Time to farewell old sweethearts?

Last updated 05:00 13/10/2012

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Heritage buildings nationwide increasingly face the wrecking ball as owners grapple with quake-strengthening costs.

Figures from the Historic Places Trust show there has been a rise in applications to demolish heritage-listed buildings this year, excluding Christchurch.

Trust chief executive Bruce Chapman said the increase was not statistically significant but he was expecting more quake-prone heritage buildings to be demolished in future.

Tougher strengthening rules after the Canterbury quakes and a more safety-conscious market would put financial pressure on owners of quake-prone heritage buildings, he said.

"There will be a considerable increase in the number of demolitions of older unreinforced masonry buildings."

The pressure would be particularly acute in Wellington, where quake-strengthening standards were tougher and there was greater earthquake awareness, he said.

It was critical to save the most significant buildings and introduce incentives such as tax breaks and flexible zoning.

"There are no easy answers but it does need to be resolved."

Property firm KPI Rothschild owned more than a dozen heritage buildings in the Christchurch central business district before the quake on February 22 last year.

Most had now been demolished and all but one of those left faced an uncertain future.

Director Dean Marshall said he would buy a heritage building now only if it was above code or there was a clear, cheap plan to strengthen it.

"Why would you want to buy a problem?"

Owners of quake-prone heritage buildings were already under pressure, facing sky-rocketing insurance costs, increased regulations and difficulty attracting tenants, he said.

"There has effectively been a massive writedown of buildings that aren't up to code."

Property Council chief executive Connal Townsend said it was inevitable many heritage buildings would go but more resources needed to go into protecting the "gems".

"We are going to have to pick and choose."

Earthquake Engineering Society chief executive Win Clark said too many owners went straight to demolition without realising there were methods to affordably retain their buildings.

Trust figures show 12 applications to demolish heritage buildings this year, nine of which were quake-prone. However, being quake-prone was the primary reason for demolition in only three instances. Another two buildings in Ashburton, and one in Gisborne, were demolished because of quake damage. Other buildings were demolished because of neglect or to make way for new developments.

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In the year before the earthquake, 2010, there were seven demolition applications for heritage buildings, with only one building pulled down.

The figures exclude Christchurch, where it is expected about half the 150 heritage buildings in the central city have been, or will be, demolished.

The trust estimates there are 20,000 quake-prone buildings in New Zealand, 3000 of which have some sort of heritage protection.

Mr Chapman said it was untrue that heritage buildings were less safe, with many older strengthened buildings performing better than new buildings in the Christchurch quakes.

OLD BUILDING CAUGHT IN MIDDLE

Wellington's Harcourts building could become a flashpoint between developers and heritage advocates.

Property developer Mark Dunajtschik's five-storey building on Lambton Quay has been deemed an earthquake risk. He says it is too costly to fix. The solution, he says, is to demolish it and build a 25-storey commercial block.

But the 84-year-old building is listed as heritage category one, the highest level of protection.

The building started life as the first New Zealand office of the Australian Temperance and General Mutual Life Assurance Society. The Historic Places Trust says that makes the building significant in the history of the insurance industry.

The architecture was also a "worthy representative of the transitional period between the Classical revival and Art Deco movements".

Balanced against that is the cost of retaining the building. Mr Dunajtschik, and consultants he has hired, have said it would cost $10.85 million to strengthen the building.

Whether the heritage values outweigh the costs, and whether there is another solution, will fall to Wellington City Council, which is accepting submissions on the proposal until October 31. The Historic Places Trust has yet to indicate whether it will oppose the demolition. So far there have been eight submissions.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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