done in a side street – Khartoum Place – is a valid one at one level: a local board should look after local affairs, for which it would also need a bigger budget. But monuments & memorials tend to have more than local importance, as the suffragette memorial does – it’s an issue which a government could easily become involved in too.
Those tensions won’t go away but, with intransigence, will increase unless scope is created for dispassionate public review, on top of the negotiation expected between the parties on specific matters.
If that’s not done, the best option might be to leave our politicians of all levels scuffling in a sloping rectangle, and leaving the rest of us to get on.
21 April 2010: Battle over suffragette memorial continues
29 December 2006: Khartoum Place revamp to start
22 November 2006: Khartoum Place next target for cbd refurb
17 May 2006: Khartoum Place redesign unveiled
22 November 2005: Mayor says suffragette memorial must stay
20 July 2005: Brewer Davidson, Leo Jew to do Khartoum Place redesign
27 February 2005: Khartoum Pl upgrade designs wanted
11 December 2004: $4.5 million Lorne St revamp approved
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Attribution: Council committee meeting & agenda, whispers on Lorne St, story written by Bob Dey for the Bob Dey Property Report.