Developer frustrated at inaction over Erskine

ANDREA O'NEIL
Last updated 05:00 27/06/2014

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Fear of eternal damnation for demolishing Erskine College chapel keeps property developer Ian Cassels awake at night, but the Island Bay landmark could be gone within a year, he says.

Seventy people attended a public meeting this week on the fate of Erskine College, billed as the last chance to save the derelict former Catholic boarding school. Since buying the site in 2000, Cassels says his residential development plans have been continually stymied by Save Erskine College Trust, the final authority on its fate.

In 2012 the building was red-stickered as an earthquake risk, and might be demolished by Wellington City Council within a year unless the trust agreed to his latest plan for the site, Cassels said.

"That would be a terrible disaster," he said.

The thought of being "immortally blighted" kept him up at night.

"I would be very unhappy if I went to my grave and the chapel had come down as a result of my actions."

Cassels needed community support to sway Save Erskine College Trust towards his plan, he said. He had already spent $1.5 million on the site, and would not invest more, only to have his plans blocked at the last hurdle.

"I'm pleading for a positive gesture . . . otherwise we'll let demolition orders take their course."

He proposed a $15m to $20m townhouse development on the Avon St site, and would use the resulting profits to preserve the chapel, reverend mother's garden and a quarter of the four-storey convent building, all of which would be gifted to a trust. He would not financially benefit from the arrangement, he said.

All parties agreed at Wednesday's meeting to work on a solution in good faith.

Heritage New Zealand and the council supported most of Cassels' plan, but wanted him to preserve more of the convent building. Cassels said he could afford to retain only one corner of the building, which would serve as the chapel's reception venue.

Heritage New Zealand was working with Cassels to design a better solution for the college building, but approved the overall plan, central region general manager Ann Neill said.

"This is the most positive solution that's been on the table for a very long time."

Council spokesman Richard MacLean said a demolition order would have to be fulfilled unless real progress was being made by all parties, but the council would do anything it could to avoid knocking the buildings down.

Nat Dunning from Save Erskine College Trust, said there would be no urgency to decide the college's fate if Cassels would repair the building instead of practising "demolition by neglect".

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The trust was open to a housing development on the site, but its mission was to preserve its heritage, he said.

Cassels was yet to formally approach the trust with any plans, Dunning said.

"We're not blocking or stopping anything at the moment, because we've got nothing to block or stop."

Erskine College was built in 1905-06. It was called the Convent of the Sacred Heart until the late 1960s, when it was renamed in honour of former Superior General of the Society of the Sacred Heart, Mother Janet Erskine Stuart. The school closed in 1985.

- The Dominion Post

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