The fixtures and fittings shook violently
as tourists, locals and store workers clamored out of the 100-year-old Regent Theatre building into the bright afternoon sun of Cathedral Square in downtown Christchurch on February 22, 2011. The patrons and employees of Simply New Zealand, a gift store housed in the historic building, only lost handbags and potential purchases the day the 6.3-magnitude earthquake hit. Others around the square lost their lives.
“I’ve never felt anything like it before,” said Wendy Andrews, the manager of Simply New Zealand, who was working in their Regent Theatre store the day of the earthquake. “You couldn’t stand up. Everybody fell. Everyone knew to run out of the building, which wasn’t actually always a good idea because things were falling off buildings. There was a lot of blood, destruction and death around us. It was nothing I want to ever experience again.”
As shop owners around the city centre saw the remnants of their properties come down slowly over the next several months after the earthquake, many wondered what the fate of the downtown area would be, with 80 percent of the buildings demolished.
The Regent Theatre was deemed beyond repair, and the day everyone rushed out to find safety from the shaking was the last time Andrews would enter it.
Six years later, Andrews flits around in the heat of a March afternoon in downtown Christchurch, weaving around stalls of handcrafted goods and food trucks to deliver paperwork between two bright-green shipping containers decorated with the Simply New Zealand logo on the side.
The Re:START mall, an open-air shopping center made from old shipping containers, is a unique project originally meant to give former downtown retailers a temporary place to trade while drawing people back into the center of the city after the tragedy.
Andrews said she heard about the idea for Re:START five months post-earthquake and although many of the shop owners who were invited to be a part of the mall were worried about the quality of a store housed in a container, she was reluctantly excited.
“It was a real unknown,” Andrews said. “A lot of people were not confident that it would work and we were concerned as well. But we gave it a go...and we were just blown away. Then, we were nervous whether people would come, and wow, people have been flocking to these containers.”
After a long process of insurance claims, John Suckling watched as construction workers tore down the shoe store he had owned and managed since 1979. The century-old brick building in downtown Christchurch where his father opened the family business in 1934 had crumbled from
As retailers fled to the suburbs, whispers of whether a city centre could even be sustained hung around the flattened streets. Determined to prove them wrong, Suckling and an informal group of property owners approached Christchurch Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee with the idea for Re:START.
By April 2011, Suckling became the face of the trustee board for the temporary project, whose vision was to show business could survive downtown again.
The city gave its encouragement to Suckling and the other trustees. However, no funds were promised for the estimated $3.4 million (U.S. $2.4 million) project. After working with contractors and architects to draw up designs for Re:START, they were granted an interest-free loan from the Christchurch Earthquake Appeal Trust and 64 shipping containers were ordered from China.
Suckling described the time from the delivery of the containers to their grand opening, just 61 days later, as hectic but humbling.
“I turn 75 in three weeks and I’ve never been involved in a project where there was so much unity and determination to make the thing work,” he said.
He has a huge admiration for everyone involved, especially the courageous tenants who signed up on basic plans and a somewhat blind hope for success.
“The commitment people made is astounding, completely astounding, and I get emotional about it,” he said. “[Re:START] was in some ways the highlight of my working career.”
An estimated 30,000 people attended the weekend of Re:START grand opening on October 29, 2011, according to Christchurch’s newspaper The Press.
“A lot of people were in tears...because a lot of them said they would never come back in the center of the city because they saw so much TV coverage or they were working in here and saw the carnage,” he said. “But a whole lot [of people] came back in simply to support us and what we’d done. It was very gratifying.”
Although crowds of tourists and locals still steadily stroll through the mall carrying shopping bags and souvenirs, the screeching of power tools echoes through the air and signals imminent change.
Story by Cara Walker
Restoring the city's downtown retail area by repurposing vibrant shipping containers
Photos by Mary-Margaret Schmidt + Elayne Smith
-Ollie van der Pol
Change is inevitable here."
With new buildings going up every day around Re:START, the mall’s manager, Ollie van der Pol, says shop owners have already begun to move into permanent locations around the city and the mall will be closing its containers in April 2017.
“Change isinevitable here,” van der Pol explained, citing that Re:START has been transported twice within the city since opening to make room for new construction.
A recent project management graduate who found work difficult to come by after the earthquake, van der Pol was grateful to join the Re:START team last January.
“People want to be a part of Re:START so it really sells itself,” she said.
At this point in the project, her job is to keep the shops and area vibrant despite the aging of the containers. Although she was not a part of Re:START at the beginning, she is excited to see it through to the end alongside the ones who have seen how it evolved.
“Those that came on at the beginning were real risk-takers—to sign up to a lease when the ground’s still shaking,” she said.
Around the corner from van der Pol’s Re:START office on Hereford Street is the brand new Bank of New Zealand (BNZ) Center, which houses a Simply New Zealand store close to the site of the original location.
Andrews said the three-month-old store isn’t busy yet, but she is excited that most of the retailers at Re:START have found permanent homes to go to once the mall closes.
She and her employees are ready to stretch out in their new store and start fresh, but she credits Re:START with showing people that the Christchurch community can pull together and be resilient.
“This has run its course and it’s been an amazing time,” she reflected. “A lot of people were afraid to come back in the city because we lost so many lives here with the old buildings, but once they removed the old buildings and put the containers down, people got confidence to come back and that’s huge.”
Suckling agrees that it is time for them to move forward.
“We’ve certainly met the goal to prove that retail can survive in the city,” he said. “Now you see new buildings going up.”
He is aware that many visitors are sad to hear that it is closing, but he knows the emotion connected to Re:START is more about the people who made it happen.
“We never envisioned it being as big or successful, but of course we are absolutely delighted that it was,” he said. “And that was only because of the vision and commitment of so many people. It was just absolutely fantastic.”
We've certainly met the goal to prove that retail survive in the city."