Project Manawa decision - what just happened?

by Kim Bowden - Apr 10, 2024

The Queenstown Lakes District Council will be exploring alternative locations for a new council office building after a much-debated series of decisions by its elected members at a meeting on Thursday.

However, despite widespread community opposition to the idea, the door has been left open for a purpose-built council headquarters on central Stanley Street in partnership with Ngāi Tahu Property.

The meeting was technically complex with multiple proposed amendments to the original motion and Mayor Glyn Lewers using his casting vote to break several deadlocks amongst the elected members.

While land on Stanley Street had been flagged as the home for a civic administration building to house the council's Queenstown CBD office-based staff, councillors have now directed the chief executive to undertake a new assessment of other options, including sites outside the town centre.

The chief executive has been told to consider how employees of the council will travel to and from work as part of his assessment of potential office locations, addressing community concerns about traffic congestion and parking.

Councillors have also asked for an assessment of alternative options for ownership of any new office building, in addition to co-ownership with Ngāi Tahu Property, the model put forward to date that would require the council to pay rent to itself and the iwi business for use of an office space going forward.

Until that is all done there will be no progression with negotiating any joint venture with Ngāi Tahu.

The directions to the chief executive are broader than those put forward in the agenda for last week's meeting and reflect an alternative course of action proposed by Councillor Gavin Bartlett.

"The amendment that I introduced was on the basis that the hearing panel decision had included some very good wording in the discussion about the reasons behind their decision, but for whatever reason the wording did not make its way into the report recommendation or into the recommendation of the agenda," Councillor Bartlett says this week.

The council decisions follow formal consultation late last year on the proposed joint venture with Ngāi Tahu Property and land swaps for the delivery of Project Manawa - the name given to a vision to redevelop the Stanley Street site into a civic precinct that would include the council HQ.

Some 178 submissions were received, and 27 spoken to at a hearing panel, with the bulk expressing general opposition to Project Manawa.

The hearing panel was made up of Councillor Lyal Cocks - who was its chair - and Councillors Melissa White and Craig Ferguson.

All three say they stand by the recommendation they made.

"The recommendation we made was not taken lightly, we read, listened and reviewed all submissions carefully and made a very considered recommendation," Councillor White says.

Councillor Ferguson says he found the council meeting to be "quite intense".

Councillor Lyal Cocks, the chair of the Project Manawa hearing panel, says he stands by the panel's recommendation to the council.

"We had worked hard as a panel over a lengthy period and then you must hear how fellow councillors felt."

He thinks it was "no surprise" amendments were tabled "by this council".

"You must really concentrate and rethink as you move through."

While Councillor Bartlett's refreshed resolution was adopted unanimously, other decisions at last week's meeting related to the project and the panel's recommendation were split down the middle, with Mayor Glyn Lewers using his casting vote to push them one way or the other.

The result: the council will progress with complicated manoeuvring that involves the stopping of a section of Ballarat Street to kick start a series of land swaps exchanging freehold land for reserve land - option one under topic one of last year's consultation - with the chief executive directed to report back to the council on necessary ministerial approval and legislative requirements to achieve that.

According to the consultation document, 'option one', the most extensive land exchange option of the two put forward and the preferred one, results in all reserve status land being clumped together at the middle of the Stanley Street site, to allow for public spaces to be developed, while unlocking freehold land surrounding it to generate income for the council, possibly to offset the cost of community assets in the overall plan.

Mayor Lewers acknowledges the multiple proposed amendments to the motion before elected members made the meeting procedurally difficult to follow, but he is comfortable with the way he used his deciding vote throughout.

"There are unwritten conventions when it comes to using the casting vote. One being to follow the recommended proposal before us, which I did," he says.

However, Councillor Niki Gladding, one of the councillors around the decision making table who voted to have the reserve land left alone for now, questions the mayor's approach.

"Despite all four Whakatipu-ward councillors wanting to keep that very important block of reserve land - in their ward - intact for now, the mayor, without a word, used his casting vote to push the land exchange through. That's huge.

"He did the same thing when we tried to ensure that councillors would get to vote again on the land exchange once we had more information about any deal with Ngāi Tahu Property and the cost and benefits of the exchange."

Councillor Niki Gladding: 'Despite all four Whakatipu-ward councillors wanting to keep that very important block of reserve land - in their ward - intact for now, the mayor, without a word, used his casting vote to push the land exchange through. That's huge.'.

Councillor Gladding is referring to another proposed tweak to the motion in front of elected members that she moved and which sought to call for greater detail on land deals with Ngāi Tahu Property before committing future councillors to any course of action.

It was supported by Councillor Esther Whitehead.

Councillor Whitehead says although last week's decisions ultimately did not sway very far from those that were recommended at the outset of the council meeting, they "narrowly missed looking different".

She maintains the Project Manawa consultation didn't ask the right questions of the community.

"Project Manawa has been an ongoing concern of mine - and many others - since I joined Jim Boult's council last term. I have never had faith in the narrative that was provided that council had a mandate to use the Stanley Street site as the preferred site as identified in the Queenstown Town Centre master plan in 2017.  

"Queenstown and surrounds has changed dramatically since then and even the 2016 Colliers report pointed to the fact that in five to eight years following those recommendations, Frankton should be considered as a preferred site. I questioned and asked for evidence at every turn but never found confidence in the answers provided."

Councillor Bartlett says while he could see the potential benefits of the land exchanges, he thought they also came with some risk, so he wanted to save a decision on them.

"I...felt that the decision could perhaps be left until such time that there was a clearer understanding of exactly what facilities might be included in future plans for the site, especially since many of the buildings that have been proposed over the last 40-odd years, such as a community centre and an arts and cultural centre, and even car parking in the interim, can take place on the site as it currently stands."

However, most elected members, Councillor Bartlett included, say they are now looking to the future.

"The decision of this council is for the land exchange to progress, so now we must move on with working towards making that happen. It will certainly be interesting to see what decisions future councils make for the site," Councillor Bartlett says.

Councillor Lisa Guy: 'I'm concerned that if we just focus on the building, we're destined to fail in the bigger picture of understanding what to do with the Stanley Street site'.

Councillor Lisa Guy is optimistic about next steps.

"I think it's a stunning site for bringing to life the centre of our CBD area."

She says she wants to hear from the community about what it wants for the space and felt "saddened" last year's public debate on Project Manawa ended up focusing in on the council office building at the expense of the wider vision.

"And that's why I personally voted for the land swap to go ahead; I think that we have a responsibility to do something with that piece of land."

Hearing panel chair Councillor Cocks says he is looking forward to proposals for the best use of the Stanley Street site that will benefit the community "coming to council for consideration and approval".

Councillor Ferguson says, "There is a long way to go, and I feel this is a good starting point for all parties and potentially strong benefits for our community which will play out in time".

Until then, another nugget for Queenstowners - councillors last week directed staff to get the ball rolling on using the Stanley Street site for car parking in the interim.

Councillor Cody Tucker says this move is "something proactive" that will bring "a near-term benefit to the community".

For Hawea-based Councillor Tucker, however, it is small consolation.

He voices reservations about what played out last week, suggesting progressing with the land swap "can be framed as trying to make small wins towards a predetermined outcome which risks further resentment from our community when public trust is at an all time low".

He says he formed part of a bloc voting in his view to make a point about whether now was the right time to be prioritising moving forward with the project.

"A lot has changed since Manawa first went to the community so it’s relevant to have the conversation openly when seeking feedback.  

"Sadly, to me, all this project says is that instead of working to improve the relationship we have with our community, with the Upper Clutha ward and innovating to adjust to the evolving climate of local government, let's just build a castle to protect us from it all."

However, for Councillor Guy, where to house staff is a problem needing addressing urgently.

Councillor Cody Tucker: Has concerns the council is 'building a castle' that will further distance the organisation from residents and ratepayers.

She says that plans for a CBD-based council headquarters were in response to the question of, "How do we get locals back into town?", but acknowledges things have moved on.

"I don't think that's still a question that we're seeking to answer. But what I said at the meeting was the immediate question is, 'Where will we house our staff when our leases expire on our current tenancies and the rents go up?'."

She is comfortable with some aspirational planning at the same time: "I'm concerned that if we just focus on the (staff) building, we're destined to fail in the bigger picture of understanding what to do with the Stanley Street site".

This week fencing has gone up around the former Playcentre and arts centre buildings on the Stanley Street site.

While the Playcentre building will have asbestos removed prior to its demolition, the arts buildings will be relocated to Country Lane in Frankton, which is scheduled to happen by June.

Once the buildings have been removed from the site, car parking will be expanded.

Main image (QLDC): A vision for a civic heart, including a Queenstown Lakes District Council headquarters, on Stanley Street.

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