21 Jul 2020

Future of Wellington library up for debate

3:51 pm on 21 July 2020

Wellingtonians are being given five options for the future of their library, but the city council has expressed a preference for high-level earthquake strengthening.

Wellington central library shut over earthquake concerns.

Photo: RNZ / Kymberlee Fernandes

A consultation document which will go public on 27 July was finalised today at a City Council meeting.

The preferred option has a projected cost of between $174.4m and $199.8m. That would result in an average increase, for the average residential ratepayer, of between $74.30 and $86.20 per annum.

There are four other options which members of the public will be able to give their view on:

  • Low level remediation ($76.3m - $90.8m)
  • Mid level remediation ($131.2m - $151.8m)
  • New build on the same site ($156m - $160.7m)
  • New build on another Te Ngakau Civic Precinct site ($156m - $160.7m)

The building - designed by the late Ian Athfield - is an example of postmodernist architecture, and has been described as "Athfield's most important public building."

It has been closed since March last year, after it was deemed to be earthquake prone.

Ahead of the meeting, council officers expressed their preference for the high level remediation. It was preferred as it "delivers the safest and most resilient solution for the Central Library building".

It would involve installing a base isolation system, and achieves an NBS in excess of 100 percent. It was also the option which would best protect the building's heritage.

However, at the meeting, three councillors tried to change the council's preference.

Councillor Jill Day tried to make mid-level remediation the preferred option; councillor Fleur Fitzsimons urged low-level remediation; and councillor Diane Calvert called for a new build on the same site.

None of those options had a majority, so the high level remediation remained the preferred option.

However, it had been suggested the library could become a shared private-public partnership. A further amendment brought ahead by Jill Day took that off the table, and secured council ownership of the building.

Members of the public will be able to make submissions on what they want to happen to the library on 27 July.

As well as the five options being considered, they will also be able to voice their support for some of the options that are not currently being considered by the council - such as library relocation, devolvement, or minimal-level repairs.

Conflicting legal advice ahead of the meeting

The meeting happened against a backdrop of legal advice passed on to councillors warning them against being too vocal and taking a side.

It was in response to comments councillor Fleur Fitzsimons made to The Dominion Post where she expressed frustration that the council's preference was for the high-level option. In May, councillors voted that their preference was to reinforce the library, but did not stipulate the cost.

In advice sought by the mayor and emailed to councillors on Friday, the lawyer said such comments "unhelpfully reinforces a perception that the council is not open to considering options and has already settled on a solution".

It further suggested for councillors who did take a side to "potentially disqualify yourself from decision-making".

"The legally unacceptable option of taking a partisan role and being a decision-maker will jeopardise the legality of the ultimate decision."

However, subsequent legal advice issued to councillor Fitzsimons described the prior advice as "unusual".

"The observation that councillors must keep an open mind is true, but elides an important point. The requirement is to have an open mind, not an empty mind."

Councillor Fitzsimons attempted to table the document during the meeting, but that was not accepted. Speaking to the issue at the end of the meeting, Mayor Andy Foster said it was important councillors keep themselves objective.

"There have been some distractions around this. All that we're being asked to do is keep the process safe, that means that we don't wed ourselves to a particular position individually.

"Everybody is very welcome to, as we always do, go out and champion things. But I think the real key thing here is this is the public's time. We don't have the greatest record in the world about public engagement, or about listening.

"I think it's really, really important that we do show people that's exactly what we're doing through this process."

Annual Plan and Rates Rise approved

At the meeting, the council also approved the Annual Plan and the rates rise for businesses and residents.

The annual rise is at 5.1 percent, significantly reduced from the 7.1 percent which was forecast for the year.

Foster said the Annual Plan had been a difficult process.

"Pre-Covid-19 we were facing significant cost increases to deliver existing services, respond to earthquake and resilience issues, Let's Get Wellington Moving, and increased investment in our three-waters networks, Te Ngākau Civic Precinct and the new temporary central city libraries."

Due to unforessen investment, an earlier annual plan put together before Covid-19 had put a rates rise at 9.2 percent.

Foster said they had done all they could to get the rates rise decreased to help people.

"Along with borrowing to offset the pandemic impacts, we have also made more than $7.4 million of cost savings and taken on more risk to keep rates as low as possible."

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