Skip to content

Major spruce-up planned for downtown Hamilton

The soon-to-be-built Waikato Regional Theatre is inspiring bold plans to dramatically reimagine downtown Hamilton.

A sod-turning ceremony for the $74 million theatre is expected to be held in late March or early April, ahead of preparation work on the Victoria Street site.

But plans to leverage off the theatre build are already well-advanced as city politicians look to shore up support for a suite of multimillion-dollar projects in and around downtown Hamilton.


Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate​ said the world-class, 1300-seat theatre complex, has energised efforts to transform Hamilton into a great river city.

The proposed Waikato Regional Theatre will be built on the corner of Victoria Street and Sapper Moore-Jones Place. The theatre will retain the facade of the old Hamilton Hotel. Image: CHRISTEL YARDLEY/STUFF

“It will be a beautiful building on its own, and we could do nothing ... but why would we,” Southgate said.

“It doesn’t make any sense not to maximise this opportunity.”

The council will open up its draft long-term plan for public consultation in March, with the document including a funding proposal for several key central city projects.

The north end of the regional theatre is framed by Embassy Park, with the council proposing to spend $5m on the creation of a plaza there and a promenade behind the theatre.

Deputy Mayor Geoff Taylor,​ who chairs the council's CBD and river plan advisory group, said the park upgrade builds on the great work of Riff Raff Public Art Trust chair Mark Servian​ and others.

Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate outside the site of the planned Waikato Regional Theatre. She says it makes sense for the city to leverage off the new theatre. Image: Mark Taylor/STUFF

Embassy Park is best known for its Riff Raff statue.

"We want to create an amazing plaza and create a sense of arrival next to the theatre," Taylor said.

"We want to build on the great work Momentum is doing around the theatre and put the cream on top of the cake."

Taylor also advocates for council funds to be invested in a proposed cycle and pedestrian bridge across the Waikato River, linking the Waikato Museum to Memorial Park.

The design created by Brian Squair of Chow:Hill Architects shows the cycle and pedestrian bridge stretching across the Waikato River, from Memorial Park to a point near Waikato Museum.

The council's draft long-term plan includes $500,000 for a bridge feasibility study, $1.5m for detailed design work and $10m for capital expenditure.

Taylor is confident the bridge project could attract a significant subsidy from Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, potentially in the range of 51 to 75 per cent, and is seeking funders to support the build.

"If we build an iconic bridge there, for me, that and the theatre in particular will just transform Victoria Street and I think Hamilton," he said.

At the museum itself, $6.6m has been budgeted in the draft LTP to open up the back of the building to the Waikato River while $3.6m has been allocated to improving the museum's front entrance. The proposed upgrade of the museum's front includes the installation of an airlock.

Hamilton City Council is proposing a $5 million upgrade of Embassy Park. Image: Mark Taylor/STUFF

Southgate said upgrading the museum's front is a priority as having an airlock and hence a controllable environment, will allow the venue to host top art exhibitions.

In 2018, the city council led by then mayor Andrew King​ bought four riverside buildings on Victoria Street, just north of the proposed regional theatre site.

The four buildings cost ratepayers $6.49m, with King using his casting vote to push the decision through.

Taylor said his advisory group is working on possible options for the site. His preference is to redevelop the properties alongside a developer.

Southgate remains disappointed with how the 2018 deal was done but doesn’t believe the council should sell the four properties.

A proposed $3.6m upgrade of the front of Waikato Museum would include the installation of an airlock.
Image: Mark Taylor /STUFF

“Right now, the council is fully focused on making ourselves a great river city so the time is right to do something.”

It’s anticipated construction of the theatre will begin in the third quarter of the year. Currently, the restaurant Paddock to Plate Waikato operates from the site. The restaurant, which is a venture by Leonard Gardner,​ will relocate once work on the theatre begins.

Gardner, a former chair of Momentum Waikato, said the restaurant’s aim is to maintain interest in the site while also showcasing local produce.

In 2018, Gardner set up the company VOTR 2 WRT Ltd, with property developer Matt Stark​ to buy buildings between the theatre site and Victoria on the River public park. In the two years since, the company has not purchased any properties near the theatre site.

Gardner said his property development activities were always fully disclosed to ensure it didn’t create any perceived conflict of interest with his past Momentum role.

Gardner, who is also chief executive of Fosters, is heartened by the council’s proposed investments in the central city but believes CBD building owners have an important role to play.

“All property owners have got a responsibility to participate in the redevelopment and upgrading of the building stock in that area,” he said.

Vanessa Williams,​ general manager of the Hamilton Central Business Association, said the regional theatre will attract businesses to the CBD, as well as apartment developments.

“I think it's fantastic that Hamilton’s CBD is getting this sort of showpiece building. It’s been said over and over again, but the theatre will be a gamer changer in that space,” she said.

Taylor said Gardner and Stark deserve credit for having a vision for the CBD even when others didn’t.

“Can you imagine what things will look like in 2023 – 2024 when we’ve got a theatre in place, a plaza, and an impressive cycle and pedestrian bridge. We’ll have Victoria on the River, the museum will be looking good, and we’ll have a wonderful promenade linking it up.”

Below Waikato Museum, work has already started on replacement of the central city jetty.

Story by Aaron Leaman - Stuff

Republished with permission.

Have a story to share?

The Waikato is full of people and businesses doing great things. Their stories help build our understanding of the strength of the Waikato and the benefits of living, studying, visiting or doing business here.