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Container mall celebrates first anniversary

Last updated 08:33 23/10/2012

SAM SACHDEVA

IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ

BRIGHT BEACONS: The colourful containers and sun shades at Re:Start are an important part of its appeal.

IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ

Christchurch's Re:Start container mall will celebrate its first anniversary this weekend. Sam Sachdeva spoke to the people behind the innovative project about its successes, failures and future.

Walking through Re:Start is a sensory experience.

The mall and its shipping containers present a dazzling array of green, blue, red, orange and yellow; vivid on a sunny day and still enticing in less enjoyable weather.

The smell of caramel roasted nuts and lamb souvlaki carries through the air, while the noise from nearby cranes and pneumatic drills, busy at work, provides a reminder of the devastation throughout the rest of earthquake-torn central Christchurch.

The intangible pleasures of the shopping precinct are fitting, given its role as a symbol of the city's recovery.

The mall, which will turn one this weekend, has become a source of pride for locals still battered by the reality of daily life in a post-disaster city.

Re:Start has also received rave reviews overseas: the "colourful labyrinth" features prominently in an endorsement of Christchurch by travel guide Lonely Planet, while several travel and architecture websites have written glowingly about the mall.

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Re:Start director Paul Lonsdale's office, a shipping container wedged next to the food court with threadbare carpet and basic furniture, reflects the stopgap ethos of the project.

Lonsdale's Central City Business Association was one of the key organisations behind the project, along with iconic central city retailer, Ballantynes.

The goal, says Lonsdale, was to give shops and shoppers a reason to come to the central city after the February 22, 2011 earthquake, before they were captured by the suburban malls forever.

"Habits don't change. If they'd been stuck there in the suburbs, it would have been harder to come back."

Ballantynes' managing director Mary Devine says the retail giant was keen to relaunch in the central city, but knew it needed support from other retailers.

"If we were alone, it would be a lot more difficult."

Lonsdale says the plans were met with scepticism in some corners, given the steady decline of the central city and the destructive impact of the earthquakes.

"We had people saying that nobody would come back in because they were too frightened, the city was dying anyway and this was the final nail in the coffin. We had to just ignore all that and push ahead."

After settling on City Mall, their attention turned to the design of the shops.

Several options were considered, including flat-packed buildings and a tent-like structure, before they settled on the now iconic container concept.

Lonsdale says the "uber-cool" design was vital to draw people back into the central city.

"There was horror at how much had actually gone, and we knew people would still be a bit frightened because everyone was calling it the red zone, so we really wanted to grab their attention.

"It had to be something that made people stop and go, 'Wow'."

Establishing the mall was a complex process: issues around historic buildings had to be sorted out, insurance companies dealt with and lease agreements negotiated with the business owners.

The already tight time frame was further stretched by the June 13 aftershocks and two significant snowstorms in July and August last year.

"It was quite a complicated project in every respect," Lonsdale says understatedly.

Despite that, the team stuck steadfastly to the October 28 deadline to give the retailers peace of mind.

There were other hairy moments - Lonsdale remembers the mall being a "complete shambles" the night before opening, while a lawsuit threat from a British developer with a similar project was quickly rescinded.

Re:Start opened on October 29 and quickly captured the hearts of the city's residents.

Mayor Bob Parker says the mall has, in many ways, exceeded expectations, likening it to "a small candle burning in the heart of the city".

"It's helped to reclaim a little bit of the world that's been largely shut off to us."

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend is equally fulsome in his praise.

"It was a really brave initiative. It was really important that we had that sort of statement being made in the central city, and the risk has paid off."

Despite the near-universal acclaim, Re:Start's financial success is less clear-cut, though still positive.

Lonsdale says some businesses are making more now than they were before the earthquakes, while Devine says the figures for Ballantynes' latest financial year were "much better than anticipated".

While the isolated location has made it difficult for some businesses, Townsend says it has allowed them to stay afloat while the rebuild takes shape.

"Nobody's going to make a fortune in the centre of a city that's been devastated, but they needed to make a statement, they needed to hold their ground, and by all accounts that's what they've done."

Looking back, Lonsdale and Devine have few regrets. The absence of a sizeable hospitality precinct, was due to a lack of funds rather than any slip-ups from the organisers.

As Lonsdale points out, "the fact that we got it off the ground was itself a bit of a miracle".

"We achieved everything we wanted to achieve: we rescued a lot of businesses, we brought a lot of people back into the central city, and it's been very successful," he says.

Re:Start's future, in City Mall anyway, is uncertain.

The mall will stay in place until at least the end of March, when work on a $70 million retail and office complex is set to start.

However, Lonsdale and Devine are hopeful that it can keep operating on the site in some form - for the public's sake as much as the retailers.

"People come in to watch the demolitions, and to watch what's happening in the city: we need to keep them embraced in the rebuild and whatever happens next," Lonsdale says.

Wherever it goes, the city's leaders believe the Re:Start spirit should be a vital part of the new city centre.

Parker says the success of the container mall, and its diverse array of boutique shops, has provided officials with a template for the new central city.

"It's about a much richer, more eclectic mix of opportunities and surprises, and what Re:Start has shown us is that it works."

Townsend agrees and believes the mall's ability to thrive in limited space has provided a welcome antidote to the belief that big-box developments must be replicated in the CBD.

Contemplating the future of central Christchurch, Lonsdale points out the scale of the devastation has provided an opportunity to start from scratch.

"It's now a blank canvas - it can be anything we want."

As city officials attempt to turn their central city sketches into reality, they would do well to draw inspiration from Re:Start's colourful palette.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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