Ross Giblin / Stuff
The reopening of the St James Theater has been delayed due to unexpected construction issues and delays in shipments of construction materials. (File photo)
The reopening of Wellington’s St James Theater has been postponed until next year, forcing organizers of the New Zealand Arts Festival to look elsewhere for the 2022 event.
The annual festival was scheduled to coincide with the reopening of the downtown site, closed since 2018 after being declared earthquake prone.
But Wellington City Council property chief Peter Brennan said Thing Wednesday the upgrade was no longer on track to be completed in December.
It was now due to end by the end of January at the earliest, and most likely later, leaving little room for the festival, which is due to start on February 25.
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“We asked the project team to review the work program… and they think they could potentially reach a completion date in late January,” Brennan said.
But that better schedule was “riddled with risks,” including other unexpected construction challenges, potential Covid-19 blockages and further shipping delays, he said.
“Due to this significant risk, the board has informed WellingtonNZ, as the operator of the site, that we cannot provide them with assurance that we can meet an opening date for the festival.”
Brennan said the $ 34 million project has faced a variety of challenges in recent months, including unforeseen structural issues inside the Category 1 heritage building and delays in shipments of building materials.
Construction to strengthen the St James Theater began in April 2019 and was originally scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021.
Those delays had been caused by disruptions from Covid-19, backlogs at New Zealand ports and the closure of the Suez Canal for six days in March when a container ship ran aground and blocked the waterway.
Most of the building materials, which were mostly heating and ventilation equipment, had been ordered from Europe, Brennan said.
Contractors had to complete the installation of these services before they could begin work on the theater upgrade.
New Zealand Festival of the Arts executive director Meg Williams said she would meet next week with City Council and Venues Wellington, a branch of economic development agency WellingtonNZ, to discuss alternatives to the St James.
The three-week festival is held at over 30 venues in the Wellington area, but many of next year’s biggest events were planned for the St James.
“We’ll have to reframe our planned program using other available venues and figure out how to continue to deliver a fantastic event with the venues we have,” said Williams.
“It’s a huge disappointment because we were truly honored to be a part of reopening the space.”
The closure of the St James Theater, as well as the Town Hall, which is set to reopen in 2023, had been “really difficult” for Wellington, she said.
The St James Theater was built in 1912 and was privately owned until the City Council bought it in 1993.
Brennan said structural issues encountered during the upgrade included badly damaged unreinforced masonry that needed repair and weathertight joints that were in poor condition.
Workers also had to remove the concrete between the theater and an adjacent building to create “seismic spaces,” Brennan said.
The upgrading project will bring the theater to at least 67% of the New Construction Standard (NBS).
Wellington Mayor Andy Foster said it was disappointing that the theater was not open in time for the festival.
“But we will always look forward to reuniting with a great old lady from Courtenay Place and the city, who will come back and function, full of people and full of great activities.”