Future of Wellington central library decided today

9:05 am on 28 October 2020

The future of Wellington's earthquake-risk central library will be decided today at a city council meeting.

Barriers in front of Wellington Central Library.

Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

It's been described as Wellington's "living room", it's regarded as Ian Athfield's most important public building, and it's currently being considered for a Category 1 heritage status.

But Wellington's central library has also been deemed a risk to life: An earthquake assessment in March last year raised concerns about its safety in the event of a significant earthquake.

Since then, it's been closed, and the path to re-opening has not been simple, with different possibilities abound.

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster said: "This isn't a simple job. There's a lot of design work and obviously a lot of construction work any piece of building work that's $150, $160, $170 million [needs], so it's not a simple thing.

"But I think it's really, really important we can set a stake in the ground and say this is the option we're choosing."

What are the options for the library?

Five options will be considered by the council. Three are varying degrees of strengthening, from the low-level $75m repair, up to the high-level $178m option, which would include base isolators.

The other two options involve demolition and either rebuilding on the same site or on a new site still within the Te Ngākau Civic Precinct.

Since July, Wellingtonians have been having their say on what they want to see done with the locked-up library.

The results from that consultation found two options stood out far and away more popular than the others.

More than 40 percent of people wanted to see the existing building demolished and replaced with a new library on the same site (Option D). Just over 30 percent of people favoured the high-level remediation (Option C).

Reverend Stephen King is the chair of Inner City Wellington - the residents association for people living in the capital's CBD.

"For us, it's our local library," he said. "The loss of the amenity is huge for us, and so one of our major weightings was to ensure that that amenity would be available to us as soon as possible."

He never considered a demolition option.

"We were more interested in the remediation, even if it included a refit, because you felt that we were primarily pushing back against the idea that a demolition and rebuild was in some way a better solution."

While both options carry a significant financial burden, Foster said that was the reality of choosing a resilient option.

"Now there were some people who were telling us very loudly that we should just get it open, [and] do it cheaply.

"But what became very obvious is that if you did a cheap job, you're ending up with an $80 to $90m investment anyway. That's a lot to put at risk should there be an earthquake."

What's the outcome going to be?

While councillors will make the final decision on which path to choose, it's the high-level remediation option that is being recommended by council officers.

It was the less popular option amongst the public, but officers said it delivers a better result considering heritage, sustainability and climate change factors, which were often cited in reports.

It would also mean an earlier re-opening.

For many of the people who expressed a preference for demolition, they cited cost concerns associated with remediation.

However, the cost for a high-level remediation (Option C) has been devalued down from a potential $199.8m to as low as $161.7m.

Deputy chair of the youth council, Laura Jackson, preferred the demolish and rebuild option as they wanted to have a library with a dedicated space for young people.

She could be won around to the strengthening though, she said.

"Having had discussions with some of the councillors it's been indicated that even if there was public expectation, we might still be able to find space in the revamped building for that use area.

"So as long as that can be incorporated into the redesign, we're still supportive of Option C."

Foster said he would be voting in favour of Option C.

The vote will be held this morning.

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