I really really hope that the Christchurch Press’s John McCrone is writing a book on the Christchurch rebuild. This weekend’s installment in the Mainlander section, not online other than via PressDisplay, is must-read. [Update: Jack, in comments, points me to a now-ungated version.]
McCrone uses the EPIC technology hub as exemplar of how government is blocking the rebuild. Recall that EPIC started, shortly after the quakes, when Wil McLellan and Colin Anderson set up a new hub for Christchurch’s software and tech sector. Late in the process, a bunch of bureaucrats wanted in on the game. And the planners decreed that there should be a tech precinct with limited borders. The act of zoning a tech precinct of set boundaries, as part of an overall central city plan designed to prop up land values via artificial supply restrictions, which Treasury bizarrely viewed as a feature rather than a bug, made developing there, well, hard.
Epic was a citizens’ initiative and halfway to being built when the Government got excited about the project. Steven Joyce with his new super-ministry MBIE (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) stepped in to insist that Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee include it almost at the last minute in the Christchurch Central Development Unit’s (CCDU’s) 100 day Blueprint masterplan.And so the Blueprint came out with its dream of the South Frame, a strip of nine blocks of the old central city which would be given over to campus-style office developments spread among greenery and cycleways.The ugly car yards and warehouses of Tuam St would be booted out to give the central city a defined southern margin of upmarket commercial development – a tidy border that Treasury experts said would have the added bonus of propping up quake-hit central city property values.The Epic project would now anchor two entire blocks of an official hi-tech innovation precinct down at the High St/CPIT end of town, while up at the hospital/ Avon River end, three blocks would be given over to a matching health technology precinct.That left a further three city blocks in-between which were just ‘‘South Frame’’ – campus-style commercial space. Maybe lawyers or other high-paying tenants would take those.On paper, it was a bold idea. But then the heavy micro-managing hand of bureaucracy descended. Government departments trying to engineer a commercial outcome.Andersen struggles here to remain polite – it does not really pay to be critical of those who have such complete authority over the city at the moment.But he admits: ‘‘We got preached to by MBIE that they wanted the innovation precinct initiative to be market-led. But then they’ve spent the next two years telling the market what it will be.’’ Here we are 17 months after the Blueprint and progress has slowed to a crawl.‘‘I’m frustrated by the Government process. It’s in the way. They think they’re putting in place all these wonderful structures and methods to build a long-term plan. But while we [are] waiting for it to happen, [all the prospective tenants] are having to sign up lease agreements outside the central city. Why didn’t we just suck it and see? Why didn’t we just let it evolve?’’Andersen reveals that earlier this year he and McLellan had got to the point where they were going to pull out of the precinct plan, take Sigma down to Sydenham where the land would have been cheap, the place probably half built by now. But MBIE and the CCDU managed to reel them back in.
Last I’d chatted with Wil, EPIC was ready to head to Sydenham.
I suspect that Steven Joyce’s idea of “Market-led” differs from mine. There’s a word for an economic system in which private property owners own most of the means of production, but act under the direction and planning of the relevant Minister. It’s not a nice word.
As for the rest of the wonderful precinct planning?
But speaking with property owners and developers in the South Frame soon reveals what a gap there is between teh park-like precincts the Government is trying to create and the commercial realities of rebuilding properties at rentals real-life tenants can afford.
If the economics do not stack up, the market is just not going to deliver and the Blueprint will be dead in the water.
The Health Precinct seems to be going well, as it’s mostly being set around existing facilities and ones that were set to go prior to the earthquake anyway. McCone notes that Forte Health decided to build a new private hospital outside of the various blueprinted areas out on Kilmore Street; he doesn’t say whether they’d looked into positioning themselves in the Health Precinct. And there remains the question of whether the government will
steal use compulsory purchase to get the existing car dealerships out of the way. It isn’t just the potential theft that’s the problem – there’s also the stupid unnecessary paralyzing uncertainty.
McCone quotes Angus Cockram, owner of one of the affected dealerships:
“They change their minds all the time. You talk to five different people and you’ll get five different answers. But while they’ve got a [potential compulsory purchase] designation on you, they’ve got a wheel clamp on your property. You can’t even change a toilet block or do anything to your showroom.”
Cockram says he has been told the Government might buy only the land needed for laneways and cycle paths, including one cutting across the middle of his car yard.
“There’s no way you could run a business like that,” he says angrily. Howerver he also gets the feeling the CCDU is backtracking as it realises an urban planner’s glossy streetscapes sketches cannot be just magicked into existence.
Imagine if the quake had hit in 2006 and Cunliffe were running MBIE under Clark, doing exactly what Joyce is doing to us now. What would that world’s version of John Key be saying about central planning in Christchurch?
McCone finishes up with Kaila Colbin:
But state agencies have a tendency to want to engineer these creative environments, she says. They automatically think in terms of impressive marble and glass architecture, plenty of advisory committees and formal grant processes. They build the structures first, then try to fill them with people.
And all around the world there are sterile failures as a result.
… If allowed to to grow organically, it [innovation hubs] will naturally begin to colonise the spaces around it. And this is the right way round to do things.
I’ve tried to embed the McCone piece below, or at least a link to it. McCone’s fortnightly reporting on Christchurch is worth the Press’s annual subscription fee.
Jan 4 2014