Next door to us is a piece of land that used to be empty. When our city was founded, it was set aside for educational purposes: to build a boarding hostel for Otago Girls' High School, to be precise. The hostel never got built but two other schools, Kaikorai Primary and Columba College used the land anyway. During the day it was occupied continually by children and in the evenings people would walk on it or play touch rugby on it or fly model aeroplanes or golf balls over it. It was one of those many open spaces which are dotted around our city and which give it much of its character. No-one ever imagined it would pass from public ownership, but in the 1980s we New Zealanders elected one of those governments with tunnel vision. This one's particular tunnel reduced everything - schools, hospitals, utility supplies, postal services, you name it , to the status of a business. And seeing as Otago Girls High School was suddenly, by dint of bureaucratic fiat, a business, this little piece of land could not possibly be thought of as a community asset, but rather as excess stock in trade to be sold off for as big a profit as possible. And so, five years ago, it was. To Ryman Healthcare, a company in the business of building and running facilities for the elderly.
The site is not very big, and the purchase price was high, even by the standards of the then inflated property market. To allow the ledger to be written in black ink, there had to be as many beds on the site as possible, and, accordingly, Rymans unveiled their proposal for a huge new facility which, in one of those ingenious pieces of corporatese they called a "boutique retirement village". It was hideously ugly. It covered almost all of the site with a three storied building which would have cast shadows over the adjacent play centre and our church and neighbouring houses. It was in breach of the city plan, and the neighbourhood was outraged. We mounted a protest which went through two hearings at considerable cost to us and to Rymans, and the neighbourhood won.
Rymans fenced off the land; the children stopped playing and the weeds started growing and a community playground became an eyesore. They unveiled a new plan. It contained even more beds than the first but disguised the fact by digging an enormous hole into which the building would be sunk to lower the apparent roofline and reduce shading. Never mind the fact that the proposed gardens surrounding the building would now be sited in a sun free zone at the bottom of an enormous ditch. I wrote to Rymans telling them that not a kilometre away there was another piece of land, bigger than the one next door, and without issues of shading and traffic and noise. Rymans never replied. They did however, visit the play centre and talk about helping with improvements to the children's porch area. A pleasant young man from Rymans paid me a visit and asked if I would be protesting this time and why. Another hearing was held with guys in expensive suits flying down from Auckland for the day to comment on the aesthetics of our neighbourhood and tell us how the new plan would greatly improve them. The councillors were mightily impressed. The community lost.
Two days ago the pile drivers moved in. For the next year or so there will be the sound of big diesel engines where there used to be children. Then, where we used to see trees we will have walls and windows and shadows on our vegetable garden. You can't stop progress is the mantra we chant to smooth the way for things that make our cities less beautiful and our living spaces less human. Progress to what, for goodness sake? Progress to what?