Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Building rumours 18: Willis Central

Possible site of Willis Central developmentThere have long been rumours about the Airways House site on Willis St, and the site behind it which extends all the way through to the temporary townhouses on Boulcott St. This picture shows these two parcels in red, and some adjoining parcels, that some have suggested might also be involved, in orange. More recently, Moveax at SkyscraperCity spotted some site investigations underway, hinting that development might not be far away. And now, at the bottom of an August press release on a different subject, there's this statement:
Meanwhile, The Wellington Company was working on a feasibility plan for a 4000sq m "mega site" to be called Willis Central. The plan was for a mix of apartments, offices and retail big enough to spend a day in, [Ian Cassels] said.
Searching further afield, I came across this article from NZ Construction News that makes it sound like much more than a "feasibility plan":
Ian Cassels, proprietor of The Wellington Company vows to create a new centerpiece building for the capital ... he has more than just words and concepts to offer. He has the two frontage site safely in his hands in order to build his new alternative civic epicentre.

As Australasia's first inner city vertical village it will comprise apartments, offices, recreational space, in fact everything that anyone might normally find in a community. One feature not normally found in villages, though, will be a helipad.
Vertical villages? Helipads?! Holy city of the future, Batman! All that's missing is a monorail and a spaceport.

I shouldn't be quite so cynical. In some ways, all that a "vertical village" means is a mixed-use highrise, and such things have been around for decades (Chicago's John Hancock Centre is a classic example). I'm always a bit uneasy with statements about residents "never having to leave the building": mixed use is fantastic, but I'd rather it was distributed around the streets a little so that the coming and going can enliven the public realm, rather than restricting it all to a single hermetic building. And while it's good to hear statements about minimising car parks to encourage car-free living, it won't take too many helicopter rides to blow one's carbon budget for the year: hardly consistent with The Wellington Company's otherwise admirable environmental record.

Old rendering of a proposal for 16-42 Willis StIt's certainly a suitable site for a high rise (much more so than some other contentious locations), and I'm eager to find out how tall it will be and what it will look like. I'm pretty sure that this old image was only ever intended as a massing concept for sales purposes and has nothing to do with the current proposal. In fact, the logo at the top is a strong hint that this was an attempt to keep the BNZ HQ in a downtown office rather than heading out to Harbour Quays. What it does show is the potential for a very tall building (by Wellington standards), though the effect on the existing heritage buildings at 16-42 Willis St could be major. There aren't many hints in the articles, beyond the facts that it will stretch from Willis to Boulcott St and be "based on the existing Airways House" in some way. In that case, a 4000 sq m development would only require the red area shown earlier, meaning that the adjoining low-rise sites in orange could remain untouched.

The article also says that "it is expected that work is imminent". One thing's for certain: if it in any way approaches the grand claims, it will be a hugely significant development.


At 6:22 pm, September 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mixed use sounds good.

My main concern is that the retail component might end up as another failed Willis St mini-mall like The Grand Arcade or The BNZ Centre (excluding the food hall part).

Be interesting to see detailed plans when they produced them.

At 6:36 pm, September 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have an abiding cynicism about anything to do with Cassells, given his involvement in the poorly sound insulated apartmenets that were involved in getting so many inner-city venues shut down in the 90s.

At 8:08 pm, September 14, 2007, Blogger Gregory said...

I'll take a different spin. The concept of living and working without going outside is something that comes up in Canada. Tunnel systems between buildings are often used to circumvent the need to face the actual cold. Calgary's +15 system (walkways between buildings, connected above street level) was immortalised, for better or worse in the film Waydowntown.

Interestingly, I was just gazing across these buildings, trying to remember what it was that was supposed to be going on there. I'll hold off on any sort of opinion until I see a sketch or two, but I'm not completely opposed to something like this. I'm quite happy living in the downtown region of a city, so long as the city core is an interesting place to live.

At 4:55 pm, September 15, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Kegan: "My main concern is that the retail component might end up as another failed Willis St mini-mall like The Grand Arcade or The BNZ Centre"

That always is a worry if they go beyond street-level retail, though in this case there are two street frontages to deal with, so some sort of multi-level shopping might be necessary to join them together effectively. In general, I'd much rather that any extra retail was spread out on side streets than tucked away from the street entirely, but on the other hand the failed mini-malls sometimes end up as interesting refuges for marginal little businesses.

Roger: can you list the "so many" venues that were shut down due to proximity to the "What's New" apartments? The only one I know of was the Matterhorn due to complaints from the Left Bank, which I wrote about back in 2003. In the end, the Matterhorn came back better than ever, and the only guy I know who lived in those apartments spent more time at the 'horn than at home, so it wasn't quite such as nissue.

In general, I think that Cassels is unusually innovative and even (gasp!) idealistic by the standards of Wellington developers, even if the execution has sometimes been less than ideal. Developments like the Hannahs Factory, Left Bank and Little Havana St show a willingness to go beyond the norm when it comes to the interface between the public and private realms, and the DoC building really seems to be setting the pace for green building. That's one reason why I'm looking forward to this with more anticipation than apprehension (unlike if it were, say, a Serepisos or Richmastery project), though I'll have to see something concrete before I start to make up my mind.

Greg: I'd like to think that Wellington's weather isn't quite as hostile as a Calgary winter! I think that the whole "never having to leave" bit might just boil down to a convenience store and gym on the upper levels, so that residents can grab some milk or exercise without getting dressed for the outside, rather than a completely interior life. Wellington's definitely got a great downtown for living in (I've lived in the CBD or Te Aro for nearly ten years now), though Willis and Boulcott streets could definitely do with a bit more life after dark. Maybe this and the Chews Lane development will help move that along.

At 9:46 pm, September 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those parking buildings at the corner of Boulcott & Church Sts also look ripe for redevelopment.

I'm currently looking for vantage points where I can see the area to be developed, without having to climb into a copter.
I've taken a few ground level shots, but my camera doesn't have a wide enough angle to capture the whole area.
There's no clear viewshaft from The Terrace, and the Majestic closed its observation deck some time ago.

At 7:08 pm, September 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

are you saying the majestic centre had an observation deck? if so when/how long was it open and why was it closed?

At 11:56 pm, September 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to Tom, the observation deck used to be open early on. Why it closed to the public, I wouldn't have the details. Probably happened during a change of ownership.

At 8:41 am, September 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Left Bank has many things going for it, but you can't deny that the quality of the workmanship is very poor. The woodwork is dreadful and the concrete scungy and moss-strewn in parts. The old Gear butchery on the cnr of Cuba and Ghuznee is similarly shabby. Why is it that whenever I'm waiting to cross this intersection I am deluged with the contents of a faulty spouting system? Perhaps he's improved in recent years, I don't know, but Cassells will need to ensure these problems are not replicated in his new development in order to ensure that it becomes a renowned part of our fair city.

At 9:50 am, September 17, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Deepred: I'm not sure off the top of my head when & why it closed. Probably security concerns.

Kerryn: I agree that the workmanship on Left Bank is poor, and I know that the architects cringe whenever they see it. But on the other hand, if the materials and contractors had been absolutely top notch, I doubt that the rents would have been able to be so cheap, and the retail thus so interesting. There are plenty of people who complain that Cuba St is no longer as cheap & grungy as it used to be, so for me it's an appropriate style of development for the area, moss and all. Maybe I've got a higher tolerance for urban grubbiness than some, having lived in the East End for a while, but it reminds me slightly of the old Truman brewery in Brick Lane.

"Perhaps he's improved in recent years, I don't know"

I think that Conversation House shows that his recent commercial developments are up to a higher standard, and I'd assume that Willis Central will also be aimed fairly upmarket and thus require a similar approach. There aren't many developers around who are willing to take the risk and try something new, which is why I'm cautiously optimistic about this proposal.

At 3:39 pm, September 17, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fair points Tom. What I like is a bit of time-worn organic shabbiness, not the kind that follows bad workmanship. It's not so much the type of materials that is relevant but the way they are used, e.g the timber used for the architraves around the shop entrances would be fine if the mitres met up properly and the timber was finished a few notches up the quality ladder. Does cheap/fair rent only follow when the workmanship is poor? I like to think not always.

At 4:03 pm, September 17, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

That's fair comment, and I like to think that there can a good middle ground between expensive slickness and slapdash affordability. I must admit that I haven't looked in detail at the mitres and architraves (while I've obviously got a strong interest in architecture, I don't know much about the details of construction), so you've probably got a point there.

I guess the thing that I like most about the Left Bank is that it wasn't conceived as a finished product, but as a starting point, and that the local business owners (and street artists) have gone ahead and made the place their own with tents, shelters, furniture and temporary stalls. I've suggested other ways in which the locals could go ahead and make the place more attractive and more individual, but in the meantime I like the sense of organic small-scale evolution that's occurring there.

Could that all have happened with high-quality workmanship? Sadly, perhaps not. Construction costs are very high these days, and it may indeed be that the only way to provide affordable rents in a brand-new development in a desirable part of town is to cut a few corners. After all, what you rightly term "time-worn organic shabbiness" in much of the rest of Cuba St was in many cases once a very respectable shopping street rather than the bohemian quarter we're now starting to worry about losing. If the developers had used contractors skilled enough (and hence expensive enough) to carry out the construction as envisioned by the designers, the rents are quite likely to have had to have been higher to offset the added costs. Perhaps then we'd have ended up with Starbucks and Whitcoulls instead of Offbeat Originals, Pegasus Books and Oblong.

Like you say, I'd like to think not, but in the end I've got respect for Cassels for trying something different. A bit of extra care here and there wouldn't have gone amiss, but in the end I think we've got a place that feels more like "Cuba Street" than much of Cuba Street does!

At 6:16 pm, September 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Could that all have happened with high-quality workmanship? Sadly, perhaps not. Construction costs are very high these days..."

As someone who has actually worked on the Left Bank site, I can tell you that is absolutely untrue. The cost of retrofitting legal requirements that were "forgotten"; and the cost of repairing faults in construction is MUCH MUCH higher than planning and building it properly in the first place. However this is not only the fault of the developer.

Over the past 23 years, the NZ government, particularly National, has gone out of its way to destroy the trade unions and by extension the trades in general. Apprenticeships were basically abolished, and deregulation meant that anyone could build anything they liked, with predictable results of leaky buildings and shoddy construction.

There is no reason that something cannot be cheap and good- the original Cubacade that occupied this site (a Bob Jones one IIRC) was ironically built to much higher standards, mainly because the builders knew what they were doing.

However I have a bit of faith in the developers and inspectors now, as the regulatory system is a lot stronger now... If this new development was to go ahead on Willis I would imagine it would be built to a far higher standard than was required in the 1990s.

At 1:00 pm, September 21, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard that Plan 9 are moving out of the church on Frederick St next week, so I guess this means that development is all go?


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