How long before some wise guy decides that Woolston should be renamed faux-Pawa?
Long synonymous with industry at its dirtiest, the Christchurch suburb of Woolston is in the tricky business of reinventing itself as a middle-class destination.
The faux-Pawa label, an adaptation of the neighbouring, more traditionally desirable suburb of Opawa, would fit for two reasons: not only does it suggests new aspirations but, to the sceptics, it implies pretensions.
When businessman Alasdair Cassels announced plans last month to redevelop some of Woolston’s Victorian tannery buildings as an upmarket shopping and dining destination called the Tannery, there were indeed sceptics.
Much of the scepticism seemed to come from Christchurch’s north-west, where the kneejerk response has long been disbelief that there is any civilisation east of Merivale. Two typical responses, posted on the Stuff website last month: “High-end shopping in Woolston? Come on, get real”; and “Do they hope having high-end fashion/retail will change the demographics of the area? I doubt whether the Merivale/Fendalton shoppers would go to Woolston? No attraction there for me.”
But at Stuff, at least, the naysayers seemed to be in the minority and Cassels is convinced that if he renovates it, they will come. And they don’t need to come all the way from Fendalton and Merivale, either.
“If you draw a 10-minute circle around here, it takes in Cashmere, St Martins, Scarborough, Sumner, all the hill suburbs,” Cassels says. “Quite a bit of the wealthy parts of Christchurch. And it’s just off the ring road.”
shopping mall insideA typical Tuesday morning finds Cassels upstairs at Cassels & Sons Brewery, housed in a 1970s building between Garlands Rd and the historic red-brick buildings he is in the process of transforming.
There is a laptop open on the table and architectural plans. With his long gray hair and moustache, he has the look of a retired member of the Eagles. He suggests we move somewhere cooler: the wood-fired brewing kettle is going underneath us and the room is warm and smelling of malt.
So we head outside with coffee. Trucks roar past on Garlands Rd. Factories and smokestacks loom. To the south, the outline of the Port Hills.
“I bought this site about 20 years ago,” Cassels explains. “It was a site I’d always been drawn to because you go in off the road and you’re in this little enclave of old buildings with a view of the hills. It had some hidden character that I liked. It was full of low-paying tenants but quite good businesses. The buildings are just so charming.
“The real estate agent took me around the block and I was almost signing the cheque in the car. No- one else wanted to buy it.” No one else saw the potential, in other words.
The 7000 square metre site is bordered by Garlands Rd and Cumnor Tce, which faces the Heathcote River. The proposed shopping centre will occupy 5500 square metres, housed in a long series of historic tannery buildings that date back to the 1880s.
A few years after he bought the site, Cassels began delving into its history. He unearthed a drawing of the complex, an aerial view from 1901, when the Woolston Tanneries was a thriving business. He estimates that about 80 per cent of the buildings are still there. He wanted to make sure they stay there forever. His plan was “to have the Christchurch City Council assist me in changing the zoning, so we could have higher- paying tenants, more rent and more money to spend on maintenance”. But when he saw the council, he got “the go-slow, no traction”, he says.
“I was trying to get them to do something with the river, make the river a better place. The bottom of the river is full of sludge; they could clean it up but they don’t want to.” He wanted the council to put the old swing bridge back over the Heathcote, and rebuild the old wharf. He proposed that he fix up the buildings and the council restore Cumnor Tce, but he says that the council was not interested. “I think Woolston was considered in their minds to be a dump. The river was treated like an industrial drain.”
The Woolston Tanneries stopped operating in the 1950s. When Cassels bought the site it was occupied by “light manufacturing, people that made things out of wood, light steel products, food processing”. Some of these kinds of businesses remain. Cassels knows the history. As far back as the 1830s, surveyors recognised that the Heathcote was a route into the hinterland. Woolston became a dock area. Primary industry took hold. Goods went back and forth by scow over the Sumner Bar. When the Lyttelton Railway Tunnel went through in 1867, Woolston was well-placed again. There were about six and seven tanneries along the Heathcote, turning animal skins into leather. As it was closest to the railway line, Woolston Tanneries became “the biggest and best,” Cassels says.
It’s easy to imagine the stench of six and seven tanneries in their prime, with byproducts going into the convenient river. Of course, the smells associated with industrial production have not entirely left Woolston. Depending on where you’re standing when the wind is blowing, you might get a blast of fish, or sulphur, or something harder to place.
“We don’t get a fish smell here,” Cassels says. “But we’re on the front line with the gelatine.” The gelatine smell drifts over from the Gelita plant across Garlands Rd. Locally, the smell has been legendary.
As one of the three air monitoring stations set up in Christchurch by Environment Canterbury (ECan) is directly across the river from Cassels, ECan is well aware of the problem too. As ECan monitoring officer Chris Elsmore explains, there is the odour from gelatine production and there have also been breaches from sulphuric acid production – that would account for the sulphur smell.
“It’s at a difficult stage at the moment,” Elsmore says.
“Gelita certainly comprehend the problem and are taking significant steps.”
But Gelita is working at a different speed to Cassels and others in Woolston, Elsmore says.
But if Cassels aims to have his Tannery complex open in six months, which is his ambition, will the smell have been minimised by then?
“Most likely,” Elsmore says. “We’re pushing them all the time.”
That said, Woolston has long been an industrial area and is where such businesses have traditionally been. Besides Gelita, there is Independent Fisheries, a tannery and, until recently, rubber curing.
“If it was smelling, it was in that area,” Elsmore says. “Alasdair’s right in that things needed to improve.”
In a sign of the times, the malodorous food production smells will soon be displaced by the more pleasant aroma of the coffee roaster Cassels will have on site. But, actually, Elsmore sometimes hears from people living downwind of coffee roasting, complaining about the burnt toast smell.
From his perspective, Cassels has noticed progress. “In the past few months, it has begun to smell less,” he says. “I think that’s a really good achievement. The worst effects of industrialisation are mitigated by businesses like us being here. We stop them misbehaving.”
At the same time, if you want to have a gritty, industrial edge, surely some of industry’s side- effects are part of the deal? “I don’t think a bit of a smell matters,” Cassels agrees. “A German customer comes here and says he quite likes the smell.”
The timing of the Tannery development is good, too. Just as the opening of the restaurant and bar at the Cassels & Sons brewery last June filled a hole in the post- quake city’s nightlife, so might the Tannery meet the needs of those missing boutique shopping in High St, the Arts Centre or Lyttelton – people for whom the malls, Merivale or even Re:Start won’t cut it. “People like the story,” Cassels says. “There’s a pretty good story behind the brewery and why it’s there.”
It goes like this. Originally, the brewery was in one of the old brick buildings. Cassels was ready to demolish the 1970s buildings facing Garlands Rd, with an idea that the original factory gardens, as seen on the 1901 drawing, might be restored.
Next minute, it was February 22: “Our brewery fell over and smashed to bits. We got that going again but all our outlets were on the eastern side of town so we lost all our business. We had to have an outlet for our beer. Within a pretty short of space of time, we turned that building into a bar.”
It took about 100 days from quake to opening. Again, there were council-imposed impediments. In terms of gentrification of industrial or port areas, Cassels cites waterfront developments in London and Sydney. Others have talked about Ponsonby in Auckland and Petone in Wellington. Before the earthquakes, former manufacturing areas on the edge of the central city, especially around Lichfield St, were gentrified – sometimes in ways that could seem twee.
Since the quakes, it seems inevitable that slightly down-at- heel working-class suburbs like Addington, Sydenham and Woolston would be transformed by businesses looking for affordable retail space. Of course, the danger is that gentrification can tip too far, and the area can lose the grittiness that appealed in the first place. Some years ago, Metro magazine asked whether Ponsonby had “lost its mojo” (the answer then was probably “not sure”; now it’s likely to be “yes”).
What happens if Woolston becomes too gentrified? “I wouldn’t like it, that’s not my game,” Cassels says. “I love it like it is. We’ve got a lot of local support, and I wouldn’t want to lose that, but I guess it’s inevitable that house prices in the area will go up.” By the time of the launch in mid-March, 16 tenants had committed to the 100-metre-long Victorian-style arcade that would run through the centre of the tannery buildings, making it more than 50 per cent tenanted. Others are being negotiated and must stay secret.
But Cassels can talk about a restaurant called Gastronomy that will be run in association with Richard Till, an Art Nouveau pub, a bakery, various homeware and fashion businesses, a wedding photographer, a tattooist, an architect and gallery and project space. Some familiar fashion names are yet to be announced.
Mitchelli’s Deli & Cafe, formerly in Poplar Lane, is in talks. There may be a bookstore. Al Park, formerly of AL’s Bar, will run The Park, a performance venue capable of holding about 400 people.
“Al says it’s a lot more usable than his old bar,” Cassels says. “The stage is bigger and it’s in the middle of the room. He’s saying we’re going to be quite successful at getting international acts there.”
It could be a rock venue by night and – another sign of the times – a Pilates studio by day. Canterbury University’s Free Theatre is said to be interested in another space on-site, as is film company Ruffell Productions.
With rents at $300 per square metre per year, that would be less than High St and probably 30 to 40 per cent less than what owners should ask for a new building, he says. And to all intents and purposes, it will be a new building.
“We’re spending a lot of money.” How much? The figure has been quoted as $7 million, but “it’ll probably be more than that”. “We want the interest that High St had,” he says. “High St started to lose the interest factor because they cranked the rents up and people couldn’t afford it. We need to get those people in here and keep them here.”
Critical mass is the issue. Of course, the reinvention of Woolston is not something that Cassels is doing single-handedly. In 2008, Richard Till ran a pop-up restaurant in Woolston called the Foundry, bringing in diners who might never have had reason to deviate from Ferry Rd before.
In the same year, the Holy Smoke Smokehouse opened in a historic industrial/commercial building redesigned by architect David Brocherie. By contrast, the main drag to Sumner through Ferrymead is now “characterless”, Cassel says. It’s all tilt-slab and car parks, “good for buying something from the supermarket or Mitre 10”. But not exactly boutique shopping.
He is sure that this is Woolston’s moment. The east is even becoming the beer capital of Christchurch, with Three Boys across the road from Cassels, Harrington’s brewing nearby and Twisted Hop set to open a new bar on Ferry Rd in August. “I think town will never get going again,” Cassel says.
“They pull the cathedral down, that’s it – the city’s gone. I never went to church but I consider it to be my heritage.
“Even if town happens again, when is it going to be? Five years? Ten years?”
On the way out, Cassels offers a quick tour: where the arcade will start and end, what goes where, the wine bar, the pearl importer, the English pub.
“It will just take you out of reality. It will be escapism.” For a moment or two, his ambitious and escapist plans were putting this reporter in mind of another Christchurch figure: property developer David Henderson.
“Yeah but David Henderson didn’t have any money,” Cassels says. “I own this site without a mortgage and I’ve got enough money in the bank to do everything I’ve told you and have money left over. And I’m not doing it to develop and sell it. I’m doing it to keep it, so my children can have it.
“That’s the difference between me and David Henderson. And it’s not out there in fairyland, what I’m telling you.”