Always keen to meet someone with optimism for the Christchurch CBD, I find, in Paul Lonsdale, a tonic.  Manager of the Central City Business Association, he is also manager of the popular Restart container mall.  “It has gone exceptionally well,” Paul enthuses.

The mall on the City Mall site (former Cashel Street) opened last October with 27 business tenants.  Early on Paul Lonsdale had to get additional tenants to complement the two struggling cafes.  Then KiwiBank, ASB and Samsung turned up.  Luckily spare space was available.  A performance stage was added to a newly-developed food court to comply with ASB sponsorship.

Owing to restrictions imposed by former mall property owners, container tenants were offered short six-month leases.  Recent negotiations enabled an extension to December 31, this year.

Of 37 tenants only two did not extend leases which Paul says is exceptional.  Designing Restart was more than just landing shipping containers on site.  Colours were chosen with care.  They derived from a Mexican city where tatty buildings were tarted up with colour.  Paul says it goes a long way to disguise how bad they are.

“We knew people arriving in the mall would be shocked to realise how badly the city has been damaged.  We then wanted a WOW factor when they discovered container shopping.  We needed energy and life to get retailers going and bring people back to the central city.  A lot of people said it wouldn’t work.  We proved them wrong.”

Some retailers are thriving in their shipping containers.

Paul believes if people kept away it was because they mistakenly saw the CBD as a Red Zone (unredeemable) rather than a Cordoned Zone.  The CBD is actually a Green Zone.  It can be rebuilt on.

But it is not going to happen in a hurry.  He predicts 80% of former CBD buildings will have been demolished before rebuilding starts.  “That many businesses relocated to the suburbs have signed long-term leases, will take the pressure off the rebuild.  We hear via media they will not return to the CBD but we are hearing many are itching to get back.  In the suburbs there’s nothing for staff to do during lunch breaks.  It must be like working in a desert.”

Keeping the Restart project energised will be the on-going challenge.  At present some container premises are being relocated to enable the first rebuild in the mall.  Then, Restart 2 is in the planning.  He sees the nearby cardboard cathedral creating considerable interest.  It will be used for community events as well as the principal Anglican church.

While some hotel re-openings are a long way off, Ibis is set to restart soon.  That will give Restart mall another boost.

Paul is keen to see the heritage tram restart.  It will be good way to transport people from one of the many isolated city spots to another.  He can also see value in quake disaster tourism.  “We shouldn’t turn our nose up at anything.  I doubt there’s been another modern city centre to face such devastation in one area as Christchurch.”

In the meantime he is excited about what has been achieved in his mall Restart.  He calls it “Uber-cool”.  I take that as meaning fresh, colourful, and funky – the way it has been put together.  If any doubts pop down to the pop-up mall and see for yourself.  Chat to Colin in Johnson’s Grocery.  He will tell you he has never had so much fun working.  He was poised to celebrate a centenary of his grocery but he has been so busy I suspect it just slipped his memory……