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


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