Slow progress on abandoned buildings at the heart of Christchurch
Delays for multimillion-dollar anchor projects and insurance stalemates mean a dozen quake-damaged buildings are still standing near Christchurch's Cathedral Square. CECILE MEIER investigates what's happening behind the derelict facades.
On a grey winter's day in Cathedral Square, a tourist asks: "Why is Christchurch like that?"
Struggling to find the words to describe what he means, he gestures towards the broken cathedral - the vast empty site earmarked for the Convention Centre and points to the tagged tops of the former Rydges and Millennium hotels.
Does he not know a series of earthquakes have destroyed the city's CBD? Or perhaps he was expecting to see more progress five years after the September 2010 quake.
He wouldn't be the only one.
CATHEDRAL SQUARE 'TOO RAW'
While construction in the nearby retail precinct is in full swing, abandoned buildings with broken windows tower above the crumbled Christ Church cathedral.
The overseas-owners of the former Rydges hotel on Oxford Tce and the Millennium on Cathedral Sq remain silent on the buildings' fate, but word is they are stuck in insurance stalemates.
Developer Ernest Duval, founder of the post-quake property owner's group City Owners Rebuild Entity (Core), says delayed anchor projects, combined with the impasse in the four-year row over the future of the cathedral don't help.
This part of the CBD is "just too raw", he says.
The Anglican Church announced this month it had agreed to let the Government use an independent consultant to help solve the disagreement between the church, which wants to partially demolish the cathedral, and those pushing to have it fully restored.
The aim is to have an agreement reached by Christmas.
Meanwhile, the heritage-listed Old Post Office, another key part of Cathedral Square's revival, has been embroiled in insurance disputes for years.
Owner Gordon Chamberlain has not answered questions, but work to strip the building's interior appears to have started this week.
Work on the $500 million convention centre, a vast site bordering the square, should have started last December but the site remains bare. The Government has pushed its completion date to the end of 2018 with little explanation.
Art organisations have been waiting for the Government to pull together a deal for the performing arts precinct.
Plans and timelines for the project, on a block bounded by Gloucester, Armagh, New Regent and Colombo streets, have changed several times since 2012, causing frustration.
Duval says the projects affect each other and the mess surrounding the square is putting developers off.
"When we can move with the cathedral and the convention centre and the performing arts precinct, we will see development happen there."
NO 'CLEAR ANSWERS FROM ANYONE'
Still, some are forging ahead with their plans.
Isaac House - also known as the former National Bank - is on Convention Centre land on Colombo St, but Cera said it would not acquire it.
Its owners plan to strengthen and repair the three-storey heritage-listed brick house.
Next door, Christchurch's tallest office tower is being repaired and transformed into a replacement for the old Crowne Plaza hotel, to open at the end of 2016.
Local investors and developers MC Christchurch Holdings bought Forsyth Barr house in 2014 for $8m.
Spokesman Shane Le Compte says the tower - level four to 17 - is almost fully repaired and new stairs will go into the building next week.
The lower podium, on the south side of the building, which used to be a car park, will be demolished and replaced with a concrete steel structure housing the hotel's kitchen and back offices.
From the outside, the tower will not change much, he says.
Le Compte says he'd like to see construction begin on the convention centre site.
"The delays are certainly an issue but we're moving ahead."
The owners have been in discussions with Cera and the council about the site, but "we don't get clear answers from anyone".
The lack of progress on the anchor project will affect the hotel, but "there's still a lack of accommodation" in the area, he says.
The tower's fate was initially uncertain as it was on land earmarked for the performing arts precinct but the designation was lifted early this year, meaning the owners can go ahead with restoration plans.
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Other property owners in the area, however, appear be waiting for clarity around what the precinct will look like.
Duval says the owners of the row of abandoned properties and empty sites lining up Armagh St behind New Regent St have put plans on hold.
"No one really knows how much land the Government wants to acquire," he says.
A Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) spokeswoman says the Government engages regularly with Armagh St property owners.
The Crown has acquired all but three properties required for the performing arts precinct.
"We have confirmed that all remaining land in the Precinct will be required and are in negotiations for the purchase of the remaining sites."
STUCK IN LIMBO
The Square's problems seem to be tarnishing nearby streets.
Worcester St has two abandoned buildings stuck in limbo and one getting repaired thanks to a heritage grant, but no tenant has been found for it yet.
The owners of the former Design and Arts College say they are still in discussion with insurers over the building's fate.
The historic Holy Trinity Church at the corner of Worcester and Manchester streets is the subject of a $1m council heritage grant.
Council says work is under way to restore the stone and slate exterior of the church and to convert the interior into a theatre.
The Shands building, which has been relocated on the adjacent site, will be linked to the southern side of the Trinity stone building as part of the theatre's design.
Still on Worcester, but on the other side of the Cathedral, a block of buildings shows no sign of progress.
Tailorspace, a company run by Christchurch businessman Ben Gough, bought the block including the former Holy Grail site on Worcester St, the heritage-listed Public Trust Office and the building at 79 Hereford St in 2014 with a "master plan" in mind to develop the area.
"Unfortunately, the whole project is now on hold," the company says, because it found the Public Trust Office, which was central to the plan, was uneconomic to repair.
The company applied twice to Cera last year for a section 38 notice that would allow the demolition of the Oxford Tce building. Both requests were rejected.
The company maintains the building is "unsafe and any heritage value has been severely undermined and compromised because of the extent of the damage of the whole building including the façade".
It is considering its legal options.
CAUTIOUS PROGRESS ON GLOUCESTER AND HIGH STREETS
Gloucester St is looking better with its rows of new buildings towards the river, the restored Isaac Theatre Royal and New Regent St.
But the owners of empty sites in the streets are delaying decisions and timelines, waiting for more certainty from the Government on projects in the area.
Denis Harwood owns an empty site at the corner of Gloucester and Manchester.
He says he is leaving plans for it "in the bottom drawer", waiting for more clarity on the planned east frame residential development and the widening of Manchester St.
"The Government has all those grandiose idea that are unlikely to succeed," he says.
Canterbury Property Investments this week announced a new $12m hotel would be built on the old Press site, opposite the Isaac Theatre, but will not start building until next year because of the delayed construction of the Convention Centre.
The company has hotel plans for the adjacent site as well, but says it "won't go ahead until things with the Convention Centre and the [Christ Church] Cathedral get sorted".
On the other side of the street, right next to the brand new Unimed building, the former R.G. Bell & Co Antiques building remains stuck in negotiations with insurers.
Unimed chief executive Dermot Martin says the company bought the property a few months ago and is still unsure whether the building will be repaired or demolished.
He says the building is "ugly" and "collapsing", with new graffiti appearing on its facade weekly.
The further you go from the square, the more progress you are likely to find.
Stranges Lane in High St is in "full swing" says its developer Shaun Stockman, of KPI Rothschild.
The Work and Income building next door has been strengthened and its owners are looking for office and retail tenants, he says.
The owners of the adjacent building are in the process of getting a consent to repair and reoccupy the building.
What is happening with these buildings?
Click each card to view details.
Owner: MC Christchurch Holdings Ltd.
Owner: Crystal Imports Ltd.
Owner: Jegual Investments Ltd
Owner: Tailorspace Ltd
Owner: Emmons Development New Zealand Ltd
Owner: several investors.
Owner: Union Medical Benefits Society Ltd.
Owner: Windlass Holdings Ltd.
Owner: Christchurch Heritage Ltd.