We should do more to guard our heritage

18:40, Oct 14 2012
HIGH RISE: Owners of older buildings in Lambton Quay face expensive insurance premiums as a result of earthquake risk.
HISTORY GONE: Imagine if Lambton Quay had retained its fine character buildings?

Last week I enjoyed a particularly warm welcome in icy Dunedin. I was speaking to locals after a performance of a play in which I was involved, that was set in Wellington in the 1940s. "I say to people at home," I said - Otago pinot noir in one hand; oyster cocktail in the other - "that if you want to know what Wellington was like in 1948, just visit Dunedin today." The ensuing chilly silence was because the locals thought I was referring to Dunedin's much- maligned nightlife.

Quick apologies were made and I explained that I was talking about architecture. Thanks to the Christchurch earthquake, Dunedin and Oamaru, with their fine stone churches, are now the major architectural heritage areas remaining in the South Island, if not the whole country.

And what of Wellington? We didn't need a major tremor to decimate our heritage. We simply elected a succession of mayors and councillors, particularly during the 1970s and 80s, chanting the mantra of deregulation to munt our cityscape. Today, bar owners and retailers dub Lambton Quay the dead end of town, which it is in comparison to busy, boozy Courtenay Place and lively upper Cuba Street, with its boho inhabitants and alternative fashion boutiques.

But imagine if rather than being a row of badly designed mirror-glass office blocks, eyesores and wind funnels, Lambton Quay had retained its fine character buildings. At festival times you wouldn't be able to move for the theatre luvvies and WOW cougars prowling around the historic precinct. If it wasn't for our beautiful waterfront - which has seen valiant local citizens win battles but by no means the war - I suspect the Lambton Quay end of town would be terminal.

And what about pre-motorway Thorndon, with it cute workers' cottages and narrow streets? Every time I sit in a smoky traffic jam in the Terrace Tunnel, which is quite often, I loudly praise our city fathers and central government for creating such a fast and efficient non- accident-prone vehicular entrance to our fine city. Luckily it's so noisy no-one else can hear my blue language.

I can vaguely remember the civic controversies of the 1970s, when so much of our old city was destroyed. In those pre-Te Papa, pre-Sevens, Cona-coffee days, the idea of Wellington as a tourist destination was laughable. Overseas tourists usually flew from Auckland direct to Christchurch, while local visitors did the Cable Car and Parliament Buildings then home.


Yet it could be worse. In Christchurch, another beautiful heritage-listed building, Cranmer Court, had the demolition crews in last week, until the council narrowly voted to halt further destruction. The problem for the 19th-century Gothic beauty is that it is privately owned, and the residents couldn't find the cash to save it.

Like many on the Left, I'm no fan of large-scale PPPs (private-public- partnerships), as central government often has to expensively mop up after private companies have botched the job. But surely if a privately owned building has great heritage value, and its owners can't afford to maintain or renovate it, there is a role for government? If they can defer a $43 million payment to assist private radio and spend $20m on a new Christchurch rugby stadium, then surely they could throw $6m at Cranmer Court with the proviso that it get paid back over a longish period?

I suspect this issue will become a major one in Wellington as private owners struggle to bring their buildings up to earthquake standards, so will consider selling or demolition as the only alternative. A big, bold heritage fund, co-funded by council and government, which private owners could access to strengthen historic buildings, might be a good start. Perhaps we could call it the State Advances Corporation?

Then again, perhaps Gerry Brownlee is right to knock the buggers off? You may ask why we should throw good money at old buiIdings? I suggest you take a trip Napier - ironically a "heritage" city once munted in an earthquake. While you're there, ask the Art Deco weekend organisers, the heritage tour operators, the boutique hotel proprietors, not to mention the many vineyard and cafe owners, if there's any money to be made in preserving our past.

The Dominion Post