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New Brighton struggles to recapture glory days

New Brighton_Max

These days there are diggers and piles of twisted metal where Queen Elizabeth II Park used to stand.

Weeds sprout from dirt mounds behind cold wire fences.

It is a sorry site.

Ask anyone in New Brighton or even across wider Christchurch and memories of the place are easy to come by. Families came for a swim in the pool; young athletes competed on the running track.

But after engineering reports deemed the stadium beyond repair in 2012, demolition was the only option.

The loss of QE II has badly affected the eastern side of the city, with New Brighton, in particular, feeling the impact.

More than 1 million people used to walk through QE II’s doors every year. Now, the area has lost one of its biggest draw cards.

But New Brighton was floundering before the February 2011 earthquake.

It used to be the only place in the country to permit Saturday trading, but the rest of New Zealand followed step in the 1980s. Residents now go elsewhere to spend their money. The main shopping mall feels stale and vacant.

More than 1000 residents left the suburb after the quake. They haven’t come back yet.

New Brighton’s biggest natural resource has suffered too. Even on a warm day, the beach can stretch into the horizon without any sign of humanity.

Cars bounce along potholed roads. Paint peels from crumbling facades. Properties have been allowed to run down. Houses abandoned in February 2011 remain that way.

Five buildings on Brighton Mall were demolished after the quake. The futures of several other commercial buildings remain in limbo as owners await results from engineering evaluations.

As of 2012, over a hundred fewer people were employed in New Brighton than in 2006, according to Statistics New Zealand.

More help needed to realise potential

Burwood-Pegasus Community Board deputy chairman Tim Sintes says more help is needed from the Christchurch City Council.

“How many beach towns do you see as run down as ours? It’s such a shame because the potential for New Brighton is terrific.”

In April 2012, the council approved the development of a master plan to aid the suburb in its post-quake recovery. Its aim is to create a “revitalised, vibrant centre that will attract visitors both within the city and tourists”.

It is critical of the fact the shopping centre has become “budget retail stores and second-hand goods suppliers, with very few multi-national retailers left”. The plan’s first step is a to build a large-scale aquatic centre that would give New Brighton a “wow” factor once again.

It was proposed that money from the $70 million insurance payout for QE II would be allocated to a “new Eastern Recreation and Sport Facility”. But bureaucratic red tape has put the $30m proposal on hold.

Sintes and fellow community board member David East submitted a petition with more than 20,000 signatures in support of the idea.

He says: “The Waterpark is crucial. If we got a centre, you’d get a lot of people going shopping and visiting the other facilities as a follow-on.”

“We must be more than a quaint seaside town.”

Burwood-Pegasus city councillor Glenn Livingstone believes all of the insurance payout for QE II should have been kept in the east.

“That $70m should have been used to reinvest in the eastern suburbs, not just put into the general pot.

“The Waterpark is a good idea, but we should be doing something substantial with the $30m we do have.”

New Brighton 2_Max
Sorry site: There is little sign of life at QEII Park post-quakes.
PHOTOS: Max Towle

Outgoing Christchurch East MP and mayoral contender Lianne Dalziel would like to see a return to the area’s halcyon days.

“My memory of New Brighton as a child was a thriving place we’d visit every Saturday to do our shopping.”

“Now, people visit the beach on a warm day but they don’t cross the road to come back to the shops,”Dalziel says.

However, she says pinning her hopes on one solution could be dangerous.

“The Waterpark isn’t a bad idea, but why get our hopes up for one attraction that may or may not happen?

“The loss of QE II has been terrible but there’s no silver bullet that will save New Brighton”, she says.

Greg Campbell, owner of Soulstyle Organic Hair Salon, says small businesses like his have suffered more than ever since the earthquakes.

There were nine bars in the suburb before the earthquake, now there are only two.

“People just stopped coming. I’ve had friends who have had to close down because it’s just not been financially viable for them to live and work here.

“We need to make New Brighton an exciting place for people to come to shop and hang out. Otherwise, why not just go to Eastgate mall?”

Businesses key to drawing people back to New Brighton

Burwood-Pegasus council candidate Robyn Nuthall says the answer lies in turning New Brighton into a hub for small businesses.

“There’s no doubt it could be a second centre away from the city. There’s a lot of expertise over here.”

Nuthall believes the council needs to provide more incentives for small business owners.

“We need to make it less risky for business owners to commit to investment. The revival of the Business Association has been a sign for good.”

According to the council’s master plan, New Brighton contains 11 hectares of business-zoned land.

Nuthall says it is unreasonable to expect this land to be quickly filled and would like to see the zoning restrictions changed.

New Brighton Business and Landowners Association manager Paul Zaanen is critical of the master plan.

“It just looks at the 11 hectares and doesn’t consider the needs of the suburb as a whole. We really need to rethink some of that zoning.”

But Zaanen is optimistic that a revival isn’t far away.

“It’s about embracing what’s already here. We’ve just got to encourage hospitality and events – why wouldn’t a family want to go to the beach?”

Zaanen does not want New Brighton to place too much importance on the proposed waterpark.

“It’s easy to get sold on a dream. We already live in a waterpark – what’s wrong with the ocean?” he says.

“We can’t lose our identity.”

For all of its problems, Sintes is optimistic New Brighton can generate its own tourist industry.

“I’ve lived here all my life and the potential for this place is terrific. Look at the Sandcastle Competition; look at Kite Day. We should be a destination.”

North Beach Residents Association chairman and candidate for Burwood-Pegasus Community Board Stan Tawa says New Brighton needs more unique and interesting small businesses.

“Why would we want more of the shops you get in malls? We’ve already got so many creative and innovative people in the area – encourage them to do what they do best.

“Once one thing opens, another will and another – there will be a flow-on effect.”

Affordable housing key to rebuilding strong community

Livingstone says getting people back in houses is crucial.

“The anchor projects like the Waterpark are good, but it’s about setting up affordable housing for people.

“Once that is done, then the businesses will come and people will spend money again.”

Plans to build high-density residential housing in New Brighton have been touted, but are still in the consultation stage before council.

Livingstone is frustrated with the lack of action.

“We’ve tried many times before and failed. You never know what the new council are going to say, we’ve just got to keep plugging away.”

Dalziel believes a strong community will be key.

“Getting people back into the houses is the priority so the doctors and the pharmacies can be financially viable.

“Those who are already here love it. It should be easy to lure more people to the shores.”

New Brighton has the reputation of being a suburb in decline, but looking down Brighton Mall, out past the pier and into the endless ocean, it is easy to imagine it thriving on a Saturday morning.

It is easy to imagine craft shops and crowded cafés under the palm trees that line the street.

It is easy to imagine New Brighton becoming the thriving beachside suburb it once was.

It’s just about making it happen.

_ Max Towle