Wellington City Council agrees to strengthen city library

4:01 pm on 28 October 2020

Wellington City Council has decided to strengthen the earthquake-risk central library to the highest standard.

Wellington Central Library

File image. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

The Ian Athfield-designed building was closed last March after a report found it was a threat to life in the event of a serious earthquake.

The council was considering either to strengthen the existing building, or to demolish it and build a new one.

A public consultation carried out since July showed people favoured the option to demolish, but since then the price for strengthening has been reduced.

With five options on the table, Councillors unanimously supported the third: high-level remediation - keep the existing building but bring it up to scratch, make it as safe as possible, and give it an interior face lift.

Wellingotn City mayor Andy Foster described it as a good day for the city.

"We're going to end up with a more resilient building," he said. "It'll be more open, it'll be lighter, it'll be modern, it'll be flexible, it'll be able to meet the needs of our diverse community.

"It is a vote of confidence by this council in our city, and I think we should just say, 'let's do it.'"

The decision has the approval of the people who were sunning themselves outside the library this lunchtime.

"It's the right decision," Sharon Jansen - a regular user of the library - said.

"We should just get over the fact, whether the people like the building or not, they should just fix the damn thing, and strengthen it, and it is what it is, it works really well. Fix it!"

"As a ratepayer, I'm always interested in how much things cost," said Bryan Dobbie. "But I think it's a building worth restoring. It's worth getting back to a state that's earthquake proof."

It's expected to cost somewhere between $160 million and $180m.

The only other realistic alternative considered by the council was the equally expensive option to demolish the existing building, and build another one on the same site.

Indeed, that option had most public support - more than 40 percent of all submitters.

The lone voice of dissent - Councillor Malcolm Sparrow - used this fact as the basis for what he saw as a golden opportunity to build a new library.

"One that is designed for the 21st Century, one that is fit for purpose and highly resilient, better value for money on an ongoing basis, will last longer, and is probably less likely to be plagued by escalating costs."

Councillor Fleur Fitzsimons said there had been a number of significant changes since that consultation was completed, which changed the picture.

Many of those people were influenced by cost.

"I think if you unpick the reasoning for it, and you consider the further design work that's been done, then it actually would have been, I think, more expensive to demolish and rebuild," Fitzsimons said.

Councillor Tamatha Paul said it would be a good building gone to waste if demolition had been chosen.

"I was really concerned that it is so wasteful to just destroy a building like that. For every tonne of concrete that is poured, that's a tonne of carbon into the atmosphere, so I'm really happy that we'll be able to salvage this."

The building is subject to an application by Heritage New Zealand to get it certified as a category 1 historic place.

The threat of legal action if demolition was chosen was another sticking point - councillors worried opting to knock it down and start over, would cause delay after delay.

Foster said it was about being pragmatic.

"The advice that we've got is to do this, and do it quicker and we can get everything that we want while avoiding a fight that we probably would have had if we'd gone down a different option."

With strengthening now finalised as the way forward, the library is expected to reopen in May 2025.