Wellington's $60 million question

DAVE BURGESS
Last updated 05:00 14/02/2014
Neville Brown
KENT BLECHYNDEN/Fairfax NZ

TURNING POINT: Director of earthquake strengthening work Neville Brown says the council are grossly uncomfortable with the numbers and pretty much going back to look at the entire project.

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Work to earthquake strengthen Wellington Town Hall has been halted in the face of a $17 million budget blowout.

Investigations into the 110-year-old building's foundations have resulted in the cost soaring from $43.7m to somewhere in the region of $60m - prompting one councillor to suggest abandoning it in favour of a new building.

The extent of additional foundation work required was unearthed after staff were moved out and the town hall closed in November for the three-year strengthening programme. Work was halted after just three months as the council tried to figure out what to do about the additional costs of up to $17m. The delay is likely to push back the completion date of the project.

The council agreed last year to use a base isolation system in the foundations to take the building strength to 140 per cent of the new building standards (NBS). Engineers assessed the building as meeting just 20 to 25 per cent of the NBS. Anything under 33 per cent is deemed earthquake-prone.

City council earthquake resilience manager Neville Brown said the hall was built on reclaimed land. The latest investigations found that more and bigger piles, including bigger base isolation pads, had to be installed.

"It has got to the point where we are grossly uncomfortable with the numbers and we're pretty much going back to look at the entire project."

The re-evaluation process to try to trim costs and present options to councillors would take a "minimum of six months", he said.

The hall is listed as a category 1 building on the Historic Places Trust register, but this does not provide protection from demolition. Mr Brown said the option of knocking down the town hall and replacing it with a new building was "not on the agenda".

However, councillor Simon Marsh, who last year voted in favour of the $43.7m project, said yesterday the cost blowout meant it had reached a "tipping point" and a new building should be considered.

"You can keep some of the memories of the old home, such as the facade, but we seriously do need to look at it because there are other buildings we need - a convention centre, a stadium for concerts."

Wellington property developer Ian Cassels said the cost of strengthening the hall totally outweighed the benefits. "You would struggle to put together anywhere near half the semblance of a business case for it. We have to concentrate on the things that keep bringing our sons and daughters back to the city, not the things we somehow sacredly say have to be done."

But Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said the category 1 heritage listing was "hugely important to Wellington" and the council was aware that the costs might change as it went deeper into the project.

That was not made apparent when the $43.7m upgrade received the go-ahead last year. The mayor said then that "it is important the council is clear about the full cost of such an important project".

The Government's move to reform the treatment of earthquake-prone buildings had its first reading in Parliament yesterday. The Building (Earthquake Prone Buildings) Amendment Bill would give a deadline of 15 years to strengthen any building below 34 per cent of NBS. It will also give councils five years to assess all buildings.

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- The Dominion Post

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