by Andy Foster
“We have not inherited this earth from our parents to do with it what we will. We have borrowed it from our children and we must be careful to use it in their interests as well as our own.”*
Since the 1960s there has been an increasing realisation of the finiteness of our planet and the need to better protect it, its species and its resources. That of course is a constant tension with the natural human tendency to resemble the words of the great Queen song ‘I want it all and I want it now’.
The legacy we leave our children includes not only natural heritage and resources, but built heritage. The debate being had in Christchurch over the restoration of some of their – and our – most iconic buildings will be mirrored to some degree here in Wellington, though we will debate buildings that are still standing while those of our southern neighbour are in ruins.
This week the Environment Court upheld a decision by Council appointed independent (and I stress independent) commissioners not to allow the demolition of the Category 1 Harcourts building. Predictably some have welcomed the decision, others have panned it as an imposition on an owner.
It is pretty clear most of the commentators haven’t read the decision. The Court concluded that all the heritage experts, including the owner’s representative agreed on the ‘great heritage significance’ of the building, noting its heritage values have been formally recognised since 1980. The current owner clearly acquired the building knowing both its heritage values and the planning rules that applied. When the same owner built the adjacent HSBC, the Court noted that the consent for the tower required the Harcourts building to be significantly refurbished. The HSBC building liftshaft also intruded significantly into the rear of the Harcourts building space, undoubtedly contributing positively to the value achieved from the HSBC Tower, but negatively to the stand alone value of the Harcourts building.
There were a range of dollar figures in the Court decision for the value of the building and site pre and post any strengthening. The clear implication is that the as it is value is minimal. The Court decision included an assessment of a ‘blunt nil.’ The owner has been quoted as offering the site to Council or Historic Places Trust for a nominal dollar. The Court was also critical that options other than complete demolition had not been adequately explored by the owner. It said ‘While possible reuse as an office/retail building, and other adaptive reuses have been considered, we cannot be satisfied that they have been explored other than with the handicap imposed by a rigidly set bottom line figure being demanded for the land and building as they are.’
What about public safety? I’ve heard people say that earthquake prone buildings should be demolished. Whoa! We have at last count 611 earthquake prone buildings. Just 134 of them are heritage listed. Do we knock them all down ????
The Wellington City Council is light years ahead of any other Council in doing earthquake prone assessments, and indeed in preparation across the board. As a city we still have a way to go but public and private sector are doing a great deal of work to strengthen infrastructure and buildings. Owners are given 10-20 years to strengthen buildings depending on the level of and nature of public use of the building. We are not advocating or requiring wholesale demolitions – let alone immediate ones ! Do what these commentators advocate and we’d be looking like Christchurch without even having had an earthquake.
Fact is many owners are proactively getting on with the job. Sometimes it is a small job, sometimes very large. Heritage examples about to start, in progress or recently completed include the Hope Gibbons, Huddart Parker, Whitcoulls buildings and the Carillon, Embassy, Town Hall (now committed), Thistle Hall, City Gallery, and Stewart Dawson’s corner (recently announced). Some commentators it seems have decried this work as economically backward. They imply we should get on with replacing these ‘dungers’ with modern structures. I completely disagree.
Can we save the Harcourts Building, strengthen it and have it as a viable, safe and vital part of Lambton Quay? The answer is clearly yes. Council has done it before, doing a rates supported deal to strengthen and beautifully refurbish the old BNZ buildings. That from recollection was another ‘$1 building’. Rates support has gone into waterfront buildings and many Council owned buildings. The logic of these commentators is that all these buildings should have faced the wrecking ball. Wellington would have been a poorer, blander, city if that had been the case. The question with the Harcourts building will be whether the parties can collectively find a way of making something work that is reasonable in cost terms.
Wellington lost many buildings during the 1970s and 1980s, again driven in part by then earthquake strengthening requirements. We gained many ‘architectural gems’ as replacements courtesy of Chase Corporation. Step forward a few years. As a city we have a proud record of not yet having lost a single listed heritage building since the current District Plan was promulgated in 1994.
Of the 134 earthquake prone heritage buildings in the city probably only a small number won’t stack up for owners, even ignoring sunk costs and in some cases aspirations for a return. I suspect that we will lose some heritage buildings through this current focus on earthquake resilience. We will need to work closely with property owners and Historic Places Trust and prioritise so we focus on and retain the most important. HPT recognises the need to prioritise too.
Government also has a crucial role. Council, HPT and property owners have all advocated allowing earthquake strengthening to be expensed rather than depreciated. It makes sense. Look at the cost to the taxpayer of Christchurch – picking up the mess after the event in a city which didn’t strengthen its building stock. The cost of strengthening in advance is a very very small fraction of that.
My analysis of earthquake prone heritage buildings indicates that the number of buildings where more than the standard relatively minor Council support is required looks likely to be in single figures. I think that working through this issue will be an critically important challenge for the incoming City Council. The question will be ‘what city will we leave to our children ?’
Andy Foster is a Wellington City Councillor
* (Moses Cass – Australian Minister for the Environment 1974)