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Early verdicts on the Christchurch draft Central City Plan

Christchurch’s draft Central City Plan, which the Council has been pressed to produce with some despatch, has met with a mixed response from local architects. Let’s start with the positive reactions. “The draft Central City Plan is a very good achievement in a short period of time and encapsulates a broad range of ideas and concepts that have been articulated to date,” says Warren and Mahoney’s Peter Marshall. “As a discussion document it will provide the necessary catalyst for a detailed evaluation needed in order to finalise the re-build framework for Christchurch.”

“I am pleasantly surprised with what I have managed to read to date,” says John Chaplin (Chaplin Crooks Architects). “The presentation of Volume 1 is very good... It sets a very promising starting point from which to launch a futuristic plan for the city, something that would have been so difficult to do without such a major disaster... One aspect I do like is the need for commercial activity outside the Central City to be assessed as to its capacity to undermine the recovery of the centre... The idea of precincts has been a hot one in our Branch submission and it is good to see this taken on board, as is the Special Purpose sports zone and entertainment precincts with noise limits.” 

Simon Pascoe (Pascoe Linton Sellars Architects) also believes the draft Plan promises a means of wresting opportunity from disaster. “I’m heartened by the new City Plan and think it is a good combination of analytical thinking and perceptual vision,” Simon says. “The devastation of the earthquakes can be turned around to enable sweeping changes not possible under normal conditions. It should act as a catalyst to rebuilding a great city.”

In the opinion of Richard Dalman (Dalman Architecture, and current NZIA Councillor) the draft Plan “is a good start with a written vision that has much merit, and some key new projects that sound exciting. It’s good to see the council being far-sighted and thinking big. This is what is needed in these uncertain times.” Richard continues: “I see the emphasis on the river corridor as being sensible, and so is a reduction in the CBD footprint as this was previously too large... Many of the good ideas in the plan were promoted in the NZIA document that local architects submitted. I think we should put in a submission to the draft Plan reinforcing the ideas in our original submission the Council has taken on board, and promoting those it hasn’t.”

“As is always the case, the devil is in the detail, but the plan is certainly ambitious and reflects a strong green garden theme, which I strongly support,” says Barry Dacombe (Barry J Dacombe Architects). “Ath will be pleased that the one-way streets are gone! So am I.” And, yes, Ian Athfield (Athfield Architects and NZIA ‘architectural ambassador’ to Christchurch), does applaud the draft Plan’s countenancing of the demise of much of the one-way system. “I think it is great to have a positive platform to respond to at this stage,” Ath says. “I am particularly appreciative of the removal of the one-way street systems and the reduction of the bus impact within the central area.”

William Fulton (Fulton Ross Team Architects) says the draft City Plan is “a great start – it expresses an optimism about the future, and it takes on board many suggestions and concerns”. Colin Corsbie (Opus Architecture) agrees, at the general level. “It’s encouraging to see the Council has taken seriously the feedback from the residents of Christchurch and endeavoured to incorporate their desires and aspirations for the redevelopment of the CBD into the plan. Many of the concepts incorporated in the plan include ideas contributed by the local architectural community over the 11-month period since the first earthquake, in particular taking the opportunity to build back something better than what we had before.”

Picking through the draft Plan, Andrew Evans (AE Architects) – a self-admitted “jaded” veteran of encounters with Christchurch City Council planners – applauds the changes to central city living zones to create better density and flexibility. “The transport changes also look positive – getting rid of one-way streets over time, slower speeds, cycle ways... and emphasising the Avon River is an excellent idea.”

Okay, they're the positives – what about the negatives? There are suggestions that, in some places, the draft Plan wanders from aspiration into wishful thinking. The proposed light rail system, for example, has been met with scepticism. “I personally can’t see how a light rail system can be financially justified,” says Colin Corsbie. “This is a big ticket item – around $2 billion all up – and I would prefer to see this channelled into new building or job creation schemes.” William Fulton also doubts the viability of light rail in Christchurch –“electric buses might be better than trains” – as do Barry Dacombe and John Chaplin. “It has been proven that light rail, as efficient and convenient as it is, cannot be made economic in a city of under a million,” John says. “I would love to see it, but can’t accept that just because Mayor Bob [Parker] thinks it a great idea then we must have it.”

The draft Plan’s advocacy of ‘green buildings’ has also occasioned some incredulity – “principles without economics”, says Paul van Herpt (Van Herpt Architects). “My first reactions are that [the draft Plan] is a long wish list, it lacks cohesion, and actually doesn’t change much,” Paul says. And Andrew Evans suggests that “the green requirements look like they will add a lot of time and compliance and construction costs – and insurers won’t be paying for those.” Richard Dalman says “a desire for Green Star rated buildings is commendable but there seems to be no facility currently for many building types, such as hotels. where no rating tool is available in New Zealand.”

A common critical theme is that the draft Plan is, in the words of Ian Athfield, “extremely prescriptive”, and that the regulatory regime revealed in Volume 2 would be inimical to the city’s recovery. “There are issues... that are going to need a more careful examination to ensure the urban design attributes do not compromise commercial realities,” says Peter Marshall. Peter’s remarks are a judicious expression of opinions that seem to be widely held by Christchurch architects.

“The more I look into Volume 2 the more concerned I get,” says Jasper van der Lingen (Sheppard & Rout Architects, and chair of the NZIA’s Canterbury branch). “Some examples: Volume 1 says you can get extra height for good urban design and a green building. Volume 2 translates this into mandating that a building owner must employ a green building council professional – bureaucracy and cost – and good urban design translates into a pitched roof between 30 and 60 degrees. Volume 1 talks about safety through passive surveillance. Volume 2 translates this into ridiculous rules about how much glazing you must have. Volume 1 talks about good scale of retail. Volume 2 translates this into a maximum size of retail of 250 square metres – no Ballantynes or Farmers. Volume 2 has some terrible stuff about blank façades that looks a lot worse than the old residential 20 metre rule, and it determines where neighbourhood centres should go without consultation with the local community – in dumb places, in my opinion.”

“There will be capital flight if this goes through unaltered,” Jasper says. “Volume 1 was a pass and appears to be written by designers. Volume 2 is a big fail and appears to be written by planners. It’s a huge worry for the future of Christchurch. The NZIA has a lot of work to do to fight this.”

Richard Dalman echoes Jasper’s sentiments. “My initial thoughts are that some of the rules are just too restrictive,” he says. “For example, while specific precincts can be desirable, I think these should be encouraged rather than regulated for. Precincts tend to be a result of market forces. Mixed use should be encouraged more – the precinct idea seems to discourage this.” Like many other Christchurch architects, Richard is especially critical of the height restrictions proposed in the draft Central City Plan. “I don’t believe that building height restrictions should be imposed because the market will determine that there will be few if any new high-rise office buildings constructed in the near future due to tenants’ lack of desire to be in these buildings. While a lower height city has some appeal, the restrictions imposed are far too limiting, particularly for hotels that are looking to rebuild on existing sites and need a minimum size to make them financially viable.”

It’s possible to see in the draft Plan and the responses to it the outlines of a debate with profound implications and the lineaments of a divide that could be quite pronounced. In short, to what extent can and should Councillors, as the elected representatives of the citizenry, decide the shape and form of the city? And how much sway should Christchurch’s highly influential CBD landowers and investors have in deciding the city's urban design direction?        

Chris Wilson (Wilson & Hill Architects) has no doubt that the private property rights and prerogatives of landowners and investors must be respected and that the relatively small group of inner-city commercial landowners must not be alienated. “The [Central City draft] plan was developed in behind closed doors with no consultation with any stake holders like the building owners, major tenants, or the Institute of Architects,” Chris says. “The consultation has consisted of a ‘post-it-note’ campaign, in which city residents were invited to make comment on a ‘post-it’ note.”

“In 2009 the Christchurch City Council commissioned a public space study of central Christchurch by Danish architect Jan Gehl. Many of the philosophic ideas from this report have been used to form the new city plan. Many of these ideas are unproven theories and there is no evidence that they will work in Christchurch, we must remember that Christchurch is a large rural town not an international city. The Council are using this opportunity to rewrite the city plan and to force it through in a very short time frame. This is a gross abuse of the current difficult situation which many building owners find themselves in.”

“The reality of the situation is, that if building owners and tenants do not have the will to go back into the city, nothing will be built. The biggest issue that the city now faces is that of capital flight, we do not want building owners to take their insurance payouts and move to other cities.”

Barry Dacombe, himself no stranger to working with property interests from the Big End of town, takes a less vehement approach to the issue of regulation, and suggests there is room for compromise. “The big issue will be the apparent lower building height,” Barry says. “It is probably being perceived by the property people as a reduction in density, but for many sites this is not so. I did an exercise on a city block and discovered that the density prior to the earthquake was an average of 1.5 x block site area. Four to six storeys is a way up on that. It will be interesting to see how the city landowners react. If they pool their land resource and adopt a comprehensive approach to development then we will see progress. If they don’t, the vision of a 21st century city in a garden will be lost.”

Of course, Christchurch’s history didn’t start with the recent earthquakes. There is a planning legacy in the city, and it’s fair to say that most architects would agree it is not one of recent stellar quality. “I can say from the coal face... that absolutely nothing has changed with respect to the risk-averse attitude of Christchurch City Council,” says Duvall O’Neill (Herriot + Melhuish: Architecture). “It seems to me at this point we have a council completely absorbed in process and ill-equipped to deal with the magnitude of this disaster.”

“In fairness to [the Council] CERA should be forging the path ahead to clear the obstacles, but all that is being cleared at present is our heritage in the name of public safety. If the release of this grand vision signals a more cooperative approach with those now trying to re-build that would be a significant and positive change in direction.”







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