Opposition to council's Project Manawa CBD HQ project almost 100 percent

by Kim Bowden and Lauren Pattemore - Feb 19, 2024

An attempt by the Queenstown Lakes District Council to limit community consultation on its new office building and civic centre - Project Manawa - appears to have backfired with submissions at a hearing today ranging far beyond the council's technical consultation - and being almost 100 percent negative. 

At the council chambers in Gorge Road today a hearings panel comprising of councillors Lyal Cocks, Craig Ferguson and Melissa White heard from approximately 30 of the 178 submitters who took part in the community consultation at the end of last year. The QLDC had only asked for feedback on a related land swap and proposed relationship with Ngāi Tahu Property Ltd but very few submitters had any interest in sticking to that agenda.

Former district mayors and councillors, representatives of the local chamber of commerce and Destination Queenstown, and business leaders stood alongside a number of long-term locals to question the validity of the council's claims the centre of Queenstown is locked in as the preferred location for a new home for council staff, straying from the council's agenda for the hearing, set to focus on the two narrow discussion topics.

For members of the community, the CBD versus Frankton location debate for the council's proposed new offices is very much a live one.

Celebrated businessman and former district mayor Sir John Davies suggested Queenstown's CBD is already lost to locals, and will only continue to grow as a visitor hub.

“The town’s future is totally driven by tourism and in the future virtually no locals will visit this area and every year parking will become under more and more pressure.”

Alongside three other former mayors, he has been lobbying for land already purchased on Ladies Mile to be considered for any new council headquarters.

Today, he urged the council to be prudent as it progressed with the project in a tight fiscal environment.

"QLDC cannot afford new offices with their current debt problem. The reason of the wellbeing of staff is absolutely rubbish. It's important that council get their priorities right and decide what has to be done now, what has to be done in short-term, and what waits a little longer."

Another former mayor, Vanessa van Uden, also spoke at the hearing, cautioning the council about entering into another development agreement - like they've done with Lakeview and the arterial road - which could expose the ratepayer to risk while keeping elected decision makers at arms' length.

"I ask you not to support the creation of a holding company or a CCO (council-controlled organisation) and further dilute your ability to govern our community’s assets and development."

Destination Queenstown head Mat Woods says his organisation reached out to its members for their views on Project Manawa.

"We were shocked at the lack of knowledge of this important intergenerational project."

He says the timing of the consultation was poor and rushed, with the council asking for feedback in the run-in to Christmas.

"It doesn't encourage meaningful engagement. We recommend further consultation and engagement is sought from the community (and) more detailed information should be provided."

It was a sentiment echoed by Queenstown Business Chamber head Sharon Fifield, who said while the business community is "generally supportive of strategic intergenerational investment", this particular consultation felt rushed and left people confused. 

“We understand there are cost benefits to using the Manawa site which avoids land purchases elsewhere, however on face value this is a significant investment for council. 

“Based on recent infastructure and financial decisions, for example Lakeview and the arterial, there is a lack of confidence this project is not going to leave ratepayers significantly out of pocket again."

Ms Fifield says the chamber has requested more information on the joint venture to better understand the financial risk to ratepayers. 

Meanwhile experienced civic planner and resource consent expert Brian Fitzpatrick went as far as to call the council's attempt to limit submissions to two technical aspects of the project "sneaky".

Former Queenstown councillor Cath Gilmour also challenged the legitimacy of the consultation process in her presentation, saying she had made an official complaint about it.

"The fundamental problem is that this hearing is based on the false premise that consultation has been done on where and what Project Manawa should be. It has not."

It is her opinion the argument for a CBD-based civic administration building is "seriously outdated".

"Frankton Road congestion, sparse parking, locals living mainly in or beyond Frankton, business now concentrated in Frankton Flats, huge council debt – these have totally changed the landscape."

Queenstown resident John Hilhorst called Project Manawa a "legacy project with tunnel vision".

He does not agree with the council's view it has established a mandate for its proposed CBD offices, saying different locations and analysis for each has never presented to the community as he believes is required by local government legislation.

He thinks "diabolical traffic problems" have ruled out the CBD as the "right place for council offices for 600 people", and the council should follow the pool and larger supermarkets out to Frankton.

Another resident, Joyce Barry, agreed, saying the proposal "doesn't make sense" considering the lack of parking options in the CBD.

She wants to see a far less grand design proposal: "There is nothing sacrosanct about council buildings".

This local view was reinforced by Queenstowner Dianne Smith, who questioned how relevant the CBD is for most residents going about their day-to-day business.

"If I want to go to the supermarket I'm going to go to Frankton...You come into Queenstown to do the tourist activities."

Ms Smith also questioned council spending priorities, saying, "We don't have to have huge beautiful places for people to look at and say, 'Isn't this lovely?', let's just do things like, number one, look after the water, number two, look after the sewage, number three look after the footpaths and the lighting, and number four, look after the locals, because we are still here."

Also speaking today, Crux managing editor Peter Newport, who talked to the 600 online responses received by Crux to it own survey on the issue, 94 percent of which were opposed to Project Manawa. More than 210 people took the time to provide written comments in addition to answering survey questions, with key concerns being council debt and whether it could afford this project, meaningful consultation or a lack of it, and the potential for the council to find itself out of its depth, again, as a property developer.

In a covering report for today's panel, council staffer Paul Speedy, who is heading the Manawa project, acknowledges the feedback sought during the community consultation was related to a "complex enabling step in a wider process".

And it appears many submitters chose to avoid the "complex" finer details in favour of back-to-basics issues. Left with no other official avenues for doing so, it could be argued they instead opted to use the consultation as a means to voice their grass-roots concerns about the project.

In his report, Mr Speedy notes this trend, saying much of the feedback received "expressed a general opposition to Project Manawa rather than specifically addressing opposition to specific features of the options outlined".

Manawa means 'heart' in te reo Māori.

The QLDC has long signalled plans to consolidate a council workforce spread across multiple Queenstown CBD locations into one fit-for-purpose civic administration building, but Manawa wraps it into a wider vision of a civic and community 'heart' in the centre of town, at the site of the former Playcentre and arts centre on Stanley Street. 

To get best bang-for-buck, council staff have recommended juggling parcels of land and working with Ngāi Tahu Property to deliver on that vision.

The hearings panel will make its recommendation to the wider council at its full meeting in April.

According to Mr Speedy's report, this "will inform future decisions" by the council in relation to the Stanley Street site.

Councillors Esther Whitehead, Niki Gladding, Matt Wong and Gavin Bartlett were also in attendance at today's hearing, sitting in the public gallery.

The full report presented to the hearings panel, which includes public submissions, can be found here.

Main image: Brian Fitzpatrick presents his submission on Project Manawa to a hearings panel comprised of councillors Melissa White, Craig Ferguson and Lyal Cocks at the Queenstown Lakes District Council chambers in Gorge Road, Monday, February 19.

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