The wasteland that was once Nelson Park is a sad symbol of what can go terribly wrong when a Council makes unbalanced decisions in favour of business interests.
William Nelson would be enthralled. He was the most successful Hawke’s Bay businessman of his time. The bulk of his wealth came from pioneering the export of frozen meat. He was a generous man, whose favoured charities were education and sport, and he invariably built a business element into his patronage.
When he put up capital to establish Woodford House and Hereworth School he ensured they ran as businesses. And when in 1919 he made land in the centre of Hastings available for sport, he didn’t gift the site, but sold it at a reduced value to be re-paid over 20 years. The agreement stipulated how the Council should lease the grounds to repay the debt.
That the end of Nelson Park should come about through a business arrangement is an irony William Nelson would no doubt have appreciated, although it is likely he would have questioned intention and risk from the outset.
The business arrangement was made on behalf of the Warehouse Group. Nelson Park was disposed of to provide them with an inner city site for a new red shed.
The Warehouse approached Hastings Mayor Lawrence Yule and CEO Murray Gilbertson in 2001 seeking assistance in their expansion plans. Nelson Park was identified as the most suitable site, which triggered a flurry of policy and planning.
A Large Format Retail Zone was created. The redeveloped Nelson Park would have the Warehouse as it’s anchor tenant.
As explained to the Environment Court in a recent Plan Change appeal. ‘The role of the Nelson Park Mega Centre in the Retail Strategy is to ‘seed’ or ‘kick start’ Large Format Retail development to the northeast of the existing Central Commercial Zone.’
That Harvey Norman and Mitre 10 had already kick started the zone was not mentioned.
But the Court was told, ‘there was a real risk of the Warehouse seeking consent to establish on a greenfield site ( probably within the Plains Zone) with the potential for other Large Format retail stores to try to establish around them.’
Murray Gilbertson had been on the job for a year when the Warehouse made their approach, and the delivery of Nelson Park to commercial development became a priority of his time as CEO. When he left in 2007 Nelson Park had been sold to Australian developers Charter Hall Group, but the Warehouse were no longer involved.
Charter Hall’s latest plans for Home HQ (Nelson Park Mega Centre) is to subdivide the 10,000m2 anchor tenancy into 6 separate stores. The Hastings District Council gave consent on 25 February 2009.
With no mega store, gone is the reason for selling Nelson Park. And the decision to pander to business interests is exposed as naive and foolish.
However, in 2001 Murray Gilbertson and Lawrence Yule were obviously under pressure, and not only from The Warehouse Group.
Local businessmen Andy Lowe, and brothers David and Jonathon Brownrigg were proposing a 70,000m2 retail centre on the Expressway near Taradale.
Reports were commissioned. ‘The Hastings Retail Strategy estimated that a new greenfields shopping centre of the form that Regional Solutions sought (70,000m2 gross floor area) would result in a 48% decline in retail business for existing Hastings CBD.’
The same report estimated 15% decline in CBD business with the Nelson Park Mega Centre proposal.
Yule and Gilbertson had a persuasive argument.
It’s up to you, the Council pamphlet publicising the referendum on Nelson Park declared. ‘The issue is that if the Council does not make space for large format retailing in the CBD it could develop on greenfield sites outside the city.’
Many Hastings District residents took this to heart and voted for the sale of Nelson Park because creating a Large Format Retail Zone near the city centre was a better option than development on Plains land. Regrettable, but necessary, was a common opinion.
Home HQ Chopped
Now with developer Charter Hall Group gaining consent to dump the mega warehouse’ tenancy, by chopping it into smaller shops, the future of Home HQ could more resemble a Mall than a Mega Centre.
Charter Hall’s plans seemed clear when they applied for resource consent to build 10 shops on the old Whakatu Cool Store site on Caroline Road.
On their web site, Charter Hall describe the Caroline Road development as, ‘a bulky goods centre which will be incorporated into Home HQ Hastings. This site will provide an additional 5,000m? gross lettable area and parking for 188 cars.’
Bulky goods retailing is described by the Australian Bulky Goods Retailers Association as, ‘merchandising of goods that are bulky.’
The Association is explicit. ‘Bulky goods retail categories include furniture, whitegoods, electrical equipment, bedding and manchester, lighting, automotive parts, camping and outdoor equipment, tools, building materials and DIY and homemaker products.’
The development model appeared to have been settled. Home HQ would be 20 ‘bulky goods’ stores with a thousand car parks.
Then in June, Charter Hall announced, ‘there is potential to increase the GLA of the centre (Caroline Road) to approximately 11,000m2, and this is currently being investigated.’
However Charter Hall have now put this site on the market. The recession is hitting them hard. The future of Home HQ is uncertain.
When Charter Hall Group bought Nelson Park in September 2007 their share price was $3.00. It’s now under 50 cents, and has sunk as low as 15 cents.
Like many property companies they expanded rapidly during the boom and are now being punished for carrying too much debt. However with the sale of several Australian properties, and $A82m from a private investor for a 15% share, Charter Hall Group are expected to recover.
But these are uncertain times and developing Nelson Park has obviously run into big problems with attracting tenants. The whole concept of ‘bulk stores’ now seems a ‘supply’ idea where there was unproved ‘demand’.
Home HQ was scheduled to be completed by July 2009, and may have been, if the original intention of the Warehouse occupying 9000m2 as anchor tenant had been carried through.
Lawrence Yule gave his opinion of the current situation to Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report on 14 August.
‘I think Charter Hall have been caught in the recessionary environment. I think it’s been more difficult to do the development than they first thought. The commercial reality is that the rentals being offered now are probably not what they were two years ago, and that’s made it more difficult for them. So I think that’s the reason for the time line delay but I’m still very confident this will happen, and there will be a Large Format Retail Centre at Nelson Park at some time in the not too distant future. I’d imagine with the next year or 18 months.’
It’s too easy to blame the recession. Nelson Park was sold to provide for the Warehouse and make sure big stores stayed in the city.
As soon as negotiations with the Warehouse collapsed the intention was lost. Council washed their hands of Nelson Park by selling to Charter Hall Group.
Let’s hope Lawrence Yule’s optimism, that we’ll see development of Nelson Park within, ‘a year or 18 months’, is realistic and not just wishful thinking in light of next year’s local government elections.
Unfortunately he has no influence in the matter because Council gave away their power to determine the future of Nelson Park when they sold out to Charter Hall Group.
We cannot know what William Nelson would have made of this fiasco. Yet from his record as a businessman and philanthropist we can be sure he would have insisted on retaining some control to ensure the intention of the project was fulfilled.