ORC headquarters

Credit needs to be given to the Otago Regional Council for responding to public dismay about the spending of $31 million on new waterfront headquarters.

The large amount of money for a building for 105 staff would have been hard to sell in the best of times.

Against a background of grim economic news, rising unemployment and heavy demands on ratepayers for stadium funding, the spending is excessive.

How many businesses at any time, let alone now, would undertake such a expensive project?The public gaze was largely averted from progress on the building because of the widespread fixation, not surprisingly, on the stadium.

That meant opposition took time to mobilise while the meter on costs was ticking.

We are told about $6.8 million has so far been spent on the building and the site and, inevitably, a proportion is likely to be wasted.

Much of the cost of design fees, staff time and land designation cannot be recovered.

On the other side of the ledger, however, the council now owns a prime Dunedin waterfront property.

It was bought from Port Otago, its wholly owned subsidiary, so the price should have been fair to all concerned, and value has been added to it because it has now been cleared for various potential uses.

It is sunny, prominent and well placed for many purposes.

Ironically, though, given the council is charged with the overview of public transport, bus access is poor.

The council's chairman, Stephen Cairns, tantalised with talk of an "exciting" new option.

In one sense, this provided a convenient way for the council to back down in the face of ratepayer reaction.

But the option has to be realistic if Mr Cairns is not to lose face when details are revealed.

In any event, the council was right to "park" the project now rather than reject it after more money had been committed.

While the $31 million for a waterfront building, including land and other costs, was over the top, ratepayers will have to understand other plans are unlikely to be cheap either, especially because the council has to look ahead with the next 20 to 30 years in mind.

The front-running option, at this stage, ought to be Dunedin's former chief post office, as long as it can be bought for a modest amount.

The building is bigger than the council needs, but it has potential and several advantages.

Properly retrofitting old buildings, though, can cost as much as starting afresh, and this building brings a host of particular challenges.

One will be the council's reluctance to be seen as a property developer.

If it used the bottom two floors of the building, that would still leave vacant the awkwardly shaped upper floors and the space for apartments at the top.

One answer could be for commercially oriented Chalmers Property, a subsidiary of Port Otago, to buy the building and lease it to the council and others.

Any options other than the waterfront should, nevertheless, have at least one price advantage.

By planning to build on land surrounded on three sides by the sea, the council was choosing one of the harshest possible environments.

Construction standards and material requirements in such places are considerably higher and more expensive.

Additionally, the council at the wharf site faced deep foundation costs.

And it had made further pricing challenges for itself by insisting on a five-star green rating.

While ratepayers do not expect the regional council, particularly because of its resource responsibilities, to be environmentally irresponsible, no other project of any substantial size in Dunedin has had to meet those demands.

All councillors agree the current offices at Stafford St are totally inadequate.

The council, therefore, has to push ahead with its "exciting" new option, and with other possibilities.

It has to move to set itself up with adequate headquarters with energy and diligence.

Just as commercial businesses would be likely to baulk at a $31 million headquarters, they would also recognise the urgent need to do something about impossibly cramped conditions.

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