An entire historically important street is looking forward to being part of the new Christchurch. MATT PHILP reports.
The cheerful pastel facades of New Regent St always stood out as something of an anomaly in downtown Christchurch. The contrast is even more striking post- earthquake, amid grey demolition rubble and viewed through cordon wire fencing. The clock at the Gloucester St end is stopped at 12.51, there is detritus in the street, yet flower pots stand untoppled on the wrought iron balconies, motley geraniums poking up above the terracotta rims.
There's a clue there: compared with many of Christchurch's heritage precincts, Category 1 New Regent St got off relatively lightly, thanks in large part to the use of concrete framing when the shops were built in 1931.
According to David Manning, who owns four units on the street, it was the framing that held the buildings together when the quake hit. "There's been some upheaval of the ground floors and some of the brickwork has come loose between the frames, there's been damage to windows and walls, but just the usual cosmetic cracks and so on. It's all repairable."
In fact, the hope is that New Regent St will be restored by December, tenanted and open for business. Construction company Naylor Love is handling the $5 million restoration and repair project. It's a tight timeframe, project manager Edward Leeson concedes. "There are still a lot of questions to answer. Once we've done the first couple of units we'll have a much better idea of where things stand."
If they can meet the target date, it would make for a special Christmas present for Christchurch, not only because it is one of the city's most picturesque streets but also for its heritage values and history.
New Regent St occupies a site once dominated by the "Colosseum", a massive hall built in 1888 that at various times contained a boot factory, a skating rink and a silent movie theatre.
In 1929, the hall was demolished to make way for a complex of 40-odd shops, designed by local architect HF Willis in the Spanish Mission style and built in the teeth of the Depression, one of the only sizeable construction projects undertaken in the South Island during that period.
After opening the street, the development company found it so difficult to find tenants that initially it leased most of the shops rent free.
In later years all of the units passed into individual ownership. Before the February quake, someone walking up New Regent St would have passed optometrists, florists, a shoe repair shop, a print gallery, an old-school barbers, clothing retailers such as RM Williams and several eateries.
That multiple ownership of the joined-up shops was potentially a stumbling block to getting started on the rebuild, particularly given diverse insurance arrangements. The owners quickly formed a street committee following the February 22 quake, but as Leeson notes, "Everyone has their own take on why they've invested in the street."
As always, funding is another issue. Insurance will cover much of the cost, but owners will have to chip in, too. "You never get away scott free," remarks Manning, who says the rebuild will include replacing floors, repairing facades and taking some heritage features back to their original look. "Hopefully our buildings will be better than before the quake in terms of strength, and will be nicely presented and redecorated to make them attractive to tenants. It was getting a bit tired. After this, when you walk up the street you'll really think you were in the 1930s."
Christchurch City Council had a New Regent St Revitalisation Project in place before the earthquakes, which utilised council's Heritage Incentive Grant funding. All owners were eligible to apply for this funding and about a third of the units have already benefited. The remaining owners who have not applied for a grant are welcome to do so, particularly where there is a significant shortfall between what is being covered by insurance companies through earthquake cover and what is required for the buildings to meet the new NZ Building Code.
The NZ Historic Places Trust is another possible source of funding. Before the quake, the trust had provided grants for refurbishment and strengthening work along New Regent St, only some of which was completed. Heritage adviser Dave Margetts says money may now be available for "betterment" work that isn't covered by insurance, although owners will have to go through the application process to be sure.
"Prior to the earthquake it was identified as a highly significant area and now it will be the only complete heritage streetscape," says Margetts.
Manning, too, predicts a rebuilt New Regent St fulfilling a role more significant than ever. 'This will end up as an important cluster,' he says.
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