Published 7 May 2006
Auckland City Council’s urban strategy & governance committee has deferred action on the South Town Hall arts precinct.
The precinct went from being a very good idea, a way to enhance a rundown part of the cbd, to being off the council priority spending list for the next 10 years. Even so, some work was being done on advancing the precinct’s cause. People involved in the private & public sectors of the arts world were brought into discussions on what might happen, and this week 2 of them put a case to the council for more work to be done.
But the committee didn’t shift the precinct on to the priority list. Instead, it decided to wait for this year’s process to complete the council’s long-term plan has been completed â€“ scheduled for June â€“ and to have a report on the precinct made to the council’s combined committees.
Dithering, and shifting an item from one committee to another without either a staff report in place, a firm recommendation in place or a clear statement on how unbudgeted work might be done, amounts to a needless expense.
The committee could have made a decision one way or another because it had clear options put before it by staff. Instead, the effect of murmuring round the table was that â€˜We like it but it’s not on the priority list (to which we were a party)’.
Way to go
The complicating factor was that councillors saw the council as an owner, which couldn’t afford to spend perhaps $40 million on a major capital project. They would have been better to split their identity â€“ on the one hand a precinct-shaping council with powers of zoning and encouragement through its planning & economic support instruments, and on the other an ownership role, with the ability for the council to trade its position.
The ability to do this was staring the committee in the face but nobody grasped the nettle.
Strategic urban planner Judith Webster gave the committee a 12-page report at its 3 May meeting, reviewing an outline report delivered last August on the concept of developing an arts precinct on the site behind the town hall.
The South Town Hall concept has been bedevilled by 2 factors â€“ the expense, at least $73 million, to fix the leaks into the parking under Aotea Square, and combine that with some above-ground work, and the marvellous idea of doing a whole lot of things to spruce up the neighbourhood, the Outside the square project which quickly ran up a potential bill of $700 million.
Ms Webster said in her report last week the committee last year supported the vision & core component and endorsed a proposed way forward, but this endorsement was subject to recommendations from the Outside the square initiative. The next South Town Hall report will get back to doing one thing at a time.
The proposal last year was heavily weighted to undertaking a feasibility study and developing a costed master plan (that’s the owner working out capex). Ms Webster said it also included an external reference group and exploring funding & governance options.
The council research report launched last November, Snapshot: Auckland‘s creative industries, added support to the South Town Hall concept, and arts participants brought in to give their views naturally supported it.
Ms Webster said 3 options were being considered:
The status quo (effectively, nothing would happen)
Postponing the project until the next review of the council’s long-term plan, in 3 years, or
Shifting the emphasis from the detailed master plan towards exploring alternative funding & governance options.
Not surprisingly, against 2 do-nothings, council staff advocated the third option. They put together a slim budget to make sure the project kept ticking over.
Strong case, but not purely on commercial basis
Last year’s cultural demand study found a strong case for developing this arts precinct, but noted that “a model based on purely commercial imperatives will not achieve the public good & cultural benefits. A level of public investment will therefore be necessary.”
Ms Webster said delay could cost the council credibility among supporters of the project. “It also means that arts groups that want to locate in the area may consider it wiser to seek long-term accommodation elsewhere. This in turn has the potential to undermine the Aotea Quarter vision.”
The last of those points is central to the council’s role in advancing city life: A council that puts up woolly ideas or ideas that don’t have a sound basis, then knocks them down by equivocating, doesn’t advance its city at all.
Ms Webster said that apart from losing South Town Hall opportunities, future development might be compromised: “For example, if the proposed underground street (from Mayoral Drive, in front of the Aotea Centre and out to Greys Avenue) was found to be feasible, its construction may hinder future South Town Hall site developments unless this site is actively considered as part of the underground street planning.
“Unintended consequences may occur: For example, if the proposed pavilion at the southern end of the square was developed without consideration of the South Town Hall concept & site, it may unintentionally cut the South Town Hall site off from the square rather than link it in some way.
“Economies of scale may be lost: For example, it may be more cost-effective to undertake some work, such as flood plane analysis, at the quarter level rather than at an individual site level.”
Ms Webster said council staff were exploring funding & governance questions for the whole Aotea Quarter. “This exploration could include a review of such approaches as subordinate decision-making bodies within the council, council organisations or even joint ventures & special-purpose vehicles. This work will need to dovetail with any explorations around funding & governance for South Town Hall.”
If the council does opt for a change in emphasis, perhaps through an expressions of interest process, Ms Webster said it could:
work with the council’s property enterprise board to explore potential development options
determine what the could bring to the development, such as long-term leasing of the land
identify commercial partners or developers
work with external organisations such as the Committee for Auckland to champion the project and help identify partnership opportunities
help key arts organisations develop partnership proposals
explore central government funding opportunities
develop a tenancy plan incorporating a sustainable mix of market-based & subsidised rentals.
Stakeholders group gives warning
Robin Scholes, a member of the stakeholders group who worked on the project with the council, told the urban strategy & governance committee the next step could be quite a small one. The Auckland Philharmonia was looking for a home, as were other groups: “Maybe you use the Philharmonia as a spearhead to start your creative cluster. You don’t need to do the whole lot at once.”
But, she said, “if you delay too much you will alienate some of them and they will go elsewhere. It’s not a never-ending opportunity.”
19 November 2005: South Town Hall precinct flexiform theatre gets essential boost
11 November 2005: Councillors vote to continue with Outside the square project
3 November 2005: Council sets foundation for creative industries support
11 April 2005: Aotea Quarter plan approved
11 April 2005: Success at Aotea Quarter no easy run
2 July 2004: Aotea Quarter maps
1 July 2004: Aotea Quarter cultural precinct plan endorsed
Attribution: Council agenda, submissions, debate, story written by Bob Dey for this website.