Consider CPO from all sides

Artbeat column no 461 by Peter Entwisle
Published in the Otago Daily Times, 16.11.2009

The city council is still investigating relocating the central library to the old Central Post Office but there’s been an interim report. (ODT 10 & 11/11/09.) The idea has major arts implications and is worth following. Importantly, now is the time to consider and steer round potential negatives, not later, when plans are half made and minds more than half made up.

On the face of it the idea sounds promising. It starts from the fact that the present building off the Octagon is too small and in need of a technological upgrade. There is $26 to $28 million in the long term plan for this project which can be used on the present building or another. (This is separate from the provision to build a new branch library in South Dunedin.) The CPO seems to present some advantages, both functionally and otherwise.

The present building’s location is good. The old CPO seemed to have some access issues but these probably could be resolved. The investigation has reportedly identified ways of doing that, looking at parking, altering bus routes and accessibility for schools.

The report also said by redeveloping the CPO and extending it across Bond Street to the empty site behind to a new three storey building, there would be 6,000 square metres of space. This compares with the existing building’s “7000 sq m spread over eight floors.” (ODT 10/11/09.)

Would the new provision be less than the present? I spoke to the city’s Library Manager, Bernie Hawke, who provided a correction. The published figure for the CPO leaves out 1,650 sqm in the half floor basement so the total is really 7,650 sqm. The present building actually has an area of 7,896 sqm, but by Mr Hawke’s calculations, discounting for things like lift shafts, it has only 6,575 sqm of “useable” space. While he hasn’t discounted the CPO’s figure yet he is confident the useable area there is significantly greater than the existing building’s. As it is also only on 3 floors, not 8, there is a functional gain as well. This seems a real advantage, but there are some other questions.

Many have pointed to the fact this idea would re-use a grand old heritage building as a benefit, as its positive impact on foot traffic in the area would be another too. I agree and think it would also be good if the Otago Regional Council, if it decides it needs new offices, relocated itself to the CPO. The symbolism of that is excellent because the CPO occupies the site of the old Otago Provincial Council building. It makes functional sense because the structure was designed as an office.

But there are also heritage questions needing to be answered. The present library is another attractive building constructed with extra strength to serve its purpose. Can another good use for it be found? Does it make much sense to put a hotel in there, as some have suggested? But most pressingly, what are the implications of building over Bond Street and what are the implications of building on the rearward car park?

The latter was the site of Edinburgh House, originally the region’s principal bond store, which gave Bond Street its name. It occupied the whole block bordered by Bond, Liverpool, Crawford and Water Streets and was very attractive. Designed by Mason & Clayton and built in 1864 it was demolished in the early 1980s which was much regretted.

It was two storeys, built of arcaded brick and occupied the site right up to its perimeters. With the adjacent buildings, which remain, it made a magnificent urban statement, a robust island block of masonry surrounded by well-defined, symmetric channels – the streets. As overseas visitors like Duncan Fallowell have observed, this is the most sophisticated part of old Dunedin, the heart of the “imperial outpost” and startling in the quality of its spaces and buildings.

I spoke with David Booth of Octa, the firm doing the investigation, and Robert Clark, the City Council’s property manager. I asked each of them if there was a possibility of designing the building on the site to resemble or evoke Edinburgh House. At this stage only bulk planning is being done, but each independently was willing to look at pictures of the building to see if anything of the sort might be achieved. I think some restorative construction in this very sensitive place would add another positive to the project.

I also questioned building across Bond Street. It is part of Charles Kettle’s original plan for the city whose street lines need maintaining. This is more difficult but the plan is to bridge the street leaving it open at ground floor level. Perhaps something might be done. The report will be finished next year. Let’s hope it comes up with something exciting.

© 2009, Otago Daily Times