OPINION: Christchurch feels like a city under attack.
So much of its central business district has been demolished that its streets are unrecognisable, even to those of us who have spent most of our lives here.
The inner-city area within the Four Avenues is described by locals increasingly in terms of a war zone. Comparisons with Kabul or Baghdad abound.
Citizens are in a state of shock and many avoid the CBD altogether, grief-stricken at how much of their city has been destroyed - not by earthquakes, but by order of the Canterbury Earthquakes Recovery Authority (Cera).
According to Warwick Isaacs, Chief Executive of the Central City Development Unit (CCDU) who is backed by Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee, the demolitions will not cease until 20 per cent of the original CBD remains.
After the February 22 2011 earthquake, Dr Kit Miyamoto, a structural seismic engineer with 25 years' international experience in earthquake recovery, stated he believed that, at the most, about 30 per cent of the CBD might need to be demolished. The announcement that 80 per cent is to be demolished he later described as “unbelievable”.
To make way for the increasingly criticised CCDU blueprint, priority projects such as the green frame, a convention centre (three times the size of the previous one), and a covered 35,000-seat stadium, Cera chief executive Roger Sutton has said 1200 existing inner-city sites must be “repackaged”. Translation: a great number of inner-city properties must be sold to the Government at whatever price it offers. Yet more buildings will be demolished, including the few remaining heritage buildings.
Included in the green frame, which is to be in place as early as March, are listed heritage buildings which include the Christchurch Town Hall, the old Civic Offices, the Odeon Theatre and the Majestic Theatre. By June this year, 117 listed heritage buildings, representing 51 per cent of total heritage stock in the Central City (within the Four Avenues and Red Zone), had already been demolished and another 13 were slated for partial demolition. Approximately 100 of those demolished had recently undergone restoration work costing more than $3.5m from the public purse.
It seems there is no end in sight to the destruction deemed necessary for the city's recovery. Clearly two major casualties of the new city plan for Christchurch are property rights and cultural heritage identity.
Especially vocal in their criticism of the CCDU blueprint are property owners in the CBD who owned or still own heritage buildings. The proposed green frame was initially applauded as a way of maximising green space in the new city. However, it is now regarded by many property owners as a cynical means of setting up a land bank to manipulate land values within the new CBD so the Government can profit later from the disaster at their expense.
Wilson Penman, president of the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Institute of Valuers, says property values in the Christchurch CBD are fluctuating wildly, confusion is widespread and a disputes resolution process is lacking. In The Press he said: “It is unheard of. It's like something from the Third World. Over the past two months, Cera has failed to respond to the institute's request for a meeting."
Roland Logan is part owner, with partner Sharon Ng, of the restored Edwardian warehouse known as the Bains Building. Completed in 1903 it was designed by well-known architect J C Maddison whose work characterised much of old Christchurch. Strengthened to the new code and fully tenanted, the building houses Ng Gallery and is a workplace for more than 45 people in the creative industries sector. It also provides an anchor point for a heritage triangle which includes Alice in Videoland's Old Post Office building and the McKenzie and Willis facade on High St.
Despite paying lip service to the idea, the Government has failed to enter into any consultation or consensual process. Logan believes that instead of a "one size fits all” policy which will simply bully people into submission or result in expensive court cases, a “cheaper and more common sense approach” would be for the Government to get together with all affected owners and negotiate acceptable options. After rallying public support, the couple have a faint glimmer of hope that Cera may consider incorporating their building into the stadium design, but no contractual agreement has been finalised.
Another inner-city property owner, Lisle Hood, agrees with Logan about the lack of consultation and has called for greater transparency surrounding the Government's actions: “This is simply a land grab. It's the sort of thing you would expect under a totalitarian regime, not a democracy.”
He says it is “crazy” for the Government to be closing out the very landowners and developers such as himself who know the city well and who already have a good sense of what will work and what won't in the rebuild.
Ironically, if Christchurch was a literal war zone, “citizens' [property] rights would be better protected under United Nations' sanctions”.
These are the words of Christchurch resident David Stringer, now an insurance watchdog working full-time as a volunteer on behalf of residents in his badly hit suburb of Brookhaven.
Most of his neighbours with badly damaged homes have not yet been paid out by their private insurance companies and have been told they may not be for years to come.
It also seems that the heritage identity of the Christchurch CBD might have been better protected in a war zone, and the iconic cathedral spared without question.
Since 2006 both the American and Russian military have been training their troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt to recognise the importance of preserving cultural sites.
Dr Laurie Rush, the US army archaeologist who initiated this believes local communities rather than external forces should be the ones to assign value to cultural properties.
"Failure to identify and respect these features could very well be interpreted as an act of hostility... aggression against cultural property is often used to demoralise and destroy communities”.
Even if this is not the intention in Christchurch, it is certainly the effect.
Lorraine North is Chair of Canterbury Arts and Heritage Trust
- Sunday Star Times