Monday 18 June 2012

Downtown awesome

Rebecca Macfie's must-read article on Christchurch redevelopment highlights some of the grassroots downtown awesome going on in Christchurch. Case in point: the Dance-O-Mat:
“The response was overwhelming,” says Reynolds. “They [supporters and volunteers] said ‘you have to keep doing it’.” Since then, Gap Filler has become a charitable trust, Winn has become the paid co-ordinator, and many more gaps have been filled. One of the most outrageously successful was the Manchester St Dance-O-Mat – an open-air dance floor and a coin-operated washing machine converted to provide 30 minutes of light and power to an iPod and speakers. Reynolds: “People said Christchurch people wouldn’t dance in public. Well, Christchurch showed us.”

On one freezing Friday night in late May I learnt ceroc, salsa and swing moves among dozens of strangers; suddenly, it didn’t matter that we were surrounded by demolition sites and that the central city was gone. Based on the number of $2 coins pushed into the slot over the project’s two-month life, Winn calculates the floor was danced on by 2000 people. Although the dance floor’s now been packed away for winter, she says the Christchurch City Council is keen to re-establish it permanently. “So we may gift it to the council.”

It’s hard to overstate just how powerful and invigorating this is: young, clever creatives with little money but a huge appetite for trial and error are doing urban design on the fly, and proving that small-scale, inventive spaces will draw people out and restore life to a wasteland. And, says Just (who is also a Gap Filler trustee), it’s radical on another level, too. “It’s turning private space into public space. So a 60-year-old becomes an urban activist by dancing on the Dance-O-Mat.”
We hit the Dance-O-Mat one Friday night, along with a colleague and her family. Two economists, two econ-spouses, and three kids, dancing to the Hayek-Keynes rap. Was excellent.

Macfie points to some of the problems in routing through the bureaucracy for the Smash Palace bar:
Eventually, he alighted on a bare section at the corner of Victoria St and Bealey Ave, and came up with the idea of parking an old bus on the site and converting it into a relocatable bar. There’d also be a caravan where his sister Rosie would run a cafe, and a couple of temporary buildings for toilets and kitchen. The wind and dust would be kept out by plastic sheeting attached to scaffolding around the perimeter of the site.

The city council’s planners were enthusiastic, as was business support agency Recover Canterbury. Lots of people lent moral and practical support. He started working on the site in October, with ambitions of having the new bar, called Smash Palace, trading by Christmas. Then began a protracted Kafkaesque battle with the Christchurch City Council’s consenting division. Because the bus was judged to be a building, it needed building consent. That meant concrete foundations had to be laid, and the body of the bus tied down.

The handrails had to turn down 90 degrees at the end, and the way they connected to the decking around the bus had to be drawn up by an architect. The wheelchair ramps had to be at a gradient of 1:12. A near-enough 1:10 was not good enough. Then it turned out the scaffolding was also classed as a building. Moore mounted futile protests before complying with the consent department’s demands to provide engineering certification – only to be told the council needed to farm out the approvals to a consultant in Auckland. At his cost.
... But Moore believes the whole process cost him an extra $50,000, and it drove him to his wits’ end. “Personally and mentally it broke me down. I got to the point where I was seethingly angry. I’d go to bed angry and dream hateful dreams towards the council and I’d wake up hateful.”

He found himself drinking and smoking too much, losing sleep and chewing his nails. Without more pragmatic interpretation of the rules for temporary outfits like his, quakehit businesses will be driven from the city, he says. “The Building Act is fine when it’s business as usual. In Christchurch at present it’s not business as usual.” The council’s building operations manager, Ethan Stetson, is unapologetic. Yes, he says, post-quake Christchurch needs creative entrepreneurs like Moore, who are “the life-blood of the city.” But building quality, fire protection and disabled access still matter.
Read the whole thing. If the son of the former Mayor can't get through the bureaucracy except at massive personal cost, what hope is there for others?

Meanwhile, Christchurch's new "Ministry of Awesome" is trying to encourage fun new projects for downtown. Lots of the ideas there highlighted are patently absurd, and one is just a bit too goatse. Update: somehow, I lost the last line: But it's great to have a way of getting ideas out there!


  1. I wonder how many folk will get that last reference ;)

    1. Oh, crud. If you don't know what Goatse is, don't Google it without safe search controls.

    2. Unfortunately I do know, and you're quite correct in your assessment of the proposal. I sure as hell wouldn't want to Google goatse anywhere where my net use was monitored ;)

      I'm also amused by the mental image conjured by this: We hit the Dance-O-Mat one Friday night, along with a colleague and her family. Two economists, two econ-spouses, and three kids, dancing to the Hayek-Keynes rap. Was excellent.