Five years after quake, New Zealand city’s heart still missing

AP, Kyodo

Five years after an earthquake in Christchurch killed 185 people and destroyed hundreds of buildings, some residents have taken to calling it the “Donut City.” The ravaged city center is still largely an empty core, and how long it will remain that way is unclear.

Bickering and uncertainty have stalled rebuilding efforts, which some property owners now view as a lost cause. Grass pokes up from fenced-off walkways. Damaged buildings sit abandoned and tagged with graffiti. Christchurch’s iconic Anglican cathedral is a crumbling ruin with an uncertain fate.

The collapse of the six-story CTV Building, which is nothing but a concrete pad now, brought most of the fatalities. Among the 115 dead were 71 foreign students — 28 of them from Japan — who were studying English at King’s Education School for English Language, which was housed in the building’s upper floors.

Since the magnitude-6.1 quake struck on Feb. 22, 2011, thousands of homes have been repaired and most of the city’s infrastructure has been fixed. Many suburbs are thriving.

In the heart of Christchurch, the central government has promised to help build several large, so-called anchor projects, including a covered sports stadium and a convention center. Those plans have actually complicated rebuilding, however, because of concerns about their timing and viability.

Christchurch Mayor Lianne Dalziel said that until there is more clarity, some investors looking to build hotels or offices are holding back.

“There are elements of the central city which have left rather a large gap until we know exactly what’s coming,” she said.

The central government says the projects are on track, and that it will make more announcements about them in the coming months.

In other cases, rebuilding has been held up by insurance disputes. A report last week by New Zealand’s central bank estimated insurers still need to resolve 20 percent of claims, and that the pace of settlement has been slower than in Japan and Chile, which also suffered major quakes at about the same time.

“The reconstruction of commercial property has yet to begin in earnest, many of the anchor projects . . . remain uncertain, and many insurance claims have yet to be settled,” the report concluded. “When faced with uncertainty about the future, businesses are reluctant to invest and employ.”

Indeed, some have given up.

Cristo Ltd., one of several family-run companies that owned downtown buildings before the quake, has decided to sell most of its Christchurch land and invest instead in the country’s largest city, Auckland. Director Stephen Bell said his company worked for nearly a year on a replacement design for one of its buildings that was destroyed in the quake, but couldn’t find a single interested tenant.

“We’re very disappointed we couldn’t contribute to rebuilding the city,” he said. “But we’re not prepared to throw our money away on lost causes.”

He said the atmosphere in downtown Christchurch is dead, which he puts down to bureaucratic red tape, the uncertainty around the convention center and planning decisions such as favoring cycle lanes over parking spots.

He said some businesses that moved to the suburbs after the quake will likely stay there.

“In the modern business environment, you don’t need to meet people face-to-face so much,” he said. “Some people will want to get back to the central city, for appearances, but others will decide that their business works quite well in suburban areas.”

The ChristChurch Cathedral, the city’s best-known building, has come to symbolize the quagmire. The Anglican Church decided it was too badly damaged to rebuild and began demolishing it. But that work was stopped after preservationists took legal action, leaving its fate in limbo.

Despite the holdups, there are signs of life in the city center. A new children’s playground opened in December, the city’s art gallery fully reopened this month, and some newly constructed buildings have drawn praise for their designs. A makeshift shopping mall made from shipping containers has become a city feature.

Others are making use of the open spaces. An agency called Gap Filler has completed dozens of projects from large art installations to the Dance-O-Mat, a coin-operated dance floor that moves about the city. The idea is to try to make the downtown more colorful and interesting.

Rachael Welfare, the agency’s operations director, said the earthquake has changed the once-conservative city, which now embraces events including a street art festival and a night noodle market.

“We’re becoming this massive hub of creativity and culture,” she said.

Jane Taylor, who suffered severe spinal injuries during the quake when part of a mall facade collapsed on her, revisited the downtown site this month with a reporter for The Associated Press.

“I think it will be a vibrant, exciting place,” she said. “But I do think that’s probably about five years away, before it’s near finished. Because although there is a lot going on, there’s still quite a few empty plots. So there’s a lot still to do.”

One more factor complicating the rebuilding: more earthquakes.

Christchurch experienced one of its biggest since 2011 just last week, when a magnitude-5.8 earthquake struck east of the city.

The earthquake knocked items from shelves and triggered rock falls but didn’t result in major damage or injuries.

It did, however, cause a little more of ChristChurch Cathedral to crumble, adding yet more uncertainty over its fate. The building’s trustees are evaluating a new round of engineering inspections.