From Heritage, to Glass and Girders? Notes on Invercargill’s Downtown Renewal Scheme

February 3, 2019
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This story follows on from ‘46 South going on 47’, where I talk about the New Zealand city of Invercargill’s civic heritage in wider terms. It’s worth reading that post first!

ACCORDING to an assessment of heritage effects, here, what’s currently intended for Invercargill’s downtown, or CBD, is that:

HWCP Management Ltd propose to revitalise the block bounded by Tay, Dee, Esk, and Kelvin Streets, providing Invercargill’s residents with an innovative retail, commercial, and residential development that will bring new life to the CBD. Despite its prominent location at the corner of Invercargill’s two main thoroughfares, Tay and Dee Streets, the block has seen a gradual decline in occupancy rates with a concomitant deterioration of its heritage buildings. The Invercargill Central redevelopment will extend across the entire city block, with the exception of the Kelvin Hotel and Reading Cinema, and will see the construction of an innovative building that will frame the Bank of New South Wales (1 Dee Street), the retention of four heritage façades, and the construction of a new HWR head office tower on the corner of Dee and Esk Streets. The development will contain offices and apartments, a second office precinct, a medical centre, an upscale food court/restaurant space, a shopping centre with a major anchor retail tenant, public space and covered parking for 950 to 1000 vehicles. Not only will this development bring in hundreds of jobs into Invercargill in the short term, but it aims to bring an additional 1500 people into the CBD daily, which will in turn provide economic benefit to the surrounding community. Invercargill has lost its heart, and the Invercargill Central project is designed to give it back.

HWCP Management Ltd is a commercial partnership between the Invercargill City Council and HWR, a local transport and real estate company named after its founder H W [Bill] Richardson; a firm that previously partnered with the council to build the suburban automotive museum complex called Transport World. Getting down to the nitty-gritty,

The plans evaluated in this assessment will see the retention of the Bank of New South Wales, incorporation of four heritage façades (the Southland Times at 67 Esk Street, Coxhead’s Building at 31–35 Esk Street, Thompson’s Building at 18 Kelvin Street, and Fairweather’s Building at 58 Tay Street), and the demolition of all other buildings within the project area.

In other words, aside from the retention of four facades, everything under the big red X in the next aerial photo will go, to be replaced by a corporate office tower and shopping mall, basically.

Proposed demolition, downtown Invercargill, indicated by red X inside red boundaries (old Bank of New South Wales at south-western corner indicated by BNSW to be spared though part of project area. Reading Cinemas and Kelvin Hotel are outside project area.) Location of block-spanning Cambridge Place Arcade also indicated. Name of Tay St also added (Google assigns Tay and Dee streets the names of rural highways to which they connect, and this can also make Street View confusing). Imagery ©2019 CNES/Airbus, DigitalGlobe, Map data ©2019 Google, MapData Sciences Pty Ltd, PSMA. North at top.

Driving the whole scheme is the fact that downtown Invercargill has lost a number of retail ships over the last few years. Much of this is down to competition from the suburbs, the Internet and, some say, Dunedin. Obvously, something has to be done in terms of revitalisation. The question to bear in mind is that, although the HWCP proposal is something, is it what needs to be done?

As one might expect of Invercargill’s oldest and most historic block, the area to undergo demolition is full of pre-1900 and early 1900s architecture. It includes two nationally listed buildings (of which one will have its façade saved) and sixteen buildings previously scheduled as architecturally significant by the Invercargill City Council (three of which will have their façades saved).

‘Magic’ versus cars, girders and glass

In the scheme proposed by HWCP, the handful of preserved façades and buildings look quite out of place and un-integrated into a design that otherwise has a strong emphasis on things like perforated sheet metal, steel I-beams and oddly shaped panes of glass.

There is a kind of magic to older precincts that complete demolition and reconstruction seldom manages to recapture unless done in an old style, or with recycled materials.

Consider Auckland’s Parnell Village, a sort of faux colonial village built in the 1960s and 1970s by a developer named Les Harvey who was a bit of a hippie, with the explicit intention of creating ‘magic’ via such devices as a ‘river’ of old demolition-brick pavers.

Parnell Village street frontage, with statue of Les Harvey
The ‘river’ of recycled bricks

(You can read all about Parnell Village in a now-obscure 1977 government publication by John Mackay called Walking Around Town: Planning for Pedestrians in New Zealand. A few libraries still hold it.)

That there might not be any magic is made more likely if the project is done in ‘cold’ materials like steel girders, perforated sheet metal and oddly shaped panes of glass that make no reference to the site’s history — the latest architectural fad, perhaps?

(And of course, when we speak of the latest architectural fad, the next question is: what if, instead of enduring, it dates like 1980s mirror glass? Like the shiny glass cubes of the barely-fictional Crass Corporation, satirised back then by the architecturally-trained cartoonist Malcolm Walker? Is Invercargill about to demolish the best part of a heritage block in order to get something future generations might look back on as a product of a latter-day Crass Corporation?)

At any rate, the contrast between ‘warm’ or ‘magical’ materials and styles and the ‘cold’ ones proposed might also be thought to be a significant issue for the coolest major city in New Zealand, climatically speaking.

Is it just that the carparking is in the wrong place?

Having said all that, the Council/HWR scheme isn’t the worst imaginable proposal for such a sensitive downtown site. That would be a sports stadium or — worse yet perhaps — a conference centre. But could the site be redeveloped less intrusively?

The scheduled buildings to be bowled over include a shopping arcade called Cambridge Place Arcade, which started out as an open-air alley with shops in the 1860s and was sold to corporate developers in 2009 after 140 years in the ownership of the Nichols family, developers who then sold it on to HWR.

The HWCP design maintains a pedestrian arcade on the site of the old Cambridge Place Arcade, though everything in this area is to be rebuilt. However, such ground-floor features are capped by a first floor that includes a large rooftop carpark which reduplicates the existing surface carpark in the block, additional to the underground carparks that make up the bulk of the 1000 or so car parks needed.

A less intrusive plan would be to daylight the current Cambridge Place Arcade, returning it to the condition of the old Place or a Melbourne-style laneway with two or three storey buildings alongside, and to link it to the existing car park, now converted into an outdoor courtyard for people.

Ironically, the redevelopment scheme isn’t going to produce an overall building envelope too different to what’s on the site now, at least in terms of its outward proportions. As now, the above-ground structures will mostly be only two storeys high, with the principal exception a modestly proportioned corporated headquarters for HWR on one corner. So, what drives the total reconstruction?

Well, obviously, if there isn’t going to be a giant car parking building above the site for the bulk of the 950–1,000 car parks, it must be hidden away underground. The public proposal refers to this only obliquely, in terms of “ A covered, multi-storey covered carpark with 1000 parking spaces.” Plans below ground level aren’t shown, but that’s where the car parks must be.

So, in the final instance, what seems to be driving this total demolition and reconstruction is the need to construct a large number of underground carparks on the site, before rebuilding the commercial premises on top (plus a few more carparks on the roof).

Presumably, the existing Victorian, Edwardian and George V-era structures can’t survive being undermined, not even the majority of their façades it would seem, and that’s ultimately why they have to go.

Why not put the car parking on, or above, railway land?

Downtown Invercargill is said to be short of car parking. But once again, does it have to be built underneath the city’s most historic block? Aerial photos suggest that Invercargill Station, on the opposite side of Dee Street, might have room for a car parking structure.

Downtown Invercargill with the railway station shown. Imagery ©2019 CNES/Airbus, DigitalGlobe, Map data ©2019 Google, MapData Sciences Pty Ltd, PSMA. North at top.

Even if the yards are needed for current rail operations at ground level, an overhead car parking structure could still, surely, be built over the top of Invercargill Station.

Anything involving railway land would, of course, require the cooperation of KiwiRail. This may have been seen as a potential governance roadblock, a complicating factor, when the downtown renewal project was formulated and even when it was announced in July 2018. But if so, it’s precisely the sort of roadblock that the Government’s new Ministry of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), formed on 1 October 2018, could deal with.

Another potential governance roadblock?

There’s another potential governance roadblock, however. The project is being implemented under the auspices of the Southland Regional Development Strategy or SoRDS, which includes provision for “Vibrant Urban Centres,” in the form of “ projects to create great urban spaces in Invercargill and the regional centres of Gore, Winton and Te Anau.”

However, as is usually the case in New Zealand, there doesn’t seem to be any leadership from academic urbanists, nor the brand-new HUD, which is no doubt struggling to establish itself. In fact, at the time of writing, the team leader in charge of SoRDS urban strategy is an HWR director, with another HWR employee on what seems to have been a locally-recruited team. This is all rather informal, possibly as befits Southland. But the worry is that anything seriously at variance with the scheme publicised in July may be unlikely to be canvassed or to get a look in, one way or the other. This may include the idea of removing the car parking element in the scheme and installing it above the Invercargill Station.

A progressive city, overall

Though perhaps in error with regard to the best way to redevelop the downtown, the Invercargill City Council and the local business community are undoubtedly quite entrepreneurial overall, in ways that fewer people would have problems with elsewhere.

For instance, ever since 2001 the Council and the community have sponsored an inclusive, whole-of-course zero-fees policy at the local Southern Institute of Technology (SIT), on the grounds that increased numbers of students spending money in Invercargill, and increased roll-based funding from the New Zealand Government, will pay for the zero-fees scheme in a swings-and-roundbouts sense. No other city-sized community in New Zealand has managed to get its act together to do anything similar: Invercargill and SIT remain exceptional in this regard.

It helps, perhaps, that for a long time the mayor has been the ex-1960s student radical Tim Shadbolt, a guy who remains an activist rather than an inactivist, and definitely a progressive.

‘You Can’t Stop Progress’ — but can it be rethought?

It would be interesting to know what Mayor Shadbolt really thinks of the downtown (‘CBD’) redevelopment scheme, where it seems that two visions of progress are about to come into conflict, one of them perhaps owing more than a bit to Gold Coast developer / politician Bill the Battler’s famous tagline in Muriel’s Wedding, “you can’t stop progress.”

“You can’t stop progress!” Scene from the 1994 Australian film ‘Muriel’s Wedding’

Unveiled in July 2018, the scheme has been backed heavily in local newspapers; in articles that draw on hallowed memories of Invercargill’s own battling Bill — the late H W Richardson — and represent anyone who isn’t 100% keen on having the block bowled as trying to stop progress.

Progress or the lack thereof is obviously a sensitive issue in sleepy Invercargill; as is the sainted memory of Bill Richardson too, it would seem.

All the same, in view of the likelihood that the project’s parking philosophy could be rethought, the advent of HUD, questionable governance arrangements at the local level and the amount of heritage demolition involved if underground car parks go ahead on the site regardless, I fear that Mayor Shadbolt may well find himself being appealed to by a protest movement against his own council; a protest movement inspired by the shades of Les Harvey and perhaps, even, of his younger self — a tricky position for an ex-radical, by any means.

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