William Samuels is an architect, chair of the Nelson Marlborough branch of Te Kāhui Whaihanga New Zealand Institute of Architects, and a big fan of libraries.
OPINION: At the risk of going against public sentiment, I’d like to offer support to the beleaguered Nelson Central Library project. This may be an unpopular opinion, but hear me out.
The project was approved last year with overwhelming support from the council, who have a clear sense of what it means to Nelson and its role in the long-term vision and regeneration of our city. Since then, there has been a complete failure to communicate this vision to the wider community who have, understandably, voiced concern about aspects of the project, including the price tag and location.
On face value this skepticism is entirely justified. Spending $44m on a shiny new version of the existing library seems questionable. But this barely scratches the surface of what the project is, and why there is so much to be excited about.
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Around the world, libraries have changed. They are no longer simply a place from which to borrow books, they are the beating heart of a city, providing a venue for many forms of engagement and interaction. In fact, NCC’s first mistake was to label this project as a ‘library,’ for what will instead become the central hub for our community.
Unfortunately, the discourse has been almost entirely focused on the budget which, although high, is similar (on a per resident basis, accounting for inflation) to the new Motueka Library and the nearly complete Blenheim Library. The latter promises to be an absolute game-changer for Blenheim, a transformative venue which will become a huge asset to the region.
Meanwhile Nelson is being left behind, stuck in an increasingly one-sided public debate about costs that threatens to derail an attempt at positive change for our city.
What is lacking in this debate is a discussion about what the new facility will mean to our community. A gateway to knowledge and culture, libraries fulfill a critical function in our society. A place for everyone to enjoy, young and old, with no entry fee.
They are a type of ‘third space’, a place between work and home where people can learn, gather and socialize in a public setting. Students meet with study groups, parents join baby storytimes, the elderly attend events to maintain connections. Libraries have become the living room of the city.
But the benefits will go far beyond the building. As a city, Nelson is looking tired. A serious lack of investment, both from private landowners and local government, has meant our once vibrant city is stagnating. Our main streets are defined by aging commercial buildings, vacant tenancies and an absence of inner-city housing. There are businesses who are actively questioning whether it’s worth continuing to operate here.
We need more. We need a city that is alive, an environment where residents and local businesses can thrive. We need public spaces and buildings that engage and delight, that give value and meaning to the time we spend in our city. Nelson needs to offer more than just sunshine – it must be an attraction in its own right.
In urban design it is often the case that it can take just a single ‘catalyst’ project to radically transform the future of a town by stimulating growth and private investment. The library and associated riverside precinct could be this catalyst. It represents a significant investment, but one that has the potential to revitalize our city, re-establish our connection to the Maitai River and bring direct economic, urban and social improvements.
Some have suggested that the existing library, a refurbished car showroom, is ‘good enough’ as it is. While the Elma Turner Library has been a fantastic public asset, it is no longer fit for purpose nor is it meeting the needs of our community. If we’re serious about making positive changes to our city, this is the place to start.
Questions about location, natural hazards and tendering are important and subject to ongoing review. It’s not unusual for major construction projects to face these kinds of challenges, however they should be addressed with appropriate measures to mitigate risk, rather than being used as an argument to abandon the project altogether, which would be a devastating blow for our community.
With a lack of visible progress from NCC and a failure to effectively communicate with the public, the tide of public sentiment is moving against the project. We need our council, especially our elected representatives, to be bolder in promoting the collective vision for our city, and to give this project the much-needed support that it deserves. NCC, please don’t mess this up – bring the public on board so that we can be reassured about the process, excited about the potential and proud of the outcome.