Covenant blocks developers from demolishing Lower Hutt fire station

It's been empty since January 2007 and has suffered at the hands of vandals and taggers, but there's no way the former Lower Hutt Central Fire Station will be demolished to make way for townhouses.

The board of the NZ Historic Places Trust recently formally recognised the Waterloo Rd landmark as a category 1 historic place. While that's the NZHPT's highest rating, listing really only flags a building or site as having "outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value" - it offers no protection against a bulldozer.

But the old fire station, built in 1955 to mark the 50th Jubilee of the Lower Hutt Fire Brigade, is also now subject to a heritage covenant, written on its title. It means any new owner has to gain the approval of the NZHPT for any proposal to change the heritage values of the building, the trust's central region general manager Ann Neill says.

Because the station and attached firefighters' quarters was disposed of through a Crown Land process, NZHPT is able to pursue this covenant protection.

The site is now managed by the Commissioner for Crown Lands for Treaty Settlement purposes.

While there are some 5500 buildings and sites with a heritage listing in New Zealand, there are only just over 100 subject to a heritage covenant.

Ms Neill says the NZHPT is aware of a "couple of options" being discussed for future use of the fire station "but they're very confidential and I can't talk about them".

Natasha Naus, the advisor who prepared the report underpinning the station's heritage listing and handled gathering public submissions, says the NZHPT "is hopeful there will be a positive, adaptive reuse of the building. There are a number of good compatible future uses that could be explored."

Ms Neill didn't want to "narrow down what proposals might be acceptable, given there's a huge range.

"What we're really saying is that virtually anything that is imaginable could happen there, from residential to commercial...it's not constrained in any way. For instance, just off the top of my head, apartment conversion could be possible. Or someone might want to use it for a gallery or a museum."

A heritage listed tobacco building in Napier ended up being owned and used by a bed retailer.

"We'd look at a specific proposal and we'd work with the owner around their idea to help them make the business or use viable, and at the same time make joint decisions on how we protect the heritage fabric."

Ms Neill says people who are familiar with the Waterloo Rd station and its Modernist design, which the assessment said "captures the essence of (US architect) Frank Lloyd Wright, with symmetry, rhythm and elongated forms", will understand why it gained heritage registration. "But if you're not, it's probably not regarded as a very pretty building. It's a case of not judging the book by its cover."

The heritage assessment said the station represents an important phase in international architectural influences that were being interpreted at a local level. The station has a central location, and is one of a suite of Modernist buildings (the town hall, civic administration bulding and central library included) constructed in the 1950s, which saw Lower Hutt become a "flagship of Post-War Modernism".

In its era, the building was considered to be the most modern fire station in the Southern Hemisphere, with a training tower, and a manned control room where the operator could stop and start fire appliances remotely, and open the station doors electronically.

Ms Naus said it was clear from public submissions that the fire station is held in high regard by the community.

Hutt News