Andrew Coleman: Capturing a city's story through its heritage buildings

Ihaka House at Hato Paora College was built in 1912 by Ernest Short for use as a farmhouse and sold to the Catholic ...

Ihaka House at Hato Paora College was built in 1912 by Ernest Short for use as a farmhouse and sold to the Catholic Church in 1947 to form the college.

OPINION: It is wonderful to know that tomorrow's heritage is being created today. It's even more wonderful to acknowledge the efforts made by owners, and the support they are given, to retain heritage places that capture the story of who we are and where we have come from.

A key advantage of retaining and using a city's heritage is its point of difference as a unique, stand-out feature set against bland blocks of buildings that are reminiscent of everywhere and nowhere. This was a key message from Donovan Rypkema, a United States-based expert in the economics of preserving heritage, who visited New Zealand with Heritage New Zealand assistance a few years ago.

In Wellington, for example, the Beehive is a tourist attraction and a real feature of the central city streetscape. Heritage NZ's National Office, Antrim House on Boulcott St, is another heritage place that regularly draws admiring visitors pleased to see fine early architecture amid a sea of surrounding concrete.

Crucially, many heritage places that dot this city and all around New Zealand continue to be used. They are functional, modernised to meet 21st century requirements, and retain their original beauty. They continue to tell and be our collective story.

READ MORE: Can Wellington save its heritage buildings before it's too late?

Today the spotlight is firmly focused on earthquake resilience of all our buildings, early or modern, and rightly so. With that, public safety is imperative in any discussion and decision on what is kept. Just as organisations like Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga need to be pragmatic about what can be kept, so too should owners accept the changed environment highlighted by the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011, and more recently those jolting the building fabric of Wellington and surrounding regions.

The Government, with the recent passing of the Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Act 2016, and local authorities have prioritised as a matter of urgency the need for owners of non-residential buildings deemed earthquake prone to ensure their properties are made safe. Instead of seeing a potential bureaucratic road block, owners should be encouraged to see it as an opportunity to find a winning solution for them and the wider community. It is a simplistic premise, but one that should be at the forefront of thinking.

Finding a compromise requires proactive and constructive discussion, exploring all options of retention and/or sympathetic adaptation instead of an easier, default response of demolition.

There are many examples in Wellington where this positive outlook has not only kept the heritage building as a viable, working part of the city, but added another layer to its rich history.

Examples include the former Public Trust Building and Defence Force Building on Lambton Quay and Stout St, respectively, which are code compliant, tenanted and wonderful assets to the owner. Further down Lambton Quay the owner of the former Harcourts building, which Heritage NZ advocated successfully for its retention in the Environment Court, has recently announced this distinctive property will be a high-quality hotel. This is a fantastic outcome.

As Wellington-based international property owner and developer Sir Robert Jones said in his evidence to the Environment Court, well preserved and located heritage commercial buildings command a premium everywhere, having a prestige and pride of ownership factor.

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One recent example where that couldn't be achieved, unfortunately, was Ihaka House, the public face of Hato Paora College in Feilding. There will always be lost opportunities and lost heritage as a result when owners opt to head in a new direction, but sometimes the bigger picture can be overlooked.

As any owner will tell you, retaining heritage buildings, and any building for that matter, requires considerable dollars, but it also requires sense. There is a sense of acknowledging responsibility of ownership of a heritage property, its wider public value, and the historical and social context it brings to the city. Where there is high public value the owner needs to have financial incentives. That makes sense.

The Government's $12 million contestable, discretionary fund scheme Heritage EQUIP (Heritage Earthquake Upgrade Incentive Programme) is designed to assist owners required to meet the set timeframes to strengthen their buildings under the Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Act.

Heritage NZ Pouhere Taonga believes it is a positive and important step in ensuring public safety and will help retain special heritage places and boost regional economies. The beauty of heritage is that it continues to be created each day.

Because a building is old doesn't make it a heritage building. Heritage buildings are the places the community values which have important stories to tell. Being able to see and touch these physical markers of our past and present gives our future a sense of continuity and, Heritage NZ believes, pride of place.

Andrew Coleman is chief executive of Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga.

 - The Dominion Post


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