Heritage buildings on shaky ground

The Palmerston North Operatic Society faces a $1.5 million conundrum about the future of the Abbey Theatre on Church St.

The century-old, cavity-brick building meets a mere 2 per cent of the Building Code, and users have been warned it could be dangerous in an earthquake.

Society president John Spelman said a structural engineer's report suggested it could cost about $1.5 million to fix.

"And whatever we decide to do, it may not be suitable for use as a theatre again."

Mr Spelman said the 250-seat theatre, originally the Baptist Union Church, would be saved if it was possible to do so.

Although it is not on the New Zealand Historic Places Trust register, the building carries a category two heritage listing in the Palmerston North City Council District Plan, which provides some recognition, and "seeding" help for maintenance and repairs.

Owners can apply to the city council for help through the Natural and Cultural Heritage Incentive Fund, which will be advertising for applications next week.

However, the fund is limited. Typical grants include up to $4000 toward the cost of a feasibility study to identify options and likely costs, or up to $10,000 toward the cost of working drawings needed as part of the building consent process.

"It's a bit of seed funding to get the ball rolling," city future policy planner Matt Mackay said. "It's not about paying for the physical works."

The Operatic Society had received assistance from the fund before the earthquake issues arose, for roof repairs and stained-glass window restoration.

Mr Mackay advised building owners to wait to see what rules the government would set after the Christchurch earthquake inquiries were completed.

Mr Spelman said the society was in contact with council staff, who understood the dilemma.

"We are looking into what we can do. We have been looking at ways we can save it, and have been talking to heritage people.

"We are just about at the stage where we have to make a decision, and put it to our members.

"If we can save it, that's the preference; if we can't, we'll have to look for another building."

The theatre was the earthquake risk part of the property. A building housing administration, toilets and the rehearsal hall was a solid concrete section at the rear, which posed no problems.

Mr Spelman said everyone was waiting to find out how much money the Government was likely to contribute to preserving earthquake risk heritage buildings.

The society is far from alone in grappling with the likely expense of earthquake strengthening.

Next door, The Manawatu Kilwinning Lodge is in the same situation, as is the First Church of Christ, Scientist just along the road.

United Kilwinning Trust member Bill Carswell said the future of several lodge buildings was "in limbo".

An initial assessment had shown parts of the Church St building met less than 20 per cent of the Building Code, and a structural engineering report had been sought.

But Mr Carswell was concerned it would not be economic to strengthen every building that needed work.

"It would be a shame to see them go."

Mr Spelman agreed safety came first, but heritage mattered too.

"We will end up like Christchurch if we blow it," Mr Spelman said.

"We have to be careful we don't wreck cities by pulling buildings down."

Mr Spelman said it was fortunate the society's efforts were centred on The Regent at the moment for the production of Chess.

Manawatu Standard