Developers are closing in on Wellington’s boarded up central library, seeing an opportunity to either list the building, or privatise it.

A major Wellington developer is calling on the council to sell its central library building to fund the cost of rebuilding or strengthening.

Ian Cassels, director of The Wellington Company, a large Wellington developer, has spoken to councillor Fleur Fitzsimons, who is responsible for city libraries, about opening up a tender process for private solutions to the library’s predicament. They had also sent a proposal of the offer to Mayor Justin Lester, who had yet to respond. 

Wellington’s Central Library was suddenly closed in March following an engineering report which said its floors were vulnerable to collapse in an earthquake. 

A developer could purchase the library building off the council, rebuild it, and then lease it back to the council for library services. 

The council is getting further advice on the building before making any decision on its future. That could include strengthening or rebuilding — or even overturning the initial advice. But with the council already facing massive costs from work on the Town Hall, which will cost $112 million to repair and strengthen, there remains the looming question of whether it would wish to further burden its balance sheet with another expensive repair job. 

Wellington City Council, unlike many other local bodies in New Zealand, has relatively low debt. However, it’s most recent 10-year plan forecast borrowing rising considerably, reaching 167 percent of its income. That is still short of its debt limit of 175 percent of income. 

The council will also be unable to draw on its insurance for strengthening the library, as the fault is with the design of the building, rather than any damage that has occurred. Mayor Justin Lester has said there are currently four options being looked at by the council. They include strengthening to either 100, 67, or 34 percent of code. The final option was full demolition and rebuilding. 

Cassels told Newsroom that the Town Hall project was an example of what could go wrong with strengthening projects. The Town Hall had been slow to mend, and the project had vastly overspent its original budget, which was initially just $46 million.

“What we have seen through the Town Hall process is that good things take time, and with increasing timespan comes increased costs that we are burdening the ratepayer with,” Cassels said. 

“We don’t want to see the central city gradually shut down. It wouldn’t be remiss of the council to consider proposals from experienced parties and put a real challenge out there to come up with a model that is financially viable and socially beneficial to Wellingtonians,” he said. 

He said the process should go out to tender. The winning proposal might even see the use of the site changed to housing, or mixed use for both. 

“It would mean we are given very clear guidelines by the council on what Wellingtonians wish to see it used for. Maybe another library or perhaps for housing? Maybe even a mix?” he said.

Wellington central library before its closure. Photo: Phillip Capper

Fitzsimons said any decision on the library would be have to come after the council had seen more complete engineering information. 

“I have seen no compelling evidence and received no engineering advice that the central library needs to be demolished,” Fitzsimons said. 

“I want sound engineering advice from more than one source before I vote for demolition,” she said. 

She would not say whether a change to the library’s ownership would be the likely outcome of any review. 

“The library is a core public amenity and rightfully treasured by Wellingtonians,” Fitzsimons said. 

“To me it is an important piece of public infrastructure.”

Cassels has not approached the library with a specific development plan. The Wellington Company is already involved in a long-term, 15-year lease with the council for its Willis Street flats. The long-term lease from a high-grade tenant like Wellington City Council enables the company to raise capital for other developments more cheaply as it has guaranteed cashflow. Converting the library to mixed-use would also help create diverse revenue streams. 

Newsroom understands other developers are also exploring options around the central library, including getting the 28-year old Ian Athfield designed building heritage listed. Such a move would make the building almost impossible to demolish, improving the likelihood of a pricey restoration contract being put out to tender. 

Mayor Justin Lester told Newsroom that it was too early to say what would be done to the library, but he was not “ruling anything in or out”. 

However he said that at the moment, council was solely with engineers to appraise the scale of the problem, rather than soliciting offers for repair. 

“At the moment we’re doing this ourselves,” he said. 

This story was updated to better reflect the communications between TWC and the Mayor. 

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