Safety costs hang over heritage sites

ALEX FENSOME
Last updated 05:00 30/07/2013

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St Gerard's Monastery, standing proud above Oriental Parade, is unquestionably one of Wellington's landmark buildings.

It is also a liability that could fall over in a significant earthquake, and will cost millions of dollars to be brought up to an acceptably safe standard.

It is money that neither the Catholic Church nor the Wellington City Council has.

So if the city wants to keep the iconic monastery - and other precious historic buildings like it - who is going to pay?

Even the Historic Places Trust accepts it is not possible to save every heritage building.

The trust was working with the Wellington City Council to encourage strengthening but it was a challenge, central region general manager Ann Neill said.

"There's a gap between the market value of the building, in this recessionary time, and the costs. That's a deterrent for an owner and a barrier to their decision."

The trust wanted to persuade owners they had good reason to strengthen - even if the initial work was minor.

She suggested Wellington adopt a strategy from Dunedin, where a targeted rate on heritage buildings will be used to fund low-interest loans for strengthening work.

Wellington has 14 category-1 heritage-listed buildings that are judged to be quake risks.

They include the Old Public Trust Building in Stout St, which was evacuated last week, St Mary of the Angels church, closed on Sunday, St Gerard's and the National War Memorial.

Wellington Property Council branch president Ian Cassels, an outspoken critic of council plans to spend $43.7 million on strengthening the Town Hall, said some buildings - such as the Old Public Trust Building - had to be saved.

But others might have to go, including the empty Harcourts Building in Lambton Quay.

Developer Mark Dunajtschik wanted to demolish the 85-year-old building, which is yellow-stickered, but the council refused permission. Mr Dunajtschik's appeal to the Environment Court will be heard next month.

"Harcourts should come down because it occupies a critical office site," Mr Cassels said.

"We need a reworking of the rating system to assist those buildings that the community want, and the owner can't afford to fix, but need some real tools."

These include transferable development rights, targeted rates on quake-prone buildings and public ownership of strengthening work.

Council built environment portfolio leader Iona Pannett said she would like to see more government funding for strengthening, focused on high-value buildings. There was a role for the council, too, although it was fiscally limited.

"Heritage buildings have a significant impact on public safety," she said. "We do have an incentive fund of $400,000 to help property owners but that's a tiny amount of money in terms of the work which needs to be done."

Mayor Celia Wade-Brown said the city had to work with central government to make sure there were ways to help fund the large amount of work still to be done.

"The category 1 [buildings] are of national interest, so we need to work together with central government on how we can make sure that they're strengthened."

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CATEGORIES AND STICKERS

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust lists two categories of heritage buildings. Category 1: Buildings described as of "special or outstanding historical or cultural heritage significance or value". Category 2: Buildings that have "historical or cultural heritage significance or value".

Being on the register does not automatically mean a building is protected. However, councils and owners of the buildings have to take listing into account when they plan or consider changes, and notify the Historic Places Trust. Councils also have their own heritage listings.

QUAKE STICKERS

There are three types of stickers which identify potential quake risks in buildings. RED stickers mean the building is unsafe to occupy and requires immediate closure. ORANGE stickers set a deadline for the building to be fixed or demolished. YELLOW stickers set out a timeframe for strengthening work or demolition, depending on the building's use, the number of occupants and the level of risk.

- The Dominion Post

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