Coffs Harbour City Council’s $76.5-million Cultural and Civic Centre design.
Coffs Harbour City Council’s $76.5-million Cultural and Civic Centre design.

Mythbusting the Cultural and Civic Space debate

LOCAL architect Oliver Gee, who has had a strong involvement in the Cultural and Civic Space development has penned an op-ed stating why the city needs the $76.5 million development.

His opinion piece comes a day before Coffs Harbour City councillors meet to discuss a rescission motion against the earlier approval to send the development out to tender.

 

I HAVE been watching with increasing dismay, as the community tears itself in two about a development that should unite us.

I have been involved in this project for a long time, since 2016, as a part of council's project team.

During this time, I have performed many paid functions for council, between being the industry representative for architecture, general dogsbody and spokesman, to community consultant.

I have stood in shopping centres, run focus groups and sorted through thousands of pieces of online community feedback during this time.

I have remained silent due to being paid by council to perform these services, however considering this time is at an end and as I don't expect to be further paid by council for this work, I feel it is imperative to speak out.

There is so much misinformation about this building and it's process, that I feel it useful to debunk the myths systematically.

Architect Oliver Dee.
Architect Oliver Dee.

Myth 1 - We don't need it (or, we need a small addition to the library, that libraries are irrelevant, galleries don't drive tourism etc)

Libraries have never been more relevant.

Their diverse range of delivered educational programs have delivered statistically significant improvements in secondary school completion, tertiary entry and youth employment across the state, country and the world. Our library is the 5th worst in the state (mainly due to lack of space to deliver programs and services). In correlation, we score very poorly in our LGA for those metrics, for example the lowest education participation rate of any local government area on the North Coast and double the youth unemployment rate.

We should be championing anything that improves our residents' prospects.

We have the second smallest gallery in NSW (after Balranald). A better regional example, after building a new gallery in 2016, Albury gallery experienced a 6 fold increase in visitation compared to the previous gallery in their town hall. Needless to say, these people all have to eat and sleep somewhere, bumping up the local economy.

This signature piece of cultural infrastructure rounds out the appeal of Coffs Harbour as a destination to move to from the various urban centres around Australia.

 

Myth 2 - It costs too much (we won't be able to deliver services, it'll send the council bankrupt, it's the new glasshouse, it can be built cheaper)

The idea that it is possible to build a library or gallery that is vaguely fit for purpose for $1900/sqm is ludicrous.

It's not a base build office building or a shed, and no quantity surveyor or estimator would sign off on that figure for a cultural building. The $4000/sqm - $6000/sqm is normal for this kind of project and won't change with any kind of study or report.

State government has a debt service ratio limit of 20% for local council.

Ours is a measly 0.79%. Even borrowing all the $46m this would peak the debt ratio at - wait for it - a massive 1.66%. So the vague speculations that we will stop building roads or footpaths don't stand up to scrutiny - in fact there is scope to build other large projects if it can be demonstrated as necessary.

There is a committed 10 year delivery plan for other infrastructure in place irrespective of the outcome of this project.

The $76m should not be a shock to anyone, as it's been on the table for a year, and been sent out in as many communication channels as the council has access to.

Coffs Harbour borrowed $400m (in year 2000 dollars) to build a water system, sewer system and international stadium. Were there the same number of protests in 1999?

Clearly the LGA was able to continue delivering services while paying off that debt.

If you feel a lack of facilities or services, lobby your local councillors but leave this project out of it.

 

Myth 3 - The council staff / chambers should not be a part of the development (this is just council feathering their own nest etc)

To renovate the council chambers to the same standards, the estimated cost (not my opinion, independently verified by quantity surveyors) was $22m.

I was at one stage a few years ago pushing for this option, until I realised it made no economic sense. We also investigated commercial space, educational space, accommodation and other ideas. None made as much commercial sense as selling the assets and shifting the council.

The sale of the existing council assets frees up developable land in the CBD, moving the staff makes the council more efficient, reduces overall floor space allocated to council offices, creates another flat floor community space and is cash positive for the development compared to any other scenario (again by independent QS).

Any objections to this plan fall short of credibility.

 

Myth 4 - Parking will be a problem (we should build it out of town, no-one will park because no-one will come etc)

Leaving aside that the most commercially successful centre in the LGA is the one with the least parking (Sawtell), many independent surveys have shown that the parking vacancy in the CBD other than direct on street is high. 17% in Castle Street multi-storey during peak loads, for example. In the CBD masterplan committee (I am the chair, an unpaid position) we are working on projects that will make availability more visible to dispel this myth.

If you make places pleasant for pedestrians, people want to walk around there, spending money and enjoying themselves as they go. If you make places good for cars, people want to drive through them and past them. The latter is clearly bad for the CBD and our city.

 

Myth 5 - It should be a performance centre (or the civic centre, or a theatre in the round, or a flat floor, or like the TREC.)

As the title suggests, if you ask five people what Coffs Harbour needs in a performance centre, you get five different answers. Part of the reason that this project exists as it does, is that the need and methodology to deliver it is so clear.

The business case for a performing arts centre is being investigated in a separate project, to a certain degree put on hold due to this project as a 'test bed' for what Coffs Harbour can accomplish when meeting a clearly demonstrated need.

I bemoan the loss of our civic centre too, and I believe Coffs Harbour needs better performance venues.

The options list is long, including an upgraded D-Block theatre (at the CHEC) or project at the showground.

Added to this the Cex club plans to do just such a theatre in the CBD, and council's duplication would seem to be a waste of money.

If you believe we need a civic centre replacement (as I do) then let's build this centre, and lobby for the next one. As per above we can clearly afford it.

 

Myth 6 - The development should be somewhere else (most often, city hill).

Most regional centres that build facilities out of the CBD spend most of their advertising dollars trying to entice people to move out of the dense zones of activity and to where the building is.

The CBD is good for this building, and this building is good for the CBD.

It gives the CBD a cultural heart, a reason for being other than business and alcohol, and paves the way for a highway free, integrated and rich centre for Coffs Harbour to be proud of. Cultural facilities in town centres encourage accommodation to develop, where people work and shop locally.

Having a vibrant city heart will also encourage school leavers to stick around and plug the decreasing low 20s population hole that we are developing.

In Conclusion

We need it, we can afford it, and it's in a good spot. Let's get on and build it.

Oliver Gee