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Breathe building competition failure examined

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Just why the Breathe project never become a reality in the Christchurch inner-city is examined in a new paper by Lincoln University’s Dr Lin Roberts.

The Breathe Urban Village Competition: Why did it fail to deliver? was recently published in the University’s latest planning review journal.

Breathe was a flagship post-quake urban regeneration project started in 2012. A design-and-build Urban Village competition, it was named to reflect its purpose - to breathe new life into the decimated central city after the 2011 earthquakes.

It was abandoned in 2015 and the land it was to be built-on still lies empty.

Dr Roberts said the Government at the time was unwilling, or unable, to recognise that an insistence on a pure market approach would not deliver the innovative sustainable village asked for in the competition brief.

"This level of naïve neoliberal faith that the markets could deliver urban regeneration to a badly damaged city was not seen even in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain."

"The potential benefits to the inner city’s recovery of an early kick-start of residential development were significant.

"However, the Government’s focus on recouping its costs and finding a model that could be picked up by other developers without any further financial input from it outweighed the aspirational sustainable urban design criteria."

Dr Roberts said the Government wanted a developer to take on all the risk themselves, to pay it an elevated price for a liquefaction-prone piece of land, and then to enter a contract to deliver an agreed development on the land by an agreed date, therefore tying the developer’s hand on what it did on that site.

"International experience would suggest that the sheer scale of the area of empty city land in the Christchurch inner city presents a high risk to the first developer seeking to turn an empty wasteland into a vibrant community.

However, if such a project were successful, there would be significant benefits to the city and wider community, so a contribution of local or central government money would have been entirely appropriate.

"There are many ways such contributions can be made. Options include tax incentives, contribution of land (by gift or lease), subsidies for land costs or land value write-downs, and loans for land purchase."

Internationally, regeneration projects have usually been dependent upon some form of public-sector intervention to stimulate market activity, she said.

"Much less common globally are successful examples of urban regeneration led solely by the private sector. The returns from regeneration projects can be very high but these returns do not appear immediately so the key need is for ‘patient equity’ - equity from investors that are willing to leave their money in a project over a period of years.

"While this patient capital most often comes from central or local government, it does occasionally come from the developer, or from pension funds and other institutional investors, individual investors or non-profits.

"The Breathe site and the city blocks west and south of the site remain empty and deserted. For want of a little patience about when and how the Government got its financial return, the early vision of the vitality that a thriving residential neighbourhood would bring to the city has not yet been realised," she said.

Dr Roberts was a member of one of the teams, Viva, which was one of four finalists in the Breathe competition. The paper reviews how the Breathe competition was set up and run, and is based on confidential interviews with three of the competition organisers, two of the judges, three of the four finalists, and one city councillor, and an analysis of key competition documents and of media coverage of the project.

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