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Gordon Campbell on what’s wrong with Wellington

First published on Werewolf

library-imageAs a rule, expectations tend to be as low about Wellington weather as they are about the workings of central government – which makes this place such an ideal choice as the nation’s seat of power. After all, the subtext of “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day” is that even in summer, Wellingtonians shouldn’t expect the sun to shine or the wind to cease, but should feel an immense relief when it happens to do so. In similar fashion, the default setting is that an occasional display of competence in government should be treated as something bordering upon the miraculous.

For many Wellingtonians though, it hasn’t been the normal hardships – the workings of central government and the lousy weather – that have recently pushed their tolerance into the red zone. It has been the inability of local government to maintain even the basics.

Symbolically, there is only one functioning building (an art gallery) still open for business amidst the shuttered buildings that ring a virtually deserted “civic centre” through which the wind blows tumbleweeds, while the wolves howl their lonely songs in the dark of night. I’m only slightly exaggerating. In 2013, then PM John Key copped a lot of flak for saying that Wellington was “dying” and that no-one knew how to turn it around.

That diagnosis now looks prophetic. Even the city council have moved elsewhere, across town.

The Buses, the Buses

Amidst its character-building elements, one thing that Wellington used to be able to boast (during its brief “coolest little capital” phase”) was that it was a small, beautifully compact city that was easy to get around, thanks to an efficient public transport system. Not any more, folks. Famously, this week marks the first anniversary of the demise of public transport in the capital. On July 18, 2018 – a date that will live in infamy – the city lost its old bus system. After eight years planning, the regional council (a) replaced the transport system in midwinter (b) in the midst of a still unresolved industrial dispute (c) with the requisite bus shelters only half built (d) to service a system that the regional council neglected to trial beforehand.

The outcome ticks all the boxes. The new bus system is less efficient, less convenient, less reliable, noticeably slower, invariably more crowded, more subject to arbitrary cancellations, and is also more expensive to boot. Never have so many been so inconvenienced by so few, for no visible benefits.

Even now, success is measured largely by whether these deeply flawed new routes can be made to run somewhat closer to time. (The routes themselves are being subjected only to tinkerings.) In the 21st century, this must be the only public transport re-design anywhere in the world that seems to have been expressly designed to push people back into their cars, and actively keep them away from where they want to go.

Incredibly, and after a year of incessant complaints from enraged commuters expressed at public meetings and elsewhere, the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) has just brightly invited the public to tell them what they think of the new bus system.

As one infuriated responder put it this week on Wellington Scoop:

Customers were clear what they wanted from Day 1, but GWRC pretty much ignored feedback from that study and pretty much all subsequent consultation sessions, public meetings and surveys. So the question is: what is GWRC trying to achieve by asking the same questions over and over again but expecting a different result every time? Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

Moreover…

None of the people sending complaints to the [new GWRC] online forum are getting any reaction to what they are complaining about. Instead, they are mystifyingly told: “It’s just the type of input we need.” One of the early complainants got this response: “We want to know the good and the bad so we don’t change anything that is working well with the design of the bus network.”

Truly, that’s beyond satire. Consultation: a bad faith exercise in which comment is sought about a pre-determined course of action, mainly to deflect criticism of it.

The Library, the Library

With their usual forbearance, Wellingtonians have learned how to live with the degradation of their public transport system. What is currently exercising the capital is the closure – since March – of the city’s prime socio-cultural resource, its Ian Athfield-designed public library, reportedly for earthquake-related safety reasons.

On the face of it, the closure still seems surprising. Unlike the adjacent council buildings, the library suffered no damage from the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake. Also, around Wellington, an unknown number of major buildings that share the same (or similar) structural features continue to be occupied, and – at most – are being planned to undergo earthquake strengthening floor by floor, while business as usual is maintained. Anecdotally, this option of gradual repair (without closure) is the one being pursued with respect to Bowen House.

That option has not (yet) been taken with the public library, which will reportedly remain closed to the public (with most of its vast holdings entombed within it) for at least a year, and possibly for several years to come. After all, this is a city that on the current timetable, will take ten years (at least) to repair its town hall. This was closed six years ago, and will probably not re-open until 2023.

At this point, it seems that the final decision on whether to (a) repair the current library building or (b) demolish it and rebuild – has not yet been taken. At a packed public meeting in Wellington last night hosted by the NZ Institute of Architects, a panel of senior architects who had been intimately involved with the library’s design and construction, usefully outlined its history, architectural merit, and repair challenges. Wellington Scoop has reported on the gist of this meeting:

Architect Gordon Moller, noting that a million people a year used the library, said: “It has not been damaged. It can be remediated.” He said the cost of strengthening could be half the figure of $100million quoted by Justin Lester. On the other hand, “the cost of demolishing and constructing a new building could cost twice as much.”

The architectural merit of this well-loved building aside, the cost – on a per square metre basis - of repair seemed to be roughly half the cost of demolition and rebuild, and this repair job could be done more quickly, and under conditions that in the case of the library, would be easier than similar challenges:

Structural engineer Adam Thornton, with 40 years’ experience in multi-storey seismic design, said the hollow-core floors would be “an easy mode to repair,” by adding bracing which would be relatively straightforward to install. He said base isolation would not be complicated to add, as the library has a basement which would provide suitable space for the new technology. Work would also be needed to strengthen the stairs, and to secure panels on the Victoria Street facade.

Moreover…

Thornton estimated the total strengthening cost, including base isolators, would be $68million. The work could be done in stages, he said, to allow for early re-entry to the library. “The work could get underway in a couple of months, if there was the will to do it.”

As with the buses though, the council seems incapable of hearing the public request for urgency, and acting on it. At the same meeting, local councillor Iona Pannett indicated it would be inappropriate to take any decision before the local elections, lest that tie the hands of the incoming council. (Given a three year electoral cycle, that logic is a recipe for paralysis.) On the library, as with the buses, the public would need to be “consulted” afresh before any decision was taken - even though it would be hard to find any resident of Wellington likely to oppose the re-opening of this facility being treated as an over-riding priority. (At the time of its closure, an estimated one million people a year use the public library.)

As to how cost involved could be met … Wellington Scoop’s Lindsay Shelton raised one conceivable option with Pannett at last night’s public meeting:

Asked if construction of the convention centre could be stopped, so that the budgeted money could instead be made available for the library, [Pannett] said this would not be possible.

How come? To the meeting’s audible disbelief, Pannett explained that it was believed by council that the convention centre would make money for the city, to then spend on other good things. She had the good grace to concede that this was not a universally held belief. For his part, council CEO Kevin Lavery has explained the delay here.

Given that Pannett was talking about framing any decision on the library in terms of (a) a major re-thinking of the role of the library in the digital era and (b) how rising sea levels might conceivably inundate its current location in 80 years time… the bureaucracy will have be able to find plenty of excuses for not re-opening the public library any time soon. Alas, libraries do not make money for anyone. Plus, building a new library would conceivably make more money for the lucky winning bidder, than repairing the existing one. (Listing the library as a protected building of socio-historical merit would be one way of frustrating the profit-driven urge to demolish.)

In the meantime, locals will need to make do with the tiny, manifestly inadequate pop-up library already opened on Manners Street. (It has all the charm of a doctor’s waiting room, and is only slightly bigger.) In answer to a questioner concerned about the public’s inability to access the library’s vast trove of contents, Pannett indicated that a larger warehouse location would soon be opened on the waterfront. But since, as she added, “some of the library’s books hadn’t been taken out for ten years” this too, would offer only a limited solution. (Clearly, the purpose of a library as an archive is not even being recognised, much less valued.)

For now, Wellington’s inability to manage its affairs, and deliver essential public services will continue apace. The pipedreams over the monetary gains to be won from the airport runway extension and the convention centre white elephant will continue to take precedence. Voters can take their revenge at this year’s local body elections.

Unfortunately, this is unlikely to do much to fix the bus system or re-open the library, any time soon. One can only pray – given there are only two main roads in and out of this city – that the Big One never happens here. On the available signs, Wellington would seem likely to be cut off for decades.

Footnote One: Ian Athfield got screwed by central government too, on occasions. Here’s in an interview with Werewolf, is his own explanation as to why the design that he and superstar architect Frank Gehry put forward for Te Papa, never even made it to the government’s short list.

Footnote Two: Talking of stereotypes, the nation seems to be wearing its disappointment about the cricket with more maturity than the juvenile gloom that descends when we lose at World Cup rugby. Frankly, the mistake made about the overthrow rules seems less outrageous than why a ‘super over’ was needed in the first place. We lost only eight wickets scoring those 241 runs, but England lost all ten. End of story. (Wickets lost should always trump boundaries hit.) Talking of Trump, winning by a sub-clause of a tied “super-over” is like Trump losing the presidential popular vote in 2016, but winning by the small print in the Electoral College.

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