By: Amanda Douglas
The Christchurch Central City Recovery Plan could result in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority compulsorily acquiring large tracts of the central city for the Anchor Projects. 

In July 2012, CERA unveiled its plan for the recovery of the central city.  One of the most contentious aspects of the Plan is the Frame.  Approximately 24 hectares of land - which was zoned and used for commercial purposes prior to the earthquakes - has been designated to create a large, green border on the south, east and north of a central city core.  The new central core would be much smaller than the old central business district. 

The Central City Development Unit of CERA says that the Frame "addresses the oversupply" of commercial land in the central city, and that it "will help to increase the value of properties generally across the central city in a way that regulations to control the central core, or new zoning decisions, could not".

The Plan signals CERA's intention to acquire some or all of the land in the Frame, leaving the owners and occupiers of that land to re-establish elsewhere.  But where? The theory is that they will be squeezed into a "more compact core" inside the Frame.

Land values for that more central area were generally higher, even before the earthquakes, than land further from the centre.  Now that there is a much smaller area available to accommodate all of the people and activities that formerly occupied a more spread out central city area, it seems inevitable that land values in the new central core will rise.

Will those who are forced off of their land in the Frame be able to afford to relocate to the new central core?  Or will they be driven further out, to land outside of the Frame, or to the suburbs, or to another city altogether? 

CERA has entered negotiations with some of the landowners in the Frame, with a view to acquiring the land by mutual agreement.  However, the threat of compulsory acquisition, a long wait for compensation, and possibly having to resort to Court action to obtain fair compensation, hangs over the process. 

The offers being made by CERA are being seen by many landowners as unreasonably low, particularly in comparison to the most recent rateable valuations. Those valuations are still being used to establish the level of rates which landowners are paying on the properties, even though most of them have not been able to use or gain income from those properties since the earthquakes.

CERA has obtained current valuations, but will not disclose them to the affected landowners, even when requests have been made under the Official Information Act.

Obviously, there is a balance to be struck – landowners in the Frame are entitled to fair compensation if they lose their land in the name of recovery, but the government does not have unlimited funds, either. If all of the land in the Frame were to be acquired by CERA, then even at the prices being offered, compensation would total hundreds of millions of dollars. If landowners are to be fairly compensated for their actual loss, that total will increase. There is a limit to how much the rest of New Zealand will be willing to pay for recovery in Christchurch, given the competing demands for the tax dollar.

It's debateable whether the recovery benefits to be obtained from establishing the Frame are worth that level of cost to the taxpayer.  And at any rate, the Frame concept is not likely to actually facilitate recovery if compensation at the levels being offered by CERA would leave the Frame's landowners unable to re-establish in the now much more expensive central core.

Although the Central City Blueprint paints an exciting picture of an attractive, green, and vibrant central city, there seems to have been little thought given to whether the bold plan can realistically be implemented.  That's not surprising, given the very short, 100-day time limit imposed by CERA on the development of the plan.

If the vision contained in the Blueprint can be achieved, we will have an exciting, innovative and user-friendly central city.  But in order to achieve that, we need to ensure that those who have the will to stay or re-locate in the central city are able to do so.  A process which greatly increases the value of some land while leaving a large pool of central city landowners with paltry pay-outs is likely to impede recovery, rather than facilitate it.

CERA's vision for the Frame anticipates that there will continue to be opportunities for "some complementary commercial ventures such as cafes and restaurants, residential developments, educational and innovation activity centres".  For many landowners in the Frame, it may be more viable to retain their land and redevelop it in accordance with CERA's vision for the Frame. That would save the taxpayer the cost of compensating those landowners for the loss of their land, and would help to take the heat out of what could otherwise be skyrocketing prices for land in the core.

The Central City Recovery Plan dismisses the possibility that zoning alone could accomplish the outcome envisaged for the Frame and the central core.  However, a simple sterilisation and acquisition by CERA of the land in the Frame is not likely to accomplish that outcome, either. 

If that outcome won't be accomplished, there are legal as well as practical problems with the Plan and the acquisition programme. The decision to create the Plan was only valid if it was within the Minister's powers for "recovery" under the CER Act.  If it goes further than is needed for recovery, the decision could be judicially reviewed and found to be invalid.  We would all be back to square one in that case.

The Plan is a long-term planning document which encompasses, and in fact exceeds, the aspirations which City Council planners held for the central city prior to the earthquakes.  Leaving aside any question of the merits of those aspirations, is the Plan necessary for recovery?

And, even if the Plan itself is within the concept of recovery, is it necessary for the Minister to  designate and then acquire large tracts of the central city in order to achieve recovery?  Perhaps there is a less drastic solution, which could be achieved through zoning, planning, and giving landowners the option of redevelopment in accordance with the Plan.

There will need to be a detailed and comprehensive plan for the development of the Frame, probably something in the nature of the Outline Development Plans which are required for the central city Retail Precinct.  Some of the few remaining fragments of our built heritage are located in the Frame – could the plan incorporate the retention of that heritage, where that is safe and feasible?

The High Street Heritage Precinct was one of the prettiest and funkiest parts of the city, prior to the quakes.  Quite a bit of that built environment is still standing, and there are those who are willing to put the hard yards and the funding into saving it.  The New Regent Street precinct has, quite rightly, been the subject of careful planning, restoration and co-operation between landowners and CERA.  Could the same approach be taken with the High Street area?

If a plan for the development of the Frame can be produced and incorporated into the City and Recovery Plans, then those landowners who are willing to re-develop their land in accordance could retain their land.  That would decrease the burden of compensation placed upon the taxpayer by full-scale acquisition.  Those who do not wish to retain their land would still have the option of selling to CERA, or perhaps to other private landowners who wish to take part in the Frame project.
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