Reinforcement project awaits new owner

WELLINGTON'S FINEST: The Old Public Trust Building, currently empty and at risk once more.
WELLINGTON'S FINEST: The Old Public Trust Building, currently empty and at risk once more.

A number of property investors, developers and architects are reported to be taking a keen interest in the Old Public Trust Building in central Wellington.

The building, which was put up for sale after it sustained quake damage earlier this year, has a category 1 heritage listing.

This means that whoever buys it will have to strengthen the building as demolition is effectively not an option.

The ornate stone and brick Edwardian baroque style building on the corner of Lambton Quay and Stout St is believed to be New Zealand's first steel framed office building.

The Old Public Trust Body Corporate - in which shareholdings are owned by Creative New Zealand, Stout St Chambers, Julian Parsons and Reedy Holdings - decided to sell the building in September. The decision was taken two months after the magnitude 6.6 earthquake in July caused plasterwork to crack.

This prompted the evacuation of most of the building's occupants. Further minor damage was caused in a second quake on August 16.

Creative NZ acting chief executive Angus Evison, who chairs the body corporate, said that after considering the options, they had decided to sell.

"The Old Public Trust Body Corporate feels the restoration and earthquake strengthening is a project it is not best suited to undertake.

"It's a fantastic building in a great location, and we hope somebody else can take it on and do the right thing with it," Evison said.

Carl Hastings, of Paul Hastings Real Estate, said there had been lots of inquiries and the "usual players were in the market because it was such an iconic spot".

These are understood to include Willis Bond, Maurice Clark and Ian Cassels, who have been active in strengthening and redeveloping some of Wellington's old heritage and quake-prone properties. Market sources say Robt Jones Holdings is also interested as it owns neighbouring buildings on Lambton Quay.

Hastings said it was difficult to guess what the building might sell for, given that a buyer would likely have to consider its commercial value and then deduct the cost of strengthening it.

The property's latest rating value is $6,970,000.

However, there have been big variations in cost estimates for upgrading it. A report prepared by Dunning Thornton put the cost of strengthening and upgrading at $9.4m, although that included the cost of alternative accommodation while the work was being done.

Another report prepared by Miyamoto Impact - which suggested alternative, less expensive engineering design methods and excluded upgrade and other costs - assessed the strengthening could be done for $3.7m.

Hastings said a new owner had the option of spending more on upgrading the building. This of course would improve the offering for tenants and make it a more valuable property.

The 3670-square-metre building has three ground-floor retail tenancies, four floors of office space and 16 basement car parks.

HERITAGE BUILDING STANDS FOR PUBLIC FAITH IN COLONIAL TIMES

Wellington's Old Public Trust Building is the city's finest and it has to be saved, says a leading heritage advocate.

"If any of Wellington's old buildings has to be kept, this is the one," says former Architecture Centre president Guy Marriage.

It ranks alongside Old St Paul's Cathedral which was saved from the wreckers in 1966 after a groundswell of public opinion.

In an article on the Architecture Centre website, Marriage said the July earthquakes stirred Wellington but the city came through relatively unscathed.

"It is therefore with huge concern to the architectural and heritage community that there are questions being raised about the structural integrity of the Public Trust building.

"This office building . . . is one of the very few grade 1 listed buildings in the capital."

The Edwardian baroque style building, which was completed in 1909, was "possibly the most architecturally elaborate facade in the capital, if not the entire country, and is without doubt in my mind, government architect John Campbell's finest work outside of his design for Parliament House".

"It is literally our nation's crowning glory.

"As the holder of wills for the populace, it really does represent the public's trust in the government to govern reasonably, fairly and prosperously; the New Zealand Government was the first in the world to start a Public Trust Office in 1872. This architecture is politics and legal documentation turned to stone."

Marriage said Campbell's design became the semi-official style for police stations, courthouses and post offices throughout the country.

It is also New Zealand's first steel frame building.

In 1904, the government paid the then outrageous sum of [PndStlg]1400 to San Francisco's Reid Brothers architectural practice to provide expertise on the design and construction of the riveted steel frame.

This steel is undoubtedly the key to the building's long- lived success.

However, the building has had its problems. In 1926, a girder crashed down in the legal branch, apparently the result of damage caused in a 1923 earthquake.

Nobody was killed, as it happened on a weekend, but staff were instructed not to sit under the girders until the building was strengthened in 1927.

After the severe 1942 earthquake, the building was checked again. It suffered only minor plaster cracks which were attributed to the deliberate and acceptable movement of the building's expansion joints.

In 1984, Riddiford Group strengthened and upgraded the offices, and spliced a large addition on to the building.

Marriage said this year's quake, the largest in the city since 1942, caused the occupants of the building to move out after plasterwork cracked.

"Never mind that these cracks could, once more, merely be a sign of a joint moving as it should; spooked residents speak volumes, and the building is empty.

"Wellington's finest building is at risk once more."

The Dominion Post