Founders Theatre could be bowled and turned into a community park complete with an open air amphitheatre, walkways and spaces covered by canopies.
The vision for the site where the mothballed theatre sits, soaking up $130,000 of ratepayer money each year, was revealed in a briefing to Hamilton City Council’s elected members on Wednesday by venues, tourism and major events general manager Sean Murray.
But even though a draft concept of the park was unveiled to councillors at the briefing, council staff did not yet want to let the people of Hamilton know what it looked like, and refused to provide Stuff with a copy of the draft concept plan.
This was because, according to communications and engagement team leader Lauradanna Radesic, it was “not ready for public consumption … not in its current draft form”
It was one of three possible options Murray presented for the councillors to mull over, in anticipation of a more formal discussion and decision at a council meeting in April.
The other two paths the council could potentially take with the site was to demolish the theatre and turn the land into a simple grassy continuation of the neighbouring park land. This minimalist option would cost roughly about $800,000.
The third option was to retain the building, which is in dire need of earthquake strengthening, for use as some kind of town hall, community house, children’s museum or other use – a decision that would cost upwards of $12 million.
And, as Murray told the assembled councillors, in the four years since the theatre was suddenly and unceremoniously closed no one had come up with a firm proposal or a viable business case for the future use of the building.
The plan to develop the site into a community space was estimated to cost around $1m to $2m, depending on what kind of features the council decided to incorporate. It was probable the Dame Hilda Ross Memorial Fountain outside the building would be retained, and possible the vestiges of the old theatre, such as the Hinuera stonework inside the foyer, be used in some way to remind the people of Hamilton that the city’s main theatre was once located there.
It was this option that sparked the imaginations of the elected members, who took turns regaling their colleagues with ideas of what should happen to the site.
Councillor Margaret Forsyth had previously mooted the idea of closing the nearby section of Rostrevor St to traffic, thus joining Boyes Park and Hinemoa Park together in a seamless continuation of grassy expanse.
This was a concept greeted with enthusiasm by some of the others around the table, most notably Cr Sarah Thomson, who pointed to Albert Park in Auckland and Hamilton’s Claudelands Park as good examples of people-friendly spaces.
However making the park more accessible – as it was surrounded on all sides by busy roads – and the amount of paved over area in the early design concept presented by Murray was no particularly attractive, she said.
“I’m not inspired by all the concrete there, which can get bloody hot in summer,” she said.
Forsyth urged “a certain degree of bravery” and said the council needed to be mindful of the large number of apartments recently built nearby.
“I have a vision of a mini-Hyde Park,” she said. “This is going to be the backyard, the playground, the place where you can sit in the future.”
It was at that point Cr Angela O’Leary declared she wanted the theatre building to stay.
“We don’t have a town hall … I’m going to be really sad if we lose this, because once it’s gone, it’s gone.
“We could make it dirt cheap to hire. [A town hall] may be a thing of the past, but I like things from the past.”
It was an argument that found little favour with deputy mayor Geoff Taylor.
“It has to go to green space. We have to be realistic about this. The ship has sailed in terms of keeping the building.”
Mayor Paula Southgate said public consultation of the site’s future should be comprehensive and cover a range of options.
“We don’t want to pre-determine for the public how they feel about this.
Murray told the councillors the costs were just estimates and interpreting the figures as firm was “dangerous”.
“We are just ballparking it.”
Following the council meeting in April where the theatre site’s future would be further discussed, the council will embark on the consultation process with neighbouring businesses, residents and other affected parties before coming to a final decision on the site.