Project Manawa – stop the 'community heart' craziness

by Cath Gilmour - Feb 13, 2024

Opinion: Cath Gilmour is a long-time Queenstown resident, former councillor, and co-chair of the Catalyst Trust.

What makes our ‘community heart’ beat?  And where does this beating heart belong? 

These are the two fundamental questions Queenstown Lakes District Council has never asked its community. Instead, its Project Manawa hearing on Monday (February 19) will ask two peripheral questions that inherently assume community consultation has already been responded to. It has not.

Council’s Project Manawa (manawa is ‘heart’ in Te Reo Māori) would see 600-person council offices built opposite the courthouse, in a joint venture (JV) with Ngāi Tahu. Council proposes to freehold and sell much of our reserve land in the two CBD Stanley Street blocks, as part of a complicated land swap process that would cost our community these reserves and a forever rent bill.

Faced with the cluster of sidelined consultation, opaque process, inadequate investigation of alternatives and the proposal’s unaffordability, a group of long-term locals with backgrounds in planning, community advocacy, council, development and the cultural sector started searching for more viable options.

We suggest council should instead build its own offices, with half of the funds from selling just one Stanley Street block, on its own Frankton Flats land. Contrary to advice in all public Project Manawa council reports, such viable options do exist.

These would incur no debt, no rent, and leave money in the bank for the cultural and community facilities that would create that community heartbeat. More on these later…

There is no plan and no money in council’s 10-year plan for any of the facilities – like a performance centre, library, and town square – initially proposed for these community reserves. And little likelihood in following decades either, with QLDC debt already nearly maxed and looming leaky building and Three Waters liabilities. 

Six hundred council staff sitting inside their huge office, or in the closed part of Ballarat Street converted into three narrow terraces inaccessible to wheelchairs, do not create a beating community heart – as is Project Manawa’s stated purpose.

For the sake of brevity, we will leave aside the question of how this project switched from a cultural and community centre to an office building project, claiming community mandate. However, it’s a question councillors could well ask.

Until late last year, council’s primary stated reason for building its office on the Stanley Street community purposes reserves was the long-term financial imperative of owning its own building on its own land. But their JV and freeholding proposal would instead make them Ngāi Tahu tenants. This policy reversal remains unexplained.

Much else has changed since the outdated ‘twin centres’ strategy first rationalised putting the offices in the CBD to ensure lawyers and planners stayed in town and to maintain relevance for locals among the plethora of tourist offerings.

That horse has already bolted. Banks led the migration to Frankton, followed by locals-focused retailers and then many of the professional services. 

Frankton Flats is now home to our major community facilities. Council has shown its support for this trend, with peppercorn rental for the Whakatipu Community Hub and lease support for Te Atamira. It’s our recreational, educational, and commercial hub.

Residential growth in Frankton and new suburbs to its east and south mean Frankton Flats is now the natural locals’ centre. A trend that will only increase, as the Spatial Plan and consented developments already show.

It’s also central to our active and public transport networks. The Project Manawa site is 14 kilometres from Lake Hayes Estate and Hanley’s Farm, outside most people’s bike/walk commute options. Frankton Flats is within seven kilometres of both major subdivisions, and Queenstown.

Frankton Road is already a chokehold and will only become more so. Ongoing council works are consuming 40 percent of downtown council car parks and planned parking buildings have been canned.

Why would businesses want 600 council staff consuming car parks all day? Visitors, each parking for a few hours, would bring far more life and hard cash to the CBD. Which is, no doubt, one of the reasons the Chamber of Commerce has submitted against Project Manawa.

None of this updated context was included in the recent consultation. And most of the reasons in the 2016 Colliers’ report used to justify council’s Stanley Street push no longer stand true.

Surely council should have learned from the overturning of their lease of Wānaka Airport to QAC – deemed illegal by the High Court because of QLDC’s inadequate consultation?

We understand some people have invested so much energy into Project Manawa that they feel it is the only option. It isn’t. The claim it makes financial sense does not survive scrutiny. Our community deserves so much better.

Frankton Flats offers far cheaper land and development costs, better access for staff and community, in a more logical central location.

So, on to our suggestion…

  • Sell just the eastern Stanley Street block reserves. Valuer feedback is that the land would be worth $7,000 to $8,000 per square metre. This equates to $44 million to $50 million.
  • But it could be worth much more if council maximises this value through an open market process, by transferring the Stanley Street reserve status (e.g. to freehold Queenstown Events Centre land). Ngāi Tahu can still bid, but its ‘first right of refusal’ goes with the land’s reserve status.
  • Assuming a $6,000 per square metre build cost, a good quality 3,250 square metre council office building, as QLDC is currently planning, would require less than half the sum gained.
  • Keep the western Stanley Street blocks as reserve. Council then retains this land’s capital value gain, control, and its proposed public transport hub (which, in fact, is just a wide footpath). Similarly, keep at least an easement over the closed part of Ballarat Street, to ensure the community access axis proposed back in the town centre master plan is retained.
  • If, once consulted, our community says Queenstown’s cultural and community heart should be on the downtown Stanley Street reserve site, it’s available. Alternatively, its sale would help fund it being built elsewhere.

Contrary to council’s narrative, there is council owned freehold land in Frankton Flats that could be used.

One option would be the flat and empty council freehold section off Grant Road, between QEC, The Crown, the planned Whakatipu Community Hub and the airport, as shown below. It’s accessible, has space for parking and for expansion/other uses. It currently hosts just gorse and long grass.

Another possible option would be council land on the BP roundabout corner, when the state highway is widened and the driving range relocated.

Other sites could prove preferable. Private landowners would no doubt have land to sell, if asked.

But first, the hearing panel and council must call a halt to this Project Manawa juggernaut, to ensure meaningful consultation and full analysis of options is undertaken. As is surely legally required in matters of “high significance” like Project Manawa.

Main image (Supplied): A potential plan b location for a new administration building for the Queenstown Lakes District Council, on council land beside the Wakatipu Community Hub in Frankton.

Read more: Council defends new office project as 'lowest cost' option


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