It is surprising that such a major change to the Arts Centre as the proposed National Conservatorium of Music building for the Hereford Street carpark area should be presented to the public as a fully-fledged plan without any prior public discussion having taken place as to whether this is a suitable use for the site. The Arts Centre is a dearly loved cultural and heritage asset and it must have been clear to all the parties involved that any proposed major changes would spark controversy. The Arts Centre signaled the possibility of a building on the Hereford St carpark in 2007 but at that stage the issue of increased commercialisation of the site and the proposals for an underground carpark and the redevelopment of the Registry building had greater prominence, causing a storm of protest. The impression was given then that a building on Hereford St was only one among a number of possible options being considered and that there would be further opportunity for public debate before any decisions were made.
Clearly, since that time there has been considerable debate behind the scenes about development on Hereford St, but this has been kept out of the public arena. The Board commissioned a report from Salmon Reed Architects on management of change at the Arts Centre. This report starts from the assumption that a building on the site is a good thing, apparently based on an earlier report by the same firm, which examined the heritage issues around new development on the site. The Board has come down firmly in favour of development, citing the need to generate income for the earthquake strengthening of the Great Hall.
Surely a decision which so fundamentally changes the nature of the site should not be taken without first seeking the views of the public. Although the Board may not be under an actual legal obligation to consult, a prudent group of trustees could reasonably have been expected to canvas public opinion widely before agreeing to such a permanent and major change. I do not recall the public being presented with a range of options or being asked whether they would prefer to contribute to the cost of earthquake strengthening in order to retain the site as an open space. In the past the citizens of Christchurch have contributed generously to campaigns to protect open space and it may well be that once again the majority would prefer to contribute rather than see an excessively bulky and unsympathetic building on the site. Although the Arts Centre website refers to a fundraising campaign to strengthen the Great Hall, this has not been widely publicised and the public has never been presented with a choice between contributing to fundraising or having a building on the site.
It will no doubt be claimed that the public will get a chance to have its say at resource consent hearings. But that is simply not good enough. Resource consent hearings involve a limited range of issues and by that stage a great deal of money has already been spent and positions have become fixed. This is already evident in the statements made in the Press by the Vice-Chancellor of the University, with his claims about the intent of the donor. The time for public debate about the future shape of the Arts Centre was long before any development proposals had proceeded to the point of being lodged with the Council. All those who love and value the Arts Centre could legitimately have expected more openness from those entrusted with administering it on behalf of present and future generations and greater involvement in the development of a master plan to shape its long-term future.