Protesters fight for historic church

Supporters keep vigil at Ponsonby landmark

JESS LEE
Last updated 05:00 13/02/2013
St Stephens
JASON OXENHAM/ Fairfax NZ

PROTECTING HERITAGE: Protesters outside St Stephen's Presbyterian Church. (L-R) Audrey van Ryn, Geoff Houtman, Wayne MacDonald, Lyn McDonald Ness and Tigi Ness.

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Heritage advocates and Ponsonby residents plan to continue protesting outside St Stephen's Presbyterian Church this month as the congregation awaits a decision on the church's future.

Late last year Ponsonby parishioners learned the church was likely to close because of dwindling numbers and expensive earthquake-strengthening bills.

Paying to safeguard the building would cost in excess of $500,000, something the parish cannot feasibly afford with just 30 to 40 regular members. 

Protesters are concerned the building could be sold and redeveloped without consideration for its historic value.

A church spokesman said it hoped to reach a decision on St Stephen's future by the end of this month.

Herne Bay resident Wayne MacDonald said he intended to keep vigil outside the church every Tuesday and Thursday for the rest of the month to show support for the 134-year-old landmark.

''Hopefully we will generate some response... along with prayer there's action,'' he said.

MacDonald said moving the building to make way for new developments such as high-rise apartments would be a tragedy.

But an Auckland Council spokeswoman said any new owner would not be able to demolish the scheduled category-B historic building as a matter of right.

''It is protected and therefore not vulnerable to sudden, random acts of demolition.''

Demolition of category-B buildings is discretionary, not prohibited.

Auckland Mayor Len Brown said if the building was to be sold the council would work with the church in its transition to a new owner to protect heritage values.

''It's a beautiful old structure,'' Brown said.

''Whether it is developers, a charity or corporates, we would urge new owners of the buildings to utilise and preserve them.''

Brown said old churches and cathedrals around the world have been successfully adapted to other uses, such as schools.

Grey Lynn residents Tigi Ness and Lyn McDonald Ness would like to see the building preserved and put to good use if it is sold.

''It's such a beautiful church - it's just a shame that these places are getting sold off,'' she said.

CBD Residents' Advisory Group member Audrey van Ryn said many groups use the building. 

''It would be a shame for it to be relocated to make way for something else. Other churches around town have become successful in their own right. It's part of the area.''

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