21 Feb 2024

Empty lots and makeshift public spaces: Why Christchurch's regeneration is still underway

From Nights, 10:30 pm on 21 February 2024
Rubble and damaged buildings line a deserted Colombo street in central Christchurch after the quake.

Rubble and damaged buildings line a deserted Colombo street in central Christchurch after the quake. Photo: AFP

Today marks 13 years since Christchurch was hit by the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake, leaving the city's CBD in ruins. 

Despite major redevelopment work and regeneration, empty lots and makeshift car parks still dot the urban landscape. 

A new study by researchers at the University of Auckland is shedding some light on why progress at some sites has been so slow. 

Associate Professor Olga Filippova was one of those researchers and she joined Emile Donovan.

She said researchers were interested in finding out why there had been no action in some cases over such a long period. They identified several reasons. 

One was the limited powers the council had in dealing with property owners and the unfavourable market conditions, such as skyrocketing construction costs in the wake of the earthquakes. 

The delay in the anchor projects, including Te Kaha Stadium, the residential precinct and the bus station, would also have knocked developers' confidence, she said.

"For private developers to put money into the city centre they need to see that the government is also putting their money into the city. 

"They don't want to be the only ones rebuilding the city centre and hoping that people will come." 

Opportunities were lost too because of the emergency legislation passed after the earthquakes, which put a lot of limits on what could be developed and introduced a different set of building codes. The laws were in place for several years. 

"Developers chose to go to the suburbs where they wouldn't be constrained by those things and build a lot cheaper than in the city centre."

Christchurch City Council did not begin serious work on neglected buildings until around 2017 and by then the CERA (Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority) legislation had been repealed so the government was not involved. 

No emergency powers were used on building or site owners early on, Filippova said. 

"So once that emergency legislation lapsed the council's left with just the normal legislation..."

The building which formerly housed the restaurant Two Fat Indians is one of three which the council says there has been no progress on.

A building in Christchurch where no progress has been made 13 years on.  Photo: RNZ / Rachel Graham

Some countries had better regulations to deal with emergencies, such as earthquakes and floods. 

She suggested one option would have been for the government to rule out development in the suburbs, perhaps by changing the District Plan. 

"Making it harder to develop in the suburbs and easier in the city centre - but it was the exact opposite that happened.

"For developers it was a lot easier just to go into the suburbs, probably it's another five to seven years until there's a lot more activity in the Christchurch city centre." 

Councils were under-resourced and didn't have enough money and taking owners to court was time-consuming and expensive. 

"It's not the way to resolve issues I guess. We need regulations that work specifically for emergency situations and we need to deal with the sites right at the beginning and not when they go cold." 

Two brick, two storey buildings. One severely damaged.

File pic  Photo: RNZ / Karen Brown

Anchor projects pivotal 

Filippova said at the time the government had been "overly ambitious" with its blueprint, pinning hopes on foreign investors to come in and help pay for developments. 

"But unfortunately that didn't happen, so I think that caused a lot of delays with the anchor projects." 
They were intended to draw people to the CBD and support the shops and offices. 

"Government projects are very important, instrumental in the rebuild." 

As for the council's role in forcing building owners to make some progress on damaged buildings and empty sites, Filippova said it was stymied by the Building Act which was intended for "ordinary times when we don't have emergencies".

"So it's difficult for councils to find the right tools to really enforce action." 

Asked if there were lessons for other cities in the aftermath of natural disasters, she said the country's buildings performed well in terms of saving lives but not so well in limiting damage so they could be repaired and re-occupied soon afterwards.  

There might need to be changes in the building codes so there was an expectation they would be reoccupied in acceptable timeframes.