by Lindsay Shelton
2013 will be remembered as the year when serious and costly commitments were made to strengthen some of the biggest buildings in the Wellington CBD.
The most complex and most expensive seismic strengthening project is being carried out at the 28-storey Majestic Centre. Only 22 years old, it continues to be occupied while the work is being done. The cost was initially announced as $35m, but it’s risen considerably. Last March the owners said they are now spending a total of $54m, to bring the building up to 100 per cent of the new building standard “in recognition of the strong tenant demand for fully strengthened buildings in the Wellington market.”
There was some surprise in 2011 when its owners announced that their landmark 1991 tower had been identified as ‘moderate risk’ using the New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering system for grading buildings according to their assessed structural performance. However the strengthening has encouraged two of its tenants to sign new long-term lease agreements. One of them is New Zealand Trade and Enterprise. The other is Opus.
Even more money is to be spent by the owners of Unisys House at 56 The Terrace. The building is in two parts – a 19-storey tower built 46 years ago, and the more visible Aurora House, built 34 years ago. But seismic strengthening is only a part of the $67m project. The owners are also refurbishing the building and creating 10 per cent more rentable space. Their reward: an 18-year lease with the Ministry of Social Development, starting when work is completed in 2016.
There was a brief debate before the city council voted in June to strengthen the 110-year-old Wellington Town Hall. Ian Cassels of the Property Council told the council not to bother, but a majority of councillors (and a majority of wellington.scoop readers) agreed that the landmark building was too important to demolish. “The Town Hall is part of our sense of place, we’re not prepared to let such an important piece of our heritage be reduced to rubble,” said Councillor Iona Pannett. The three-year project will cost $46m.
Across the harbour, however, Lower Hutt took an opposite approach. Its councillors voted to demolish not only their town hall but also its neighbour the Horticultural Hall. Mayor Wallace said, somewhat strangely, that this was a “once in a lifetime opportunity.” Heritage groups disagreed and pointed to the modernist values of the 1950s buildings.
Back in Wellington, demolition is an unresolved issue for the 1920s Harcourts Building on Lambton Quay. Its owner Mark Dunajtschik wants to demolish it. Commissioners stopped him from doing this. The Environment Court agreed with them and said the building’s great heritage significance (formally recognised for more than 30 years) made it too important to be demolished. The wealthy developer is disgruntled by these rulings. He won’t give up. He is stubbornly appealing.
Thank goodness there are many other property owners who understand the value of Wellington’s heritage. The Hope Gibbons Building and the Huddart Parker Building are two examples of how structures of a similar age can be strengthened and then filled with commercial tenants.
The 105-year-old Whitcoulls Building is another example. It reopened before Christmas after a massive and speedy strengthening job. After a century as a bookstore, it’s now selling clothing – Glasson’s women’s store downstairs, and Hallenstein’s men’s store up the tall new escalator.
Work has started to strengthen the 75-year-old art deco Central Fire Station on Oriental Parade. The area commander told the DomPost: “it’s in a very good place and the guys love it as a station because of all the history.” The job is costing only $1m. And at the other end of town, KiwiRail are taking advice about strengthening the concourse and facade of the handsome Wellington Railway Station, which was completed 66 years ago.
Demolition could never have been on the cards for the beautiful St Mary of the Angels, which closed in July for strengthening. The neo-Gothic Roman Catholic Church was completed in 1922. Like the Town Hall, it is a perfect venue for music. Like the Town Hall, it is registered as a Category One building with the NZ Historic Places Trust.
Category One is given only to places of ‘special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value’. The Harcourts Building has the same category, which shows its unique importance in Wellington’s CBD streetscape.
Wellington lost many buildings during the 1970s and 1980s, driven in part by then earthquake strengthening requirements. 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.
He is confident that the council can help find a way to retain its proud record by persuading Mr Dunatjschik to save the Harcourts Building. While it’s working on those negotiations, it will also need to turn its attention to two other unique Category One buildings – the 105-year-old Public Trust Building, and the 106-year-old St Gerard’s Monastery. Who can imagine Wellington without them?