Nelson City Council votes no on $46m riverside library redevelopment project

3:54 pm on 10 November 2022
Looking across the Maitai River to Civic House with the new library site to the left of the clocktower

Looking across the Maitai River to Civic House, the new library site was proposed to the left of the clocktower. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

Nelson City Council has voted not to spend any more on the riverside library redevelopment and to consider removing the project from its long term plan.

At a full council meeting on Thursday, Nelson mayor Nick Smith said there was significant opposition to the proposed new Halifax Street library because of its cost and concerns the site was too risky.

"The $46 million library proposal is unaffordable for our community in the current economic environment, it is my view that we are in probably the most challenging economic times for more than a decade."

Smith said the pressure of high inflation meant the project was likely to cost more than the estimated $46m while the cost of servicing the associated debt was also increasing.

"It is my view that the provision of libraries is one of the important services that councils provide and we have other issues with the [Elma Turner] library. It is my view we should be getting on as quickly as possible with the expenditure to address the seismic issues that have been identified."

The Elma Turner library closed in June after it was revealed that heavy ceiling tiles posed an earthquake risk. Some strengthening work was done to allow part of the building to open the following month as a pop-up library with reduced services.

Smith said the latest estimate for the strengthening work was $2.2m and in order to ensure value for ratepayers if that work was done, the building needed to be used for a substantive period.

He said there also needed to be a longer term strategic discussion about what sort of library the community wanted and how that stacked up with other capital projects.

"In my view it is something substantially more modest than the $46m proposal."

The library project in the riverside precinct has not been without controversy since it was first proposed. Concerns have been expressed about the vulnerable location which is at risk of coastal inundation, river flooding and liquefaction and the significant cost of the project.

In the last two years, around $650,000 has been spent on the library project. Of that, $235,000 was spent on project management and consultancy, $138,000 on negotiations and $95,000 on community engagement.

It was clear at the meeting there was support among elected members for a library facility that met the needs of the community, but not necessarily one of the banks of the Maitai River.

Nelson's Elma Turner Library

The Elma Turner library closed in June after it was revealed that heavy ceiling tiles posed an earthquake risk. Photo: RNZ / Samantha Gee

Councillor Trudie Brand said it would be remiss to remove the library project from the long term plan as Nelson had not provided the investment in civic assets that it should have over the years.

The current library was a former car showroom that posed health and safety issues, not just because of the seismic issues posed by ceiling tiles but a leaky roof that was causing further damage and putting the library collections at risk, she said.

"While I agree that $44m is not a priority when we are looking at flood recovery there needs to be a balance between the recovery of recent weather events... with the projects that need to continue so we have a city that is recovering but also thriving."

Newly elected councillor Matthew Benge said it was concerning to consider civic investment on sites that would be affected by climate change.

"I don't want our term to be looked back on and said why did those fellas spend the money there."

Councillor Pete Rainey said while there was plenty of talk about how the community didn't want a $46m library, it was a cost that successive generations would bear over time.

"We are still servicing the debt on plenty of community projects, but they never get discussed, millions and millions of dollars... so it's a little bit dangerous to immediately assume the $46m is the only reason for not looking at this.

"I would hate to think that if we go down a path of revisioning this project, which I certainly hope we do, then beware as a more modest project in scale may well come out being exactly that amount of money, if not more so that remains to be seen."

After some debate, the council voted not to incur further expenditure on the library redevelopment and to consider removing the project from its long term plan.

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