Christchurch’s heritage buildings are a must keep. By Rebecca MacFie. Listener- 1.11.2011

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Christchurch’s heritage buildings are a must keep

By Rebecca MacfieRebecca Macfie | Published on November 1, 2011 | Issue 3730
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The premature demolition of heritage buildings will harm the city’s recovery.

Martin Hunter

Joe and Nicky Arts’s 96-year-old High St building is tantalisingly close to the high fence that marks the edge of Christchurch’s central city “red zone”. If fate had placed their property a few metres to the south or east, it would be outside the cordon and they might have had it fixed by now and been back at work in their printing and card-making company.

Instead, the brother-and-sister team have endured eight months of frustration, during which one corner of their earthquake-strengthened building – one of a row of 16 – was ripped open by the failure of an adjoining, unreinforced building in the June 13 quake. Access to the locked-down red zone has been in fits and starts, with endless frustration caused by what Nicky calls “truckloads of red tape” and constantly changing rules. On one occasion they were granted access for work on their property and were all set to go, only to be told at the last minute that their project manager, Hawkins Construction, was not accredited by the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera).

Only in the past fortnight have they been able to proceed with installing the steelwork that’s needed to protect their building from further damage.

Meanwhile, their printing press – housed in a fully reinforced “bunker” at the rear of the building – sits idle, and they have been forced to keep their business ticking over by putting work through other printers’ machines.

Despite the immense obstacles, the Artses’ building will survive both the earthquakes and the ravages of the red zone bureaucracy, and there are hopes the brick row to which it belongs – the Duncan’s Buildings – will remain standing as a rare reminder of Christchurch’s heritage.

In the near distance, the long yellow arm of a digger punctures a cloud of dust as yet another building is razed. Throughout the city, an army of demolition crews and machines is mulching through hundreds of commercial and public buildings. Some 1200 are expected to be demolished, of which 900 are within the cordoned CBD red zone – roughly half the buildings in the commercial and cultural heart of the city. Well over 600 have already been taken down.

Many of those on the demolition list are buildings that few would shed a tear over, but among those lost so far are 140 heritage buildings listed under the Christchurch City Plan, and 72 registered with the Historic Places Trust.

Of 40 highly significant buildings listed as “must keep” by local heritage group Iconic following the February earthquake, half have been bowled and grave fears are held for others, including the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament (built in 1901) and the Canterbury Provincial Government buildings (1858-65). The future of badly damaged ChristChurch Cathedral (1864) hangs in the balance; as the Listener went to press, no decision had yet been made by the Anglican Church Property Trust – the legal owner – on whether it will be demolished or repaired.

An untold number of non-registered character buildings have also been cleared. Most have come down without a peep of public protest – in part because their demo­lition has occurred behind the cordon, where the public cannot see; and in part because of a mute acceptance that the clear-felling of “old dungers” is necessary to speed the rebuilding of the city.

That is until Kit Miyamoto came to town and gave voice to the outrage of heritage advocates. An engineer whose firm, Miyamoto International, specialises in disaster recovery, he was one of a prestigious line-up of international experts invited to speak in the city in August. But instead of delivering the usual platitudes about the plucky resilience of Cantabrians and the brave leadership of the recovery effort, he dropped a bombshell.

Christchurch, he said, was headed entirely down the wrong track with its strategy of demolishing half the central city. Buildings that could be economically repaired and strengthened were being destroyed, and priceless heritage was being wiped out.

Instead of creating a blank canvas upon which the city would quickly recreate itself, the demolition crews would leave behind a bleak landscape of empty lots that could take up to 50 years to be rebuilt.

“In a modern society like this, the taking-down ratio should not exceed 10% or 20% maximum,” he said. What he was seeing in Christchurch was simply “unbelievable”.

Martin Hunter

Miyamoto International engineer Michael King, a Californian now based in the city, claims many of the buildings being torn down could be fixed for 20-30% of the cost of a new building – and in a “fraction” of the time. It’s far better, he argues, to rehabilitate existing buildings than to continue with an “absolutely frightening” rate of demolition – only to find that when the cordon comes down next April the city has been reduced to a dust bowl where tenants won’t want to go and where developers won’t want to invest.

King says cost-effective engineering solutions exist for damaged heritage buildings – cracked masonry walls can be taken down, strengthened and replaced; foundations can be retro-fitted; steel rods can be added for ductility. He cites the case of one building he saw recently, with loose parapets, a lintel where the bricks have bowed out and a cracked wall, which has been slated for demolition. Yet it could be fixed in a matter of weeks, he argues.

But if it is as easy as King says to save these buildings, why isn’t it happening?

The answer seems to lie in a complex combination of insurance, Cera’s sweeping powers, tighter building requirements and the demographic make-up of Christchurch commercial building owners.

In California or Japan, where a building might have only 15% earthquake insurance cover, owners will stand in front of the bulldozers to protect their property, observes one local engineer with extensive experience in retrofitting historic buildings. In contrast, New Zealand property owners have had access to cheap and abundant insurance that – combined with slack regulation of earthquake-prone buildings – has encouraged them to do nothing to strengthen their buildings.

For Christchurch owners faced with the option of repairing damaged buildings or getting an insurance payout, there’s a powerful incentive to go for the cash.

“We have owners desperate for us to say the building has less than 33% of new code strength, and is therefore classed as a ‘dangerous building’. Then they go along to Cera and have an exchange of letters. The owners hand over the letter from the engineer saying it’s under 33%, and Cera hands them a letter saying, ‘Tell us how you’re going to knock it down within 10 days,’” says the source, who asked not to be named because of his involvement with a raft of clients with damaged buildings.

Conversely, an owner with an old building that is not assessed as dangerous is effectively disadvantaged – commercial building insurance policies generally don’t pay for repairs up to 100% of code, and there is a perception that tenants won’t want to return to old buildings. At the same time, building code requirements have been substantially increased, adding significantly to the cost of repair.

In addition, in the hostile post-quake insurance environment, the cost of cover on pre-1935 buildings – if it can be obtained at all – has risen exponentially. Christchurch property developers Dean Marshall and Shaun Stockman owned 20 heritage buildings in the High St area, of which 16 have been demolished. One that remains standing was strengthened to 100% of code in 2007 and has come through the earthquakes virtually unscathed – yet the cost of insuring it has gone from $6000 a year to $60,000, with an excess of $400,000.

Stockman says the extra cost can’t be passed on to tenants, so the cashflow generated by the building will fall by $54,000, which is equivalent to a $700,000 loss in capital value.

Even for buildings of great historical significance, there is little standing in the way of demolition. The 1881 Guthrey Building in Cashel St – category I on the Historic Places Trust register – was demolished despite intense efforts by heritage architects and engineers to save the facade, and the promise of $500,000 from the Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Building Fund. But owner Peter Guthrey says the project would have cost $1.3 million, with no guarantee of further funding or that the finished building could be insured. In the end he felt the public funds were better directed at the prestigious Arts Centre (estimated to have suffered $240 million in damage).

Martin Hunter

Similarly, the 1903 Horse Bazaar in Lichfield St – registered by the Historic Places Trust as a category II building – is coming down, despite the investment of $250,000 of public money in its restoration. Owner Simon Henry says insurance is 40% less than the cost of repair, so it doesn’t make economic sense to save it.

But engineer Barry Knowles, who has earthquake-strengthened many old Christchurch buildings, believes poor-­quality estimates of repair costs are being drawn up by engineers with little experience on heritage buildings. He agrees with King that many could be saved for substantially less than the price of a new building.

“A lot of [owners] want a new building, so they get very high prices for repairs … And there is a lack of expertise on pricing this sort of work.” He has seen estimates that are five to six times higher than what he would consider a realistic cost.
In a similar vein, one engineer told the Listener the 1905 Regent Building in Cathedral Square – registered as category I by the Historic Places Trust – could have been saved for a “minor investment”. Instead, it has been demolished.

Knowles believes insurers are paying out on the basis of inflated repair estimates because they want to get old buildings off their books. Insurance Council chief executive Chris Ryan says insurers have little choice but to pay if presented with findings from Cera and engineers that a building is unsafe, and owners who want cash settlements.

Another driver behind the pace of demolitions is that many of Christchurch’s commercial building owners are elderly, passive investors, whose properties were often poorly tenanted before the earthquake and who don’t have the skills or the stomach for complex restoration projects. An insurance payout gives them a way out.

Knowles disputes the suggestion Cera has been forcing unwilling owners to demolish. Although the agency recently ordered the demolition of the heritage Highpara Apartments against the owners’ wishes, Knowles says generally Cera has allowed owners with “realistic” repair plans and sufficient financial backing to go ahead.

Nevertheless, the traditional guardians of heritage buildings – the Historic Places Trust and city council heritage staff – have been rendered toothless. Although personnel from both agencies provide advice to Cera on heritage buildings – and in 50% of cases the Historic Places Trust has recommended repair rather than demolition – they have no say over the final decision. Further, Cera has made the demolition of heritage buildings a permitted activity under the Christchurch City Plan, which means the normal opportunity to make submissions via the resource-consenting process has been lost.

The forces aligned against the restoration of heritage buildings are such that the $4 million Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Building Fund – set up after the September quake – has so far been able to make only five grants, worth a total of $1.6 million.

Martin Hunter

Fund chairwoman Anna Crighton says few applications are being received because the roadblocks in the way of heritage retention are so overwhelming for owners. “It’s just a nightmare to try and save heritage in Christchurch.”

But although the cost of saving old buildings might be considerable, the cost of continuing to bulldoze them into the landfill may be just as great. Bill Johnson, a former Alabama politician who ran that state’s recovery effort after Hurricane ­Katrina and is now based in Christchurch as head of disaster recovery company Ceres Environmental, fears the demolitions are increasing the risk of capital flight. As buildings come down and owners are cashed out by their insurers, the financial ties that connect them to the city are cut.

Instead of giving owners an “exit ticket” out of town, he says, Cera should be encouraging them to come together in precincts to find out who plans to stay and who wants out, identifying the obstacles to getting their street reopened, and working collaboratively on repairs and redevelopment.

“Cera is looking at streets in terms of demolition, not in terms of ‘what do we need to do to open this street?’”

In the area around High St, property owners are working with Johnson and Miyamoto’s King in the hope that by collaborating they can rescue the Victorian and Edwardian buildings that are still standing, and retain the facades of the historically significant 1881 Excelsior Hotel and 1910 McKenzie & Willis building.

Delicate negotiations are under way in a bid to convince Cera to remove the barricades around the precinct, so that property owners can get to work preserving what’s left of this small corner of the city’s heritage – and so that business owners like Joe and Nicky Arts can get back to work.

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Blast those barricades. By Rebecca MacFie, Listener. 2.4.2011

This article was written in April by Rebecca MacFie, it is a very good summary of our feelings in April, unfortunately for many of us we are still facing the same issues.

Business owners whose buildings are barred to them by Civil Defence are neither reckless nor troublemakers. They just want to get back to work.

Gerald Westenra went along to last Friday’s Christchurch earthquake memorial service, listened to his daughter Hayley lift the spirits of his city with her pure rendition of Amazing Grace, and had a quiet word in the ear of Prime Minister John Key about the difficulties businesses in town were having getting access to essential records and tools locked up behind the CBD cordon.

Three days later the central city jeweller was among those who breached the “red zone” defences, as frustration boiled over into civil disobedience. Shut out of their livelihoods for a month by all-powerful Civil Defence authorities and with no idea of when they might be able to get going again, entrepreneurs turned into shouting activists. The police berated them for endangering lives – and it’s true that a couple of firebrands hightailed it up Hereford St, pursued by cops on bikes – but the suggestion of reckless risk-taking was just plain silly. The demonstrators strode past the bored soldiers who man the big cordon fences, and most of them simply wandered about 200m down the Avon River side of Oxford Tce – far from any crumbling masonry – before being threatened with arrest and herded back out of the cordon by a small phalanx of police who appeared from the Hereford St headquarters.

Westenra had no intention of doing anything dangerous, nor does he relish being seen as a troublemaker, but he wanted to make the point that he’s a grown-up capable of mature risk-assessment. And the way he and many others see it, he faces greater risk of serious injury to his livelihood by being indefinitely barred from his Cashel St premises than he does from the risk of physical injury if he makes an informed 15-minute dash inside to retrieve essential equipment and records. All he wants is the chance to carry on his business selling and valuing jewellery from the new location he has secured.

“We’re not asking to risk people’s lives. We just want a realistic plan,” he says. The building he is not allowed near, he adds, kept him safe on ­February 22.

They’ve been cast as an impatient rabble, but those who line up with Westenra include accountants who have resorted to subterfuge to smuggle servers out of central city premises, property developers who live in fear their buildings will be torn down without their knowledge, and self-made businesspeople who see the fruits of their labour shrivelling with every day they are barred from gathering up the pieces of their enterprises and getting started elsewhere. Restaurant and cafe owners know that inside their idle fridges and freezers is putrefying food; and the smell of rotting garbage around the streets of the CBD suggests the widely circulating rumour of a rat infestation may not be without foundation.

David Collins, who owns three properties in inner-city High St, spends his life interpreting the labyrinthine Resource Management Act as a council hearings commissioner on complex developments. He granted consent for the magnificent glass-fronted Art Gallery that has been commandeered as Civil Defence headquarters; he couldn’t go to the business owners’ protest on Monday because he was busy running a hearing on rezoning land at Wigram that will be essential for the rebuilding of Christchurch.

But he and his tenants – including a chic restaurant and high-end fashion shops – are beside themselves with worry and frustration. It makes no sense to him that sundry visiting dignitaries and assorted journalists are given guided tours of the badly damaged inner city, while the property owners and businesspeople who are the economic lifeblood of the place haven’t been allowed so much as a glimpse of their assets.

Civil Defence boss John Hamilton says it’s very dangerous in the CBD. “So how come William Windsor was able to wander about without a hard hat the other day?” asks Collins.

It’s not easy to criticise the agencies that did such a marvellous job in the early days of the crisis, but four weeks on Collins depicts Civil Defence as “the barbarians at the gate” of the CBD. More­over, he thinks the agency is going beyond its powers, acting as “town planner for Christchurch, deciding which buildings should go and how we will do it”.

Collins says he has been told by one official that his buildings – from which his tenants and their customers escaped unscathed – faced no imminent danger of demolition; and he’s been told by another that they are among a row of buildings likely to be demolished. He’s been told by one person his buildings are red-stickered from the February earthquake; and he’s been told by someone else that they are red-stickered only because of proximity to another building that failed in the Boxing Day quake (and which has since been pulled down).

“We just don’t know what they are doing. I’d at least like to get in there and spray-paint the phone number on the building so they have no excuse not to contact me. I’m not asking to go back in and occupy the buildings – I just want to grab laptops and a few files. My tenants just want their files and they want to secure sensitive documents. It would take five minutes. Maybe if we had a bit longer we’d get some furniture so that we could operate from home.”

Pick up the phone and talk to any number of small central-city businesses, and the complaint is the same. No time frame, poor communication, inconsistent information. And, for many, no cash flow.

Joe and Nicky Arts, a brother-and-sister team behind Arts the Printers in High St, have spent $250,000 strengthening their building to 100% of the building code on the ground floor and were in the process of completing similar strengthening of the top floor when the earthquake hit. The building is standing solid. But they haven’t been able to retrieve the paperwork they need to invoice their customers, secure their collection of rare type or collect printing plates and other materials that would allow them to keep going – let alone get in and finish the engineering work on the building that would ensure it survived if the damaged neighbouring building was demolished.

Cash flow for their 50-year-old business – set up by their parents after they emigrated from the Netherlands after the war – is “munted”, says Nicky Arts. They have laid off one of their three part-timers and will probably have to let a second one go soon.

All because, they allege, of a “nanny state” response from the authorities. “We can’t make a decision about our own safety,” says Joe Arts, who, as a prominent member of the climbing community, is accustomed to assessing safety risks in the mountains.

And although Earthquake Minister Gerry Brownlee declared a wish after February 22 to get rid of “old dunger” buildings that had endangered or taken lives, the most intractable problems in the CBD seem to surround modern high-rises that have failed.

Andrew and Adele Wheeley’s homewares shop, Whare, in Lichfield St, bears a green sticker, indicating the building is probably sound. But they are blocked from entering because it is in the shadow of the Grand Chancellor Hotel, which is on a precarious lean. No one knows how long it will be before the 27-storey hotel is demolished.

The Wheeleys have retrieved stock from their second shop in the suburb of Beckenham (which is red-stickered only because the poorly maintained neighbouring building fell against theirs) and hope to start selling online and perhaps through a “pop-up” shop. But their insurance company, State, won’t pay out on Lichfield St until they have a declaration of “irretrievability” from some unknown authority.

Even the mighty Ballantynes department store is paralysed because of the Grand Chancellor. Executive director Richard Ballantyne says the shop is as it was left on February 22. Staff and management haven’t been able to get in to tidy up, nor have they been able to get the building inspected by engineers. He says business people are naturally getting frustrated, “but when you have been through the city, as some of us have, and see that the devastation is so huge, you can understand why officials are being cautious”. Patience is called for, he says; it’s estimated the store could be closed for six to nine months.

On the other side of the CBD, the multi-storey Copthorne Hotel on Durham St is also leaning and unstable, and casts its own pall over that part of the city. The nearby Convention Centre and Town Hall – operated by Christchurch City Council company V-Base – are closed and have suffered damage, but engineers have not been allowed in to do an assessment because of the tight cordon around the Copthorne.

And, on the subject of “old dungers”, nightclub owner Bruce Williamson squarely accuses the Christchurch City Council of negligence in its attitude towards buildings that were damaged in the September earthquake. His building – home to the popular Ministry nightclub, which he calls “a 20-year work of passion” – has been damaged because the unstrengthened building next door fell onto it on February 22. This wouldn’t have happened, he says, if the council hadn’t allowed the weakened building to remain standing – and be reoccupied – after September. He argues the council’s management post-September 4 needs to be part of the commission of inquiry into the earthquake.

He has been developing plans to demolish damaged parts of his building and do modifications on other parts, in order to get his business back on its feet.

On Monday morning, however, he was told the place was tagged for demolition; that afternoon, he vented his rage at the protest outside Civil Defence headquarters and was among those who stormed the cordon. Since then, he says, he has been getting emails and phone calls from the authorities that had previously ignored him, and “it seems the assessment on my building has changed”.

Not everyone is sympathetic to the protesting entrepreneurs, and not all the news is bad for small businesses. Stu Waddel, whose Chill Studio is also in the shadow of the Grand Chancellor, is unimpressed with the quality of communication from the Canterbury Business Recovery service, but thinks this week’s protest was disrespectful of those who have done so much to help the city through its trauma.

Peter Townsend, boss of the Canterbury Employers Chamber of Commerce, muttered on Tuesday as he ushered the protesters into a closed meeting with Civil Defence, that their actions were “a diversion of resources”. “We’ll get it sorted,” he snapped.

Out on the western side of town, big firms such as Tait Electronics are helping out displaced businesses (including the University of Canterbury’s engineering school and CTV, whose building catastrophically collapsed) by offering space at its big manufacturing campus.

Other businesses like photographers and technology firms have snuggled up together in shared premises, or are working in pods from private homes. And by the end of this week Civil Defence estimated it would have overseen “controlled access” to 500 businesses with green- or yellow-stickered buildings.

Meantime, City Centre Business Association manager Paul Lonsdale is working on a plan that’s reminiscent of Napier’s Tin Town – the temporary CBD that stood for several years while the city was rebuilt after the 1931 earthquake. Lonsdale thinks mobile structures such as portacoms, which could be moved around as rebuilding progresses, could be artfully used to create a funky retail destination. “We want to spark people’s imagination, and as long as people feel safe they will support it.”

The Government’s financial assistance for business, including $145 million in wage subsidies and the newly announced $2.5 million fund to assist “strong but earthquake-affected businesses” will help some, as will the $1.7 million for “earthquake recovery co-ordinators”.

Nevertheless, says Townsend, there will be hundreds of businesses that don’t make it, and the Retailers Association estimates one in 10 shops in town will shut down.

And some of those that fail will undoubtedly go down arguing that, if only they had been allowed to assess their own risks and granted timely access to their property, they would have survived.  Rebecca Macfie