Fresh test of heritage building protection

QUAKE PRONE: The Harcourts Building on Lambton Quay.
QUAKE PRONE: The Harcourts Building on Lambton Quay.

The Property Council has renewed its call to allow the demolition of quake-prone heritage buildings.

The call comes ahead of next week's Environment Court rehearing of an application to allow the demolition of the Harcourts Building in Lambton Quay.

The case - which has already been through Wellington City Council's resort consent process, the Environment Court and the High Court - is seen as a major test of the legal protection given heritage buildings.

The hearing, set to start on Monday, follows the release of data from the council showing that 137 of the city's 684 quake- prone pre-1976 buildings are heritage listed.

Property Council Wellington president Andrew Hay said the council's allocation of $400,000 to the Built Heritage Incentive Fund to help owners was insufficient for the type of upgrade owners faced.

He cited as an example a heritage-listed CBD building - believed to be the Medical Association building in The Terrace - valued at $4.95 million that was estimated to cost $6.1m to upgrade.

"The owners of this building cannot afford this as it results in a loan-to-value ratio of 83 per cent which the banks will not finance," Hay said.

"Due to its heritage status, the building cannot be demolished either. This is a common example for heritage buildings in Wellington. These sorts of entrenched views and rules will inevitably result in abandonment of the building or demolition by neglect.

"With owners unable to afford strengthening and being prohibited from demolition, the city's rating base, public safety and amenities will suffer substantially if buildings are abandoned.

"It is simple. We are looking to promote a balanced consideration of heritage, economic and public safety factors.

"If upgrades are going to be law, people have to be able to afford them - otherwise owners, including owners of heritage buildings, should be allowed to demolish and rebuild," Hay said.

Heritage New Zealand central region general manager Ann Neill said she supported the call for the council to treat seismic strengthening of heritage buildings with practicality and consideration of owners' financial constraints.

"We know that the public place a high value on heritage and there's support and assistance available to owners, but we accept that it may not always be possible to retain heritage buildings."

"When a building is deemed earthquake-prone, two options exist to achieve the required level of public safety, strengthening or demolition.

"If the building is a protected heritage building it is essential that the option of strengthening is given full consideration by councils through the resource consent process."

Neill said councils had to be satisfied, after seeking advice from engineers experienced in strengthening and retrofitting of heritage buildings, that costs would be prohibitive.

"The fact that a notice to strengthen or demolish may create a situation where the building is no longer capable of any reasonable use may be a justification for demolition; the fact that demolition could create a windfall gain for the owner is not."

Research conducted for Heritage New Zealand showed growing public support for built heritage - since 2012 support had grown from 49 to 57 per cent.

"Heritage buildings can be seismically strengthened using a variety of methods to suit the owner's financial position and the ongoing purpose of the building," she said.

"Owners have demonstrated this success already in Wellington with work to the Huddart Parker, the former Whitcoulls, and Morgan's Building on Cuba Street."

Neill said Heritage New Zealand and the council had specialist advisers to work with owners to find solutions to strengthen and retain as much heritage fabric and character of a building as practicable.

"We recognise owners may face issues in securing funding for necessary work, and that's where incentives will make a difference, such as the five-year rates relief package and increased heritage incentive fund offered by the Wellington City Council.

"We are working with the Wellington Property Council and city council to identify other tools that can help owners."

"Safe and commercially viable heritage buildings will enhance Wellington's reputation as a vibrant, cultural city to live and work in."

The Dominion Post