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The Town that lost its Teeth

It’s no secret our city centre needs some tender tough-love and care - Buildings hang about like vacant-eyed drop kicks making trouble. Last week I sat down with Mayor Rehette Stoltz to hear from a person with power why this place is feeling like a ghost town. And reassuringly, in a comforting sort of way, she shared her fears of empty shop fronts looking like ‘someone who's lost some teeth.’ And, as you would expect, she said the council has an answer.

But first, let me set the record straight - There’s a lot I have in common with the past American President George Bush Snr and there is a lot I do not. We both gained a Bachelor of Arts degree and flirted with the newspaper industry. However, I can tell you I am not a Republican, nor was I a member of the Yale Cheerleading Squad. But nine words of his in 1989 put me and Bush in the same proverbial box:

"Buildings should not stand empty while people lack shelter."

Yes, our homeless are housed for this moment of pandemic, but will it last? We have empty buildings and a chronic need for housing. We have a city that rattles when the wind blows and our unfortunates once slept on the streets after they were evicted from long-empty buildings. Is that what we consider fair?

And the kick that hurt came from behind, after I fell on an article dated 2015 in The Gisborne Herald ‘Mayor Foon calls for low-cost apartments for Gisborne.’ The title had me tickled, was inner-city development on the way? I picked up the phone and got a hold of ex-mayor Meng Foon, now New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner.

“Five years ago I said the CBD was declining. I suggested that we should make it as easy as possible to have residential buildings in the city and to turn some of the different commercial buildings into apartments to create vibrancy. I thought it was a good idea.”

However, my phone call with the commissioner and Foon’s pitch both had equally patchy reception. “There were snide remarks,” Foon recalled, they said, “‘our city will turn into a slum’ - which is not true, many cities around the world have inner-city residential properties and they’re vibrant places.”

And now, Foon is gone. Is this council any different? Having had a moment in the leading role, I spoke to Mayor Rehette Stoltz to hear what she wanted for the heart of the city. “Empty buildings are not unique to Gisborne, the way we shop and the way we do business has changed significantly over the last 20 years,” Stoltz said over a coffee at the Tairāwhiti Museum.

“A lot of our CBD buildings are Historic Places that cost an arm and a leg to do it up and earthquake strengthen, I know millions of dollars have been spent in the CBD, and if you're lucky enough to be able to afford to do that - fabulous. But unfortunately not everyone is in that position to quickly whip out a few million bucks to earthquake strengthen - and that's why some of our buildings are standing empty.”

And here a comment about the council from my conversation with Foon comes to mind. “Council is a philosopher, it’s not in the ‘doing’. Its role is creating the environment and the rules that enable people to do things as easy as possible,” Foon said.

And in a similar, yet more practical sort of vein Stoltz seemed to agree. Because Council is not in the business of getting involved in our business - it does that enough. Stoltz repeatedly said, “We do not want to interfere in private business, we want to enable it.” So if the council will not earthquake strengthen our buildings, who will? Trust Tairāwhiti perhaps?

Meekly, I pushed forward asking about my inner-city dreams of development. Is the council going to develop our empty downtown? “Yes,” Stoltz said, “there is definitely a push for us to start looking at what we can do with those spaces. “Our new spatial plan is an integral part of us growing and changing the whole feel of the CBD, there's a whole chapter on the development of the CBD.”

But Stoltz argues the council needs to create downtown energy to attract inner-city life before putting up apartments willy-nilly.

“You can't just say ‘let's make a few apartments.’ You need to make people want to live there, you need to make spaces that they can hang out in, have their lunch in the sun and cycleways to connect it up. So one of the discussions we have had going forward is that we might have to look at compacting the city.”

But the thing that perked up my ears, nose and eyes was Stoltz suggested a town square may be on the cards. A place for a few benches, a patch of grass for people to congregate and catch up with a coffee. May I suggest paving over Peel Street?

And I think she is right, ‘Build it and they will come.’ The boardwalk along Waikanae beach is constantly peppered with people every hour of the day. You need delicious and desirable ingredients for punters to make the move and live the city centre life.

But as Stoltz said, our habits have changed and the city centre is no longer the shopping destination it once was. The city needs to provide for the twenty-first century shopper. “A lot of our planning is archaic and needs to be addressed, and it's a fair comment that we need to tidy up our district planning requirements around developments not only in the CBD, because it's not always fit for purpose.” She says our district plan may not give us the best outcomes. “Our zoning is not prohibitive as such, but it's not encouraging it either.”

Stoltz gave the example of a laboratory requesting consent just outside of Gisborne which was required to have seven parking spaces under the current district Council plans when the only visitors they had was a courier driver.

She says the council staff do not have the discretion just to say ‘Oh that is silly, let’s just go ahead,’ because they are required to follow the plans. “So then we tie people up with the red tape, because then they need to get a planner involved, ring the mayor's office, and in the end, they can do it. But if our plans were permissive and our plans were modern - our plans would make sense.”

“I believe the most important thing we as a Council can do is to get our plans modernised and address the needs that have evolved over the past 20 years.”

“But in the past five or six years, so much already in the town has happened that lifted the overall feeling, like the new council building, the new library, the new theatre, new cycleways, so even though it's not targeted directly at the CBD, we shouldn't forget about the things that connect at all up.”

And as much as locals love to moan, the revitalization is visible. The beach boardwalk, cycleway to Wainui, Fox Street mountain bike tracks, the port beautification and a new Gladstone Road bridge. There is change and we can follow the right track if we choose it. There’s no reason we cannot be like Porto, Barcelona and the seaside cities along the Mediterranian that tout cosy apartments dressed with balconies perfect for peering down at life below. Cities where you can stumble to a drinking hole one minute and fall in the door of a dinky restaurant outside your apartment the next.

The same is possible here. We have the port, the cityscape, sunshine and a lively bunch of locals. Combined, Trust Tairāwhiti , Gisborne Holdings Limited and the council have over a billion dollars in assets - It may be time they put some of that to downtown use, and maybe, we can buy this city a new set of teeth.

Words by Jack Marshall

Photographs by Tom Teutenberg


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