Fury over quake-risk demolition refusal

HANK SCHOUTEN
Last updated 05:00 26/02/2013
Harcourt building
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ
STAYING PUT: The Harcourts building on Lambton Quay has too much heritage to be knocked down, commissioners say.

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A Wellington developer has been refused permission to demolish an 85-year-old heritage building that he says could kill people in an earthquake.

Mark Dunajtschik applied to demolish the empty Harcourts Building in Lambton Quay on the grounds that it was unsafe and that bringing it up to standard would not be economically viable.

It is believed to be the first ruling on a resource consent application to demolish a significant heritage building on the grounds of public safety since the Canterbury earthquakes.

A panel of planning commissioners weighed the "important matters of public safety and costs", but in the end ruled that demolition would be inconsistent with regional historic heritage policy.

The decision has been welcomed by the Historic Places Trust and Wellington City Council's built environment portfolio leader Iona Pannett, but has infuriated Mr Dunajtschik.

"My reaction is not printable," he said yesterday after the release of the decision by the three commissioners.

He wants to build a 25-storey block on the site, which abuts his HSBC tower. His application was supported by council planners, but opposed by the HPT.

Forty-eight submissions were received on the proposal to demolish the building, with 30 opposed and 18 in support.

The building was deemed by Wellington City Council to be earthquake-prone. Its initial assessment was that the building met only 17 per cent of new building standards, and had to be strengthened or demolished within 20 years.

However, it was later assessed as meeting 42 per cent of code. The commissioners said that, on that basis, Mr Dunajtschik could challenge the earthquake-prone building notice. But they said he had not considered every reasonable solution for retaining the building, including the possibility of strengthening it to less than 100 per cent of new building standards.

It was an important heritage building, they said. It exceeded minimum requirements for public safety, and the cost of reducing the hazard to pedestrians of falling masonry was relatively modest.

Without a detailed seismic assessment, "we have not been persuaded that the Harcourts Building, in its present state, presents an unacceptable risk to either the [neighbouring] HSBC tower building or to public safety".

The commissioners accepted evidence that making the building economically and commercially viable was a challenge, but were not persuaded that this overcame the significant loss of heritage values that would occur if it was demolished.

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Mr Dunajtschik, who has 15 days to appeal to the Environment Court, said he was not sure whether he wanted to fight it. Another option was to do nothing.

He said there was considerable risk of the facade falling down, which was why he had suggested replicating it with lightweight materials, but that proposal was rejected by the HPT.

Historic Places Trust central region general manager Ann Neill welcomed the ruling, saying "it sends a strong resounding message that heritage matters".

There was specialist advice that elements of the facade could be retained and made safe as part of a strengthening programme, she said.

The council's earthquake resilience programme manager, Neville Brown, said he could not comment, but Ms Pannett said she was happy with the outcome.

It was a significant decision and meant it would not be so easy to demolish heritage-listed buildings.

Contact Hank Schouten
Property reporter
Email: hank.schouten@dompost.co.nz

- The Dominion Post

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