Tuesday 31 July 2012

The Plan

The Christchurch Grand Plan is now out. I'm going to have to sit and think about this a while longer. But some initial thoughts:

  • I had a call from one of the radio stations asking if I'd come onto an afternoon show; they wanted to know how the plan was to be funded. Told them that I hoped they could figure it out because I haven't much clue. Some bits are explained in the planning documents. But it looks like Christchurch Council would have to find the funding for a big covered stadium that Prime Minister John Key thinks is a great idea (Dunedin?!). I support Council asset sales in general. But selling something useful to fund the building of a stadium that, in all likelihood, will not cover its costs and will fail to bring any substantial real economic benefit, is a remarkably bad idea. Should an individual sell off part of his retirement portfolio to buy something really immediately necessary - maybe to cover a medical bill that would otherwise attract large late fees? Of course. Should he sell it off to fund a vacation to the Caribbean? Not likely.
  • There's a big path from here to there. If we were there, it would be a nice place. But I'm not sure whether there is possible from here. There's more than a whiff of "if you build it they will come", though some projects, like the EPIC tech hub, seem very solid. 
  • I had understood that the massive secrecy around the plan and the siting of anchor projects was mostly to facilitate negotiations with property owners. In short, it's a remarkably bad idea to tell any individual land owner whose land you're trying to build into a larger package just why you're doing it. Otherwise, each owner might try to extract the entire surplus that the project might bring: the classic hold-out problem. There's a way around this using the purchase of options as a form of dominant assurance contract, but that can be more expensive than compelled sale: the Government's had the Public Works Act in its back pocket to encourage negotiation. I could understand the secrecy. Turns out now that the plan has all the sites listed with what they want on them, but they've not concluded negotiations with the many owners of the underlying land. So I'm a bit perplexed about the reasons for the initial secrecy. 
  • Pinning hopes on a convention centre seems a bit risky. The things tend to be dead zones when not in use. And, it's not clear that whatever benefits you get from having a convention centre couldn't be gotten by having hotels site themselves in the same spot with skywalks between them allowing larger conventions to span multiple hotels' facilities. Sure, the hotels would prefer having a free convention centre. But, like one wag on Twitter, I'd like a free helicopter service to Pomeroy's Pub as part of the Transport Plan; doesn't mean it's a good idea.
  • Nobody's yet saying what's going on with Town Hall - the venue previously used by the Symphony, among others. Presumably that's because nobody yet knows. 
  • Most buildings are subject to a seven-story height limit. I expect this is being done not for earthquake risk (as tall buildings can afford to have very very good foundations and, as I understand things, are often less risky than mid-height buildings) but rather to avoid there being an oversupply of downtown office space. The same goal motivates the green belt around the south and east of downtown: fill up downtown space with parks until things are busy enough to justify expansion and, by so doing, force things to concentrate in a smaller space. There's at least one problem with this. A whole pile of the businesses that formerly operated along Manchester Street, among others, were cool but low-rent kinds of operations: second hand bookshops and the like that ran out of very old brick buildings. They never could generate the cashflow to replace the capital stock, but they were awfully fun. Getting a more compact downtown by pulling land out of use keeps that sort of business from coming back downtown in cheaper buildings - the tilt-slab stuff everyone here seems to love to hate. The plan suggests a covered market somewhere downtown to give space to that kind of low-rent business; Victoria Market in Melbourne is nice, but it provides a very different kind of amenity. 
  • If I were a property owner who had wanted to rebuild a business in what's now supposed to be a park, and if I were getting the big push to sell out to turn the land into a park, and the compensation weren't enough to buy another site in the new-and-compact downtown, I'm rather sure I would not take it very well. And if I'd just spent a ton of money fixing up a heritage building because I loved heritage buildings only to be told it would be stolen from me acquired at a price less than that which I'd be willing to accept were it not for the threat of compulsory acquisition under the Public Works Act and bulldozed to make way for a stadium...  
  • The designated precincts sound very nice, but I share Project Free Range's concerns about the dearth of mixed use
  • The planned stadium will block what was one of the main east-west corridors at the south side of downtown: Lichfield Street. There's always been talk of getting rid of those one-way streets in hopes of encouraging people to slow down and stick around downtown. But if there isn't a widening of Moorhouse Ave, folks on the east side of town just won't have good ways of getting to employment on the west side of town (or vice versa). The east then becomes less viable. Let's hope Council's quest to push people out of cars doesn't further isolate the east side of town. 


  1. To paraphrase a comment I made on NBR, one of the best places to be pre-September, 2010, was ramshackle and unruly Lyttelton: and most of Chch knew it was one of the best places, also, because on a nice day, you couldn't even find room to buy breakfast there. A planner's ruler is never going to replicate people organising themselves to build what they had. Those precincts sound sterile and boring to me. I like a spread out city. The Court Theatre has already found a great new home, we have a new stadium we can't fill anyway (and the planners never asked Paul Walker what he thought about the ratepayer nightmare called a covered stadium :) ), and pubs and restaurants gain a certain ambiance by location, and that doesn't mean all being in the same location.

    Finally, comments from developers such as Peebles, who were already well along on their redevelopment plans, money on which has now been, I assume, wasted, has me very worried as a continuing rate payer, even if I don't live there (for now). Rather than an idiosyncratic, grown up city, the plan has the feel of building a bit of a kindy made out of school pre-fabs for the residents to live in. I wonder if they're going to have signage on the precincts like they use in schools and universities - Justice Precinct, Entertainment Precinct, Principal's Office.

  2. All very good points... Personally I have faith that the end result will be a bit more organic because of my lack of faith in the CCCs' ability to stringently enforce it in the long-term.

    In five years CERA will have been wound up, most of the council will have been replaced, there will be a new central government courtesy of kiwis getting bored with the old one and there will still be plenty of undeveloped CBD sites thanks to recalcitrant insurers. This is when the central city will really start getting back on its feet.

  3. Yup. We'd looked around Lyttelton before buying in South Brighton. Anything in our price bracket for the size of house we needed effectively lost all the advantages by requiring a long crazy uphill walk from London Street if you wanted to get home from a bar.

  4. That's not at all an unlikely outcome.

  5. As someone who lives in the east my initial reaction to this was 'gee I feel marginalised by this plan' and 99% of the people I've spoken to who live near me, often very well-off people who chose to live here for the lifestyle, also feel like they have no place in this bright shiny future city. That 'frame' even makes it feel like we're being cut off from the rest of the city - it's a visual dividing line between us and them and I'm not sure I want to cross it.