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Square Heart Needs Arrow

Keith Newman31 January 2016

BB27

Welcome to the vibrant heart of Hastings; cultural gateway to the East Coast with integrated state of the art library-gallery-digital innovation hub, majestic heritage buildings, world class hotel and business centre connected by performance spaces, eateries and quirky retail outlets.

The dream of transforming Hastings CBD and the cultural and civic facilities east of the railway line has been on multiple council agendas for over a decade, but the big ideas seem to stall, lacking a cohesive plan, adequate budget and determined leadership.

The exorbitant costs of earthquake strengthening the Hawke’s Bay Opera House and Hastings Municipal Buildings is the latest catalyst to reimagine the form, function, feel and future of the area.

In mid-2015 Hastings District Council (HDC) asked an independent working party (IWP) to shoot for the sky with a $20 million plus budget to revitalise the allegedly unsafe heritage buildings, adjacent art gallery and museum and the central city’s largest open space.

The IWP of ‘experts’, chaired by engineering consultant and project manager Richard Kirby, included Peter Snelling ‘property and commercial’; Chris O’Reilly ‘marketing and facility operation’; Genevieve Beech, ‘arts, heritage marketing and branding’; Ngahiwi Tomoana, ‘arts, culture and heritage’; Gary McCalmont ‘property’; and Andy Coltart, ‘architecture and design’.

These blue sky thinkers were to bring the best ideas to the table as part of “rethinking connectivity” in a “joined up” city centre solution to deliver a cultural heart to Hastings.

opera_civic-151208-7

A spark for change

A decision of whether council will fully back their report, Tihei Heretaunga – the spark which ignites change, will come at the end of January when supporting documents will be tabled ahead of a proposed public consultation in February.

The IWP says the inner city lacks heart, fails to reflect the area’s unique identity, is negatively perceived and therefore limited in its attractiveness. “Retaining the status quo and tinkering with small-scale ideas and plans is not an option that will serve anyone’s interests in the medium and long term.”

The main obstacle had been the lack of alignment between iwi, hapu, HDC, business, the public and other agencies “limiting our joined-up thinking”.
Chairman Richard Kirby, in his December 17 chairman’s report, made it clear, despite the subterranean rumbling from some disgruntled stakeholders, that nothing is set in concrete.

Says Kirby: “We’ve covered off most off the options for those three sites although there is still room for others to come out of the woodwork as long as they are viable and can get council support.”

As part of ‘road testing’, the IWP met Christchurch-based urban designer James Lunday who urged them to “be bold” ensuring buildings in the square had “multiple faces” onto surrounding streets to encourage use and draw people into the centre.

The Opera House was “a fantastic performance space for an intimate audience experience”; successful international revitalisation projects kept historic buildings, which gave “character, context and architectural ambience”. Demolition, he said, “would be a disaster”.

Costs a seismic shocker

Strengthening the Opera House theatre to 70-75% of the Building Code rating was estimated at $10-$11 million with another $5.6-$6.4 million for the Municipal Buildings. That’s on top of the $13.6 million HDC invested back in 2009.

While a lower rating would be acceptable from an engineering perspective, the Health and Safety Act recently made building owners, CEOs and councillors potentially liable for injury or death, further sensitising an already risk-averse local government culture.

The IWP recommends HDC strengthen the Opera House, but hold off on the Municipal Buildings until there’s a commitment for a hotel and retail space.

While Kirby believes savings may be possible through more “cost effective design and strengthening”, unless the business case stacks up the IWP recommends demolition and using the savings for the wider project.

Supporting documents for the potential return on investment of the commercial options will be presented to council at the end of January.

As another part of the ‘road testing’, a number of focus groups including regular opera house users, the creative sector and iwi, gave “good honest feedback”. Changes were made, including the IWP tossing out its massive Civic Square concept drawing, and starting again.

The drawing, says Kirby, was misinterpreted by those who saw it as something fixed rather than representing council’s desire to put a stake in the ground, although some feedback was about “self-interest”.

Ginny Pedlow

Back to square one

The IWP now recommends revisiting the work done by Mitchell & Stout architects Ginny Pedlow and Professor Mike Austin to see how this aligns with the Tihei Heretaunga concepts.

Austin and Pedlow won an HDC competition in 2011-2012 beating 30 entries to redevelop the area in question and continued to work with council, iwi and other stakeholders on integrating an iwi innovation hub and performance spaces with the gallery and library.

The winning entry was given a $8.5 million budget over a five years beginning in 2015, but was left in limbo after the bombshell of revised earthquake strengthening costs.
Ginny Pedlow says she and Professor Austin evolved their design to a stage where construction could begin, but as of this writing had not been consulted by the IWP.
Pedlow, a former Havelock North resident, says it would be a “real waste” for her team not to be involved, even if it was providing advice. “It would be very sad if they went ahead without us. We’re committed.”

The IWP is urging further investigation into what else might be included in the long term plan including trialling new ideas.

The most visionary proposal in Tihei Heretaunga is branding the area as the gateway to the East Coast, a ‘touchstone’ for Ngati Kahungunu and Tairawhiti (Gisborne region) and the descendants of the Takitimu waka, and capitalising on strong Asia-Pacific trade connections.

This should reflect the fact that Hastings is 25% Maori without alienating other cultures. “It’s not just a Maori-Pakeha thing but a Hawke’s Bay thing,” says Kirby.

opera_civic-151208-14

In the cultural-commercial remix there’s potential for Hastings (Heretaunga) to become a national centre for song, dance, theatre, culture and arts with a campus-style learning environment leading to employment opportunities.

Kirby says it will be up to council to firm up the process and work with arts groups and stakeholders. “We recommend leveraging the existing work, modifying it, branching out and committing to some of those lots as part of the jigsaw.”

The IWP report tells us a “joined-up plan” demonstrating “leadership, vibrancy, virility [and] our unique identity” will help create “inner city social, cultural and economic pride, improved use of civic amenities, attract ‘engagement and investment’ and increase visitor numbers.”

Initial feedback is that it’s bland, too broad, short on specifics, didn’t identify the problems and failed to produce a compelling overarching vision.

For example, mentioning the Hastings City Art Gallery as display space, with little mention of the Hastings Library, left some stakeholders, who refused to be named or quoted, fuming.

Delving deeper BayBuzz discovered there are indeed plans for repurposing both as part of a more integrated space. “The general feeling is the gallery and library are disjointed and whatever facility is put there should be combined or…the art gallery pulled down to start again,” says Kirby.

Any decision must involve digital age solutions including wifi, so people don’t just come to the library to read books but to talk to each other, gather information, look at art and experience culture, he says.

Richard Kirby

Richard Kirby

Innovation hubbub

IWP member and Ngati Kahungunu Inc CEO, Ngahiwi Tomoana, says a location is already agreed on for the iwi Innovation Hub which would be the key to integration and the East Coast ‘touchstone’ concept.

It would be either beside, in place of or in addition to the gallery and could expand the current gallery space “two or threefold”.

There would be room for artists, painters, sculptors, live music and digital technology, displaying the best of current and ancient art.

The library, he says, is a cornerstone enabling a flow of experiences and displays to go from “quiet entertainment, archives and research” through the carpark at the back of the Hastings Library into an open foyer area and on to the Innovation Hub as the main portal for digital innovation and the arts.

It would be a natural extension to the pou in Civic Square, representing the whole of Ngati Kahungunu from Wairoa to Wairarapa, with each hapu having space and time to host their own displays of history and art.

However, Kirby says some hapu are struggling with Tomoana’s concept and don’t see the vision as he does. “There’s work required to get everyone over the line.”
Tomoana agrees, each sees their marae as the bastion of knowledge, but “there’s definitely a positive tension”.

Who’s going to pay?

By current estimates there’s only around $4 million left from the $20 million budget after earthquake strengthening – a pittance for any visionary development to consolidate the heart of Hastings.

HDC CEO Ross McLeod has talked of potential for external funding. Kirby says council needs co-investors and suggests some funding for the arts and culture side could come from central Government.

The idea of turning the Municipal Buildings into a 100 room ‘4-star plus’ hotel with at least one extra floor and retail space for shared offices and a café style business centre could also bring some relief to the wider spreadsheet. Tomoana applauds it as “a developer’s dream”.

To critics, the Tihei Heretaunga report remains long on rhetoric and short on specifics. It tries to be everything to everyone, promising a dynamic, vibrant, ‘once in a lifetime’, future-focused vision that is adaptable and sustainable.

Kirby defends the content, saying the IWP was engaged to provide a wider context around functionality, not designs. He’s confident follow up reports and stakeholder and public submissions will fill in many of the gaps and spark creative juices.

So what does creating “positive disruption to traditional community thinking” look like? HDC doesn’t want the same old infrastructure solutions. What’s needed, he says, is “a lightning rod … for a step change from what we’ve been doing … a change in the way community works together and how to deliver a vision like this”.

jacob-scott

Jacob Scott

Blurred boundaries good

Architect Ginny Pedlow says blurring the boundaries between facilities is “interesting, sensible and forward thinking”, but the project needs to look beyond its boundaries to integrate with the bigger CBD picture.

She says people enjoy life in public spaces, but are becoming more discerning. Part of good design is making it comfortable and enjoyable to get from point to point, including dealing with areas that become wind tunnels.

While thinking widely is a good place to start, Pedlow says it’s important to marry the pragmatic, financial and functional while “providing a facility, a design, a building or a piece of architecture that is inspiring”.

The challenge for any complex project is bringing different voices together. Ongoing surveys and discussions and open and closed meetings with stakeholders about the various options have already set the tone.

Architect and master carver Jacob Scott, who has been part of previous planning and on the panel that chose the Austin-Pedlow design, partly blames the distraction of the amalgamation debate for holding things up.

“I get the feeling Hastings never quite knows what to do.” He wants to see some action “without churning it all around and around again … I’d like to see the council do anything, anything at all really as long as they do something.”

Hastings City Art Gallery director Toni MacKinnon, is keen to see how the process pans out but says having Civic Square as the heart or creative hub “is brilliant”.
She says Hastings has a deeply layered and vibrant arts community which has suffered a blow through the closing of the Opera House and dealer galleries over the past few years.

“It’s left a real gap and the sector needs to pull together with the council supporting it.”

It makes sense that Ngati Kahungunu are active partners through the Innovation Hub. “How great for visitors to be welcomed directly into a centre of creative collaboration … it puts the arts at the forefront of engagement.”

A thriving arts sector contributes hugely to an economy, “as well as serving its community, it can help put a place on the map … I hope the council seizes on this opportunity to create something exciting.”

Ngahiwi Tomoana

Ngahiwi Tomoana

Inner city lifestyle

Inner city living is hinted at in the report, but the opportunities and the obstacles need spelling out, including how far HDC will go to accommodate zoning, rating and consenting changes to encourage what’s proposed.

IWP chairman Richard Kirby agrees planning decisions could have a big bearing on who stays and who goes or whether some aspects of the plan can happen at all.
Jacob Scott believes Hastings has the potential to be “a fantastic hub, an exciting place for inner city living as long as it doesn’t become sanitised or clinical”.

Napier, he suggests, is heading in the right direction with new planning manager Richard Munneke looking to revitalise the city centre while keeping the quirks and “cutting people slack to try things out”.

He says earthquake, health and safety, insurance considerations and pedantic regulations make it too hard for people who might otherwise re-populate inner
city areas like Hastings.

An extensive study of Napier and some Hastings buildings by Auckland University’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department offers some hope with claims most earthquake prone buildings “got cleaned out” in 1931.

The study led by Professor Jason Ingham, a global expert in seismic assessment
and retrofitting earthquake-prone buildings, suggests most remaining buildings were constructed to mitigate earthquake problems.

“They claim those design solutions remain state of the art…and most of these buildings are as strong as any,” says Scott.

poutupuna-19Oct13-001Traction and action

Ngahiwi Tomoana says Hastings has been “very conservative” in past attempts to redefine the CBD and Civic Square. “This is about giving things a prod so we become leaders rather than followers. If we carry on the way we have we’ll remain followers.”

He says council, corporates and iwi have been working more closely than in the past. “Barriers have been overcome”.

However HDC will have to drive things. “If they find no enthusiasm it’ll be hard to excite anyone else … including corporate investment.” A strong team needs to be given the authority to move things along.

While the role of the IWP is technically at an end, Richard Kirby is aware momentum could be lost at council and public consultation stages unless there’s a clear vision and a driver.

“Council is keenly aware [they] need to make some sharp decisions.” They’ll never please everyone but “they need to make a call” and “provide the spark to generate activity” before March.

He remains quietly confident that there’s a mood for change, and leadership from Mayor Yule and CEO Ross McLeod will “filter down … It has to be an enabling council to facilitate this happening.”

Keith Newman31 January 2016

BB27

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