Plan will change the face of Christchurch

Posted 04 Aug 2012 by MediaStuff Popular
Posted in CBD , Rebuild , Media , CCDU , Legal
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miskell
 
BIG TASK: Don Miskell was co-lead on the blueprint for the new CBD.
 
 

In just a few months a handpicked team of urban design experts created a bold plan that slashes Christchurch's CBD area from 160 hectares to 42 hectares.

Crazy mad boldness. Be honest. No one was expecting the Blueprint - the Government's new map for Christchurch central city - to be so revolutionary.

Of course it is going to be another thing to make the grand plan happen. It will need money and it will need Christchurch City Council's full support.

But look at that green frame that marks the boundary, the contraction of everything that matters towards the centre and the radical opening up of the Avon River. In a world where we are so used to compromises, this is a no- compromise vision.

So how did it happen? What was the inside story of the team that came up with the ideas?

On the eighth floor of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority's (Cera) Worcester Blvd headquarters, Don Miskell, managing director of planning consultancy Boffa Miskell, is beaming from ear to ear.

Miskell can at last afford to relax after the "100 days" allowed his small group, co-led with Peter Marshall, managing director of Christchurch architects Warren and Mahoney, to re-invent a city.

A hundred days, Miskell scoffs. It was 80 days by the time the contract was actually awarded by Cera's Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU).

And this in turn became effectively 42 days because 90 per cent of the plan had to be complete by June 29, giving the Government an early chance to say whether it liked the direction the work was headed.

How did they get their heads around the design of a city in such a short a time? Miskell smiles as he gives away the secrets of the process.

Well, he says, we made these little cardboard cut-outs of the anchor projects and just shuffled them around a big map until we found how the jig-saw might fit together.

It's shades of the Blitz and Fighter Command in its bunker shovelling Spitfire squadrons across a chart table, or a SimCity computer game for real.

So this was what was happening behind Cera's tightly sealed doors throughout June?

Miskell says the cut-outs were very useful, especially with a "tactile" client like Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee who is the ultimate boss of the rebuild.

"When we met the minister, we could say: 'This is how we're going. Here's the options. We've got about four sites for the sports stadium. The stadium could go here, the convention centre maybe over there.' "

The Central Library was the most visited building in town before the earthquakes? So let's double its size and plonk it down in the very heart of the city on a corner of Cathedral Square.You can imagine the conversations.

The convention centre has to front the Square as well. But look how big it has to be. The only way is to spill it across Gloucester St and another whole block as far as the Avon River.

A problem? No. We can turn that bit of Gloucester St into a covered shopping galleria with the centre over the top. Make it swanky shops and restaurants.

And Cathedral Square is now connected right through with views and walkways to the river. That is where we can have our new riverbank plaza.

Remember that grungy bit where you used to drive up the ramp into the Farmers' car park? It will be an open space looking out on to the punts. Sidewalk cafes will sell lattes and buskers will entertain Sunday strollers. Prime civic real estate.

So what about the courts and the police station? We can stick them together over the other side of town in Tuam St. Give them their own block along with the other emergency services.

You can see how that works. It puts them right next to the new central bus interchange, making life easier for their "customers". It also concentrates 1300 workers in an under-populated part of the city, creating another hot zone for takeaways and small business.

And we know that health and information technology are the high-wage industries of the future. So let's just assign four full blocks to these two activities, give them a really nice campus tree-lined setting, even if it means rubbing out a bunch of the old caryards down St Asaph Street.

This was pretty much how it went, agrees Miskell. It all became startlingly simple once you are permitted to paint a city in broad brush strokes.

The free hand granted the Blueprint team is probably unique in urban planning history. Miskell says many do not realise just how off the charts this Christchurch redesign effort has been.

The boldness came out of a certain measure of desperation.

The future of the central city was first debated at Christchurch City Council's Share an Idea consultation exercise in May last year. The views gathered from the public were then worked into the council's draft CBD masterplan, which was completed by Christmas.

However, many were left feeling the resulting document was more a "feel good" sketch than a definite plan. Lacking any real power over the developers, the council had to leave it vague about what would actually get built where.

All it could offer was a nit-picky straitjacket of planning regulations - detailed rules on parking, building heights and frontages - in an attempt to force some sort of cohesive outcome.

Realising a more authoritarian approach was needed, the Government decided to go back to the drawing board with the CCDU and a team of outside experts who could draft a plan that was "investment ready".

There had to be an immediate certainty about how a rebuilt Christchurch was going to look, backed up by a promise that no obstacles would be allowed to stand in its way.

An important part of the back story is that within Cera and the Government themselves, there was at this time what can only be described as a developing heroic mood.

While outside in the wider Christchurch community people were still wrestling with the traumas of the continuing aftershocks and insurance uncertainties, inside the recovery authorities, there were reasons for becoming increasingly optimistic.

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend says you have to recall the very real fear that post-quake, Christchurch would simply collapse.

This is what disaster experts warned. The economy would fold, people would take flight, the city would become a financial black hole for decades.

Yet Townsend says almost without thinking the Government poured over $200 million into keeping local businesses afloat and local people employed, averting what would have otherwise been a deadly cashflow crisis.

"The Government's employment support subsidy was a lot of money pumped into companies post-September and post-February with high trust. That made a huge difference to 3000 companies."

Other bigger or poorer countries would not have been so quick to act, says Townsend, and decay would have set in.

"Our business survival rate has been just - bizarre," says Townsend, searching for adequate words. "The normal churn rate in Christchurch for businesses is 11.4 per cent. Last year, it was 11.6 per cent. Almost no different."

Likewise, he says, rather than mass depopulation, the figures show only 5000 people have left the region - a number about to be reversed with all those arriving for the rebuild.

When you add in the fact that Christchurch is 80 per cent insured for its earthquake damage - compared to 17 per cent for Japan, or 23 per cent for Chile - this means Christchurch's recovery is assured, says Townsend.

The insurance money may be slow arriving. But Christchurch has not actually taken a backward step in business terms, and most of its rebuild funds are locked in, so the Government has found itself in a surprisingly good position to be adventurous with the new central city design.

So the freedom granted the Blueprint team was not some crazy rush of blood, says Townsend, but simply evidence that Christchurch is now a very desirable long-term investment proposition.

"You're talking about a place with a guaranteed economic growth for the next 20 years. People still have this perception we are a broken city, but soon they'll realise this is going to be the best place to come if you want opportunity and a safe, modern town."

So just give the world a building plan that is brave and appealing, says Townsend, and watch Christchurch fly.

Right from the start, there was no mucking about, says Blueprint's Miskell.

When the CCDU's call went out for bids from consortiums, there was about a week to prepare. Then the answer came back at a speed he has never experienced in his professional life.

"We got our submissions in on the Friday. There were about 17 complying bids and CCDU drew up its shortlist of four on the Saturday.

"We were advised of this on the Sunday, came in for an interview on the Monday, got called back for a second interview on the Tuesday, then were told on the Wednesday 'you start tomorrow'."

His team was made up of six firms. As well as Boffa Miskell, there were the Christchurch architectural practices of Warren and Mahoney and Sheppard and Rout. From Auckland came project manager RCP. Then from Australia arrived urban planners Populous and Woods Bagot.

In fact, says Miskell, it was the top people from each of these companies. A group of 10 who if they were not the actual bosses, were principals used to running the show.

"We had an ex-professor of urban design from Harvard University. We had the architect from Sydney who's just spent the last five years on the master- planning of the Olympic villages and legacy project. We had a fellow from the firm that designed the Wembley Stadium, the Olympic Stadium, the Yankee Stadium.

"Our convention centre guy from Adelaide had worked on the convention centres for Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney, and now's writing the brief for Auckland. So anything about world convention centres that he doesn't know is not going to be worth knowing."

You can see how extraordinary this was, says Miskell. It was just a roomful of generals. So decisions got made quickly with confidence. "There were no disputes at all. It was remarkable really."

Just as unusual was that they were working out of their client's office and so had all that expertise on tap as well.

"We had people on the CCDU floor who were from Treasury, council, education, the fire service - the whole gamut. And they were an elite group. Really impressive people. They knew we had only 100 days for this and did everything to help."

Miskell says the Blueprint team divided itself into two work streams. One group dealt with the broad vision while the other took on the task of firming up the individual anchor projects.

The first week was spent getting out and talking to the stakeholders in these the anchor projects - the likes of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Canterbury Police, District Health Board, Canterbury Rugby Football Union. Then the team settled down to creating the plan.

Miskell says the council's Share an Idea exercise and draft masterplan were in fact an excellent starting point. They contained the essential elements.

"Share an Idea was brilliant. World standard really. And the council did a good job of distilling 100,000 ideas into five key objectives."

The CCDU had already drawn on the council's masterplan to form a list of the key buildings and precincts to be placed on the Blueprint.

Miskell says about a third of the city - the part to the west of the Avon River which includes the Arts Centre, Museum, Art Gallery and Civic Offices - really needed no attention from the Blueprint team as, in urban planning terms, it was functioning fine as it was.

Their first priorities were the siting of the convention centre and a landscaping of the Avon to remove the building clutter, making the river once again visible as the sculptural spine of the town.

Then came the host of other projects like the library, the retail hub, a performing arts precinct, and a new Ngai Tahu cultural area.

Miskell says the briefs for these individual developments almost wrote themselves.

When asked, the stakeholders for a sports stadium or innovation precinct could of course offer up an instant wish list of what they wanted - the kinds of facilities that they had been dreaming about for years.

And then because - again exceptionally - the team was free to think building first, location second, it was able to whip up specifications based on simple principles, rather than the need to shoehorn an idea into an available site.

"So with the convention centre, we could say that for a city the size of Christchurch - and to be consistent with the New Zealand convention centre strategy - it's Auckland 3000 people, Christchurch 2000 and Queenstown 1000.

"Christchurch just fits in the middle.

"Same with the rugby stadium. Eden Park is 50,000 to 60,000 people, Wellington 34,000. It's 20,000 or so down in Dunedin. So OK, Christchurch is our second biggest city, let's make it 35,000."

Very quickly, the Blueprint members responsible for each anchor project could draft up a footprint, a building height and volume, a sketch of the necessary service and access details.

"There was no design whiz in them. They were just very functional briefs."

Enough to have something concrete to start shuffling around the board.

? ? ?

It was the board itself which was the real issue, says Miskell. How much was the Blueprint team going to be allowed to fiddle with the basic geography of Christchurch central city?

Miskell says Brownlee and CCDU director Warwick Isaacs had told them at the start that they expected to see real daring. Nothing was sacrosanct.

The Government was perfectly prepared to use its earthquake powers to buy land and even knock down existing good buildings where necessary. That was quite a shock the first time he heard it, says Miskell.

Yet he laughs at how timid the Blueprint team actually were when it came to proposing the first incarnation of the Frame, the green border that sharply defines the city's core.

Miskell says the problem for the old pre-quake Christchurch was the way the central city sprawled. While the west prospered because it was bounded by Hagley Park and the Avon, to the east and south the city dissolved into a mess of car yards, warehouses and empty lots.

Any life to be found out past Manchester or Tuam streets was only because rents were so cheap. The shapelessness of this side of the city killed any desirability.

Miskell says the obvious design solution - if the Government was really saying there were no holds barred - was to create a clear boundary. Perhaps a new strip of parkland bought out of the public purse.

Miskell initially felt around Barbadoes St might be acceptable.

Then the team moved the green line closer towards Madras St.

"We looked at the map and thought, well, Latimer Square is 80m wide. Let's lengthen that all the way up to the river.'

Hesitantly they put their suggestion to the CCDU and were astounded by the response. "They said great idea. But no. Not nearly wide enough. And that was their investment guys!"

Miskell says this is where the advantage of having all the experts in the one place really showed. Cera's economics team could see angles that Blueprint's architects and urban planners could not imagine.

The economists said a much fatter park strip - one a whole 220m, or an entire city block wide - would have the double benefit of creating green amenity in that part of town while also mopping up the excess land.

In post-quake Christchurch, the city's real worry was crashing property values and producing an artificial shortage this way would help prop up the market. And from the Government's point of view, it could also be a canny investment for the Crown.

Essentially, the Crown would be landbanking property that in the long-term would be made a lot more valuable by Christchurch becoming a success. In future years, if the central city started to bulge at the seams, this land could be released back to the market.

So the more land, and the closer it was to the city core, the better.

"The Frame became our game changer," says Miskell. The Blueprint team could take the full width of the block between Manchester and Madras Street. Right there was a green corridor with playgrounds, cycleways and pedestrian links.

Then another strip between Tuam and St Asaph streets could be turned into a campus development zone - lightly populated buildings among trees.

Miskell says as a result of the Frame, business land in the CBD will be reduced drastically from 160ha down to just 42ha. And he has his dream about how the Manchester St side will develop.

"It could be a mini New York Central Park." Miskell can see four or five storey apartment blocks lined along each side.

The council has long been desperate to get more people living in the central city, but the old Christchurch did not appeal.

In the new Christchurch, you could have a strip of open park to one side, then the libraries, the theatres, the shops, only a block the other way.

"I'd live there. Wouldn't you?" says Miskell.

? ? ?

There will be many criticisms of the Blueprint plan as its implications are digested.

Those like former Christchurch mayor Vicki Buck say the vision might be stunning, but the city does look small now. "Very truncated."

And the anchor projects are like dinosaur footprints stomping across a thousand smaller stories - other things Christchurch people may find important.

Buck is worried, for example, about where the Discovery and Unlimited alternative state schools are going to find a new home.

She says the schools were deliberately placed above the old bus exchange to make it easy for pupils to get to them. "The kids come from Ashburton to north of Rangiora, so that was important."

To the CCDU, this will be just a tiny detail in the great scheme of things. But Blueprint will be trampling across a great many such concerns.

Another immediate response being heard is that the Blueprint shows virtually no respect for history or heritage. It is all about the shiny and new.

Miskell replies the emphasis is certainly on planning for Christchurch's future success - on being brave about making change. Yet then what about the impact if Ngai Tahu builds its Te Puna Ahurea cultural centre in prime position in Victoria Square? A place of civic welcome.

"It was market square to them down by the river just there. An area of food-gathering. A place where they stopped. So it would be very symbolic and proper to have a House of Tahu in that area."

So the earthquakes have destroyed so much that people remembered. But then it has also presented an opportunity to connect the city more clearly to its even more distant past.

Miskell says think about the Blueprint exercise as letting Christchurch truly become the city it wants to be. This is a one- time chance to get rid of the usual compromises.

And it has shown how much can be achieved in a very short time. "If you'd given us a thousand days, would we have come up with a better plan? I don't know we would," says Miskell.

So all that remains is to keep the momentum going. Keep the foot down, he says, and trust Christchurch is going to prove to the world it can run a recovery from natural disaster better than anyone else.

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