Property developer walks the talk

The dream that Ian Cassels built

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 12:00 17/11/2012

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Ian Cassels' property developments have radically changed Wellington. But he's not done yet. The Wellington Company boss goes step by step through his life and the city he's desperate to see prosper.

161 Willis St - INVINCIBLE HOUSE

It can't be coincidence that the first building Ian Cassels bought was called Invincible House. The long stride, the cocky confidence, the red dragon tie, the practised politician's soundbite-a-minute. It all fits.

But at the time - 1990 - Cassels was feeling far from bulletproof, having just split with wife Adrienne, with whom he'd had two boys. The suburban house with a turret had failed to deliver promised leisurely evenings at the park, so he sought refuge in the city, renting a Willis St office for $100 a week and converting it to a makeshift one-bedroom apartment.

It was the beginning of two long love affairs - one with partner Caitlin Taylor, with whom he has had two more sons, and one with the city he bleats and bleats about bettering. A likeable straight-talker, he has a knack for making his voice heard. "Eventually someone listens, if you say it enough times and bore yourself to death."

Born in Belfast, Cassels, 59, was a sickly child beset by bronchitis. At 5, he moved to New Zealand with his family, parents Colin and Alice and three brothers; Colin ran the Wellington YMCA. From a young age Cassels understood that Nottingham's cherished streetscapes, where he spent his preschool years, cemented communities. Suburban Island Bay's "bloody desert" of clay and gorse strengthened his view. The city wasn't much better then. Courtenay Place was all abandoned streets and plates of meatballs in the bain marie at Blades Cafe.

By the time Cassels moved into Willis St, town had livened up a mite but the average Wellingtonian still couldn't conceive of living there. Cuba St after dark was "just the scungy existence of alternative characters" that comes with empty spaces devoid of life.

Cassels did what he does best: He saw a problem and conceived an answer. "The market had crashed, properties were cheap. My major disease in life is believing I can find solutions to things, ahead of other people. It was absolutely clear to me that the city needed to be lived in."

So he bought Invincible House for $950,000, in partnership with Taylor and Tom Manning, converted it to apartments, and earned the tag he hates - property developer. He began buying and developing buildings as Whats New Ltd and, in 1998, established The Wellington Company.

In the early years, Sir Robert Jones remembers Cassels turning up to property industry cocktail parties in Hawaiian shirts looking "like a screaming arsehole". But he soon ditched the slob look and is now "the most dapper man in town".

Twenty-two years, 350 apartments and 37 buildings later, Cassels is still trying to attract more urban residents, convinced a two to three-fold population increase is the answer to the capital's apparent stagnation.

That and concentrating activity in the heart of the city. Alongside architect Ian Athfield and other prominent Wellingtonians, Cassels in 2006 formed Vibrant Wellington to oppose the Harbour Quays development, worrying it would suck life out of the central city.

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Up Willis St, turn left into Ghuznee St

59 Ghuznee St - ALBEMARLE HOTEL

In May - while battling a five-fold increase in earthquake insurance premiums and a depressed property market - Cassels bought the earthquake-prone and long-vacant Albemarle Hotel for $820,000.

He expects to spend another $500,000 to bring it up to safe strength.

Madness, or another irresistible puzzle? A Victoria University maths and philosophy graduate, Cassels was addicted to games of strategy, including Japanese territory-control board game Go.

"You can tell what a person's character is, whether they're aggressive, over the top, far too timid. I think I was a bit brutal. You either play for power or territory. I constantly play for power. Territory doesn't bother me. In a property sense it's the same thing. I'm much more interested in what I'm able to do than what I currently own."

Just how powerful Cassels is is debatable. Former mayor Mark Blumsky once called him "one of Wellington's heroes". In its recent ranking of 50 influential Wellingtonians, Fishhead magazine rated him 16th. Perhaps more tellingly, they asked him to help judge.

Certainly he has the ear of powerful people, partly in his role as Property Council Wellington president. Bill English apparently tells him he's more influential than he thinks. He's just had lunch with Sir Geoffrey Palmer to discuss the city's future.

Cassels himself would no doubt argue he's nowhere near influential enough. Otherwise we'd already have an intensified city buzzing with young professionals living in rented urban apartments, filling the city's acres of empty offices, doing work for Sydney, Singapore and Hong Kong (which would be accessible via direct flights), capitalising on Wellington's efficient compact heart.

"The National Government is not listening. They are cynically hunting votes in Christchurch and Auckland and they've given up on Wellington. And that is so brainless. We've got more to offer the country than South Island irrigation. We've got more to offer than this really woolly idea that Auckland is the international city and we have to grow it.

"You've got the infrastructure, you've got a city that will absorb them, you've got space, you're cheap, you're talented. It is absolutely the right thing for New Zealand Inc to be doing. And New Zealand Inc is blissfully unaware."

Down Ghuznee St, left into Cuba St, left again into Left Bank

LEFT BANK

Cassels practises what he preaches. Kind of. During the week, he lives in a Left Bank apartment, walks to work in Manners St, and - when he has to drive - zips around in one of The Wellington Company's three electric cars (more about them later).

But on weekends he pulls on a fleece top and gumboots and plants shelter belts and feeds chooks on the couple's 45-hectare property at Te Horo, which they are - surprise, surprise - developing. You get the sense Cassels doesn't see like most people. And it's not his short-sightedness - he had his eyes laser-corrected so he could play tennis with son Alexander. What he sees is not what's there, but what could be.

In eight years, the couple have transformed the sparse wind-whipped coastal property into a gorgeous landscape of native wetland, walnut and peach trees and rows of pinot noir grapes.

But the vision is for something much greater - a Pacific bolthole for 15 or 16 wealthy European or American couples, living a few months a year in their half-sunk-in-the-dunes houses by an artificial lake, drinking Te Horo wine and eating local nectarines and avocados.

There's a floodlit tennis court and indoor pool - partly to lure Cassels' four boys. Alexander and Andrew got the easier deal of their father's "slightly larrikin" naming tendencies. His first choices - Ajax, Hector and Horatio - were presumably over-ruled by first wife Adrienne. The younger two were named Ptolemy and Euripides.

He concedes the Te Horo escape might appear hypocritical, from the poster boy for urban living. But he sees the productive countryside as the corollary of city living. "They support each other. I think it's the suburbs that don't."

Head back towards Cuba St

LOWER CUBA ST

Cassels calls it the city's living room, and a river of commerce. It's also an earthquake and heritage headache.

The latest council assessment classified 44 buildings in Cuba St as earthquake-prone, requiring strengthening, and seven as potentially earthquake-prone. Many are heritage buildings. Three are owned or part-owned by Cassels.

Despite increasingly burdensome building code requirements and soaring insurance premiums, Cassels is adamant Cuba St should remain intact as a heritage precinct. How that might happen is another question.

One idea he's exploring is collective strength - tying buildings together. But he argues developers and building owners can't shoulder the whole burden of heritage earthquake strengthening, even if they knew a building's risks when they bought it.

Heritage, he argues, is a community asset. He advocates transferable credits, so if a developer restores and strengthens one historic building, they can demolish another.

Elsewhere, though, Cassels reasons the only viable heritage solution is to keep the best and ditch the rest. Just because a building is 100 years old doesn't necessarily make it good, or good for Wellington.

Take the "atrocious" old Government Life building on Customhouse Quay - an average building on a pivotal space that should house a Wellington showpiece, Cassels says.

It's not a view shared by the Historic Places Trust, which would not comment on Cassels' heritage credentials.

His controversial ideas have landed him in trouble in his old territory of Island Bay, where he owns Erskine School, which includes the nationally significant J S Swan Gothic chapel. Cassels' plan to convert the four-storey school building into an apartment complex or retirement home was blocked and the building has been left to moulder, eventually being red-stickered as unsafe in April. Cassels argues the only remaining option is to demolish the main building and vest the chapel in a trust, but the community has launched a 1000-signature e-petition opposing its demolition.

"That's a building mountain," Cassels concedes bleakly. He's not sure how it will be resolved. But, ever the optimist, he's sure it will.

Left into Ghuznee St, left into Leeds St

14 Leeds St - HANNAHS FACTORY APARTMENTS

The apartment conversion of the old Hannahs shoe factory was one of Cassels' most significant projects. His redevelopment of much of the block created 174 apartments, 18 shops and two offices and, according to a 2004 Business and Economic Research Ltd report, helped revitalise the area by increasing its population seven-fold in a decade.

It's a development Cassels is proud of, despite nights waking in a panicked sweat. So where do you find the self- belief to buy a building?

The answer lies in the crane rail running the length of the Hannahs facade, which, Cassels explains, allows quick cleaning without scaffolding.

He should know - he spent more than 10 years post-graduation sandblasting and spray painting anything big and tricky, with his brother.

They prided themselves on working harder, faster, smarter; finishing the job at half the cost in half the time. There was the time he painted a New Plymouth storage tank in two days - 35,000 trigger pulls and half a bottle of whiskey just to dull the pain.

"I, Ian Cassels, can go to Bluff, which is the hardest place in the world to paint a tank. I can underprice the local contractor, scaffold the tank myself, finish the job in two months when everybody else is saying it's impossible to finish in six. I know I can do that because I'm a smart-arse . . . I can do anything."

There was glory in it, but nobody saw it. So he switched to property developing, where points were easier to score. Walking through the Hannahs precinct, Cassels sees the huge change he's part-authored. But it's not enough - the shops have languished for longer than he anticipated.

"I'm always right, eventually," he laughs. "Not always right bang on time."

Walk through to Dixon St, turn right

Te Aro - CROMBIE LOCKWOOD AND BLACKMORE HOUSES

Wellington has enough empty offices for about 15,000 workers. Cassels truly believes ("This is where you think I'm on drugs") that an internationally connected city trading on its compact efficiency could fill that space.

But, in the meantime, it's better to convert office buildings into apartments than to leave floors unoccupied, spreading tentacles of doom.

He's converting the Crombie Lockwood building (formerly offices) into 35 affordable apartments and a 46-room hostel. He's already done the same at Blackmore House over the road. Son Alexander manages the construction and leasing.

Affordable urban rentals, argues Cassels, are the next step in enticing young professionals, creatives and office workers to live, work and play in town.

"It's no use just making gold jewellery . . . I will never say that I make junk, because I don't. But I make things that are suitable for affordable housing and I make things that are suitable for people with much higher aspirations. Unless you operate across the whole range you can't be a meaningful participant in the city."

Cross Pigeon Park to Manners St, turn left

18 Manners St - CONSERVATION HOUSE

There's a green streak to Cassels' venerable silver sheen, starting with the award-winning Conservation House and new Telecom Central.

Sir Robert Jones once dismissed green buildings as a silly fad. "The bastard has turned out to be slightly right . . . He's a tough adversary to beat."

Cassels hasn't given up on a more sustainable future. The Wellington Company began trialling three electric cars last year. "I made a bit of a dork of myself, there's been almost no take up".

His Wellington vision includes a one-way electric city bus linking suburban interchanges at Courtenay Place and the Railway Station.

It's only stodgy process, bureaucracy and lack of courage standing in the way.

"We're not going to afford light rail, we should stop playing with the idea."

He's a man of some contradictions. There's eco dish powder in his Te Horo kitchen, but a racy Mercedes E55 AMG parked outside.

Cross Willis St, up Boulcott St

59 Boulcott St - QUANTUM APARTMENTS

For the first time, Cassels is looking for public investment, to develop the Quantum Apartments. Cash-strapped? Cassels laughs.

"Everyone says that - that's the developer thing. Kick the developer before he gets off the ground. Is he on the ground? Jump on him."

Cassels was savvy enough to sell half his properties in 2005, before the market crashed. The Quantum property is only 3 per cent of The Wellington Company's portfolio so can't be financially significant, he says. Having a pool of investors would simply open up new possibilities.

Continue up Boulcott St to the unmissable glass facade

TELECOM CENTRAL

Cassels grows a couple of feet as he shows off his latest $100 million development, "the best building in Wellington by quite a long way". He's campaigning to get it heritage-listed. A good building, he reasons, is a good building whether it's old or not.

Despite the common view that "we're stuffed", Cassels is relentlessly optimistic Wellington can drag itself out of the doldrums. All it takes is leadership, starting with a yet-to-be-identified transformational mayor. And replacements for those "giants of vision, leadership and inspiration" Paul Callaghan and Lloyd Morrison, who both died this year.

Cassels for mayor, then? We could do worse - there's no doubting his passion for his city. But, no, he's a big-picture guy - hasn't got the head for details.

Why does he care so much anyway? What's good for the city is good for him, is his mantra. But there's more to it than that. While he's "ridiculously fit" he's aware he's neither invincible nor immortal - one brother died of multiple sclerosis and his younger brother died at 50, of "sheer neglect". And there's that nagging fear he'll be branded one of those nasty parasitic property developers.

"I'd like to leave something that was good and be seen for someone who is capable. And above all I would like to be believed as someone who deals fairly and properly. Nothing worse [than] being an odious scumbag bloody cheat. Or being viewed as one."

- The Dominion Post

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