New earthquake powers will force 300 building owners to strengthen within a year
Roughly 300 high-risk buildings in the Wellington region will need to be brought up to code within a year, Building and Construction Minister Nick Smith has announced.
The buildings, which all have unreinforced masonry facades in busy pedestrian areas, include about 250 in the capital's historic areas of Cuba St and Courtenay Pl in the central city, and Riddiford St in Newtown, as well as about 50 in Lower Hutt.
Buildings with unreinforced masonry were responsible for the deaths of 39 people in the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, Smith said.
The Government announced it would foot half of each repair bill to help building owners with costs, with the "tieback" of facades – which involves anchoring them to the main building – estimated to cost between $20,000 and $30,000.
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Smith stressed the heightened possibility of aftershocks and said that, although masonry buildings escaped largely unscathed in the November 14 Kaikoura quake, that might not be the case in the future.
He said advice from GNS was that risk levels were eight times higher than normal in the lower North and upper South Island, and this threat had contributed to the 12-month deadline.
"That's going to abate over the next year to around double the level of risk. It will take three years for all the level of seismic risk to return to norms."
The building work will be exempt from resource and building consents, providing the work is overseen by a qualified engineer.
It will be funded from a new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment fund of $3 million, approved by the Cabinet in its last meeting last year.
Wellington Mayor Justin Lester said the city council had earmarked $1m for its one-third contribution to the subsidies, and rates would not be increased as a result.
"All Wellingtonians want to live in a safe city. They want us to take steps where we can, and this is one of the actions we can take."
Grants could be made retrospectively for work that was already underway.
Specific buildings had not yet been identified, but owners could expect a letter by March if their buildings were chosen. In most cases, occupants would not have to vacate.
An additional 10 buildings affected by Wednesday's announcement are in Marlborough and Hurunui. No Kaikoura buildings qualify because all have already been red-stickered.
Should owners refuse to do the work, councils will have the power to undertake strengthening and recover costs from the owners, with a fine of up to $200,000 possible for continued refusal.
New Zealand Society for Earthquake Engineering president Peter Smith said the industry should have the workforce to accommodate the one-year deadline.
"Some of this work could be done by bringing resources in from out of town."
Less urgent buildings could be bumped to the back of the queue, and Smith advised owners who received a letter to get to work as soon as possible.
Heritage New Zealand chief executive Andrew Coleman said it supported the announcement. "Public safety is the top priority, and the $3m funding package available to owners ... will be a considerable help to them securing facades and parapets."
Property developer Ian Cassels, co-director of The Wellington Company, welcomed the changes, but said such repair work should be tax-deductible because building owners did not recover any of the cost.
"I think a year's a bit tough [to carry out the repair work]. But I'm pleased that Government is acting, it's excellent."
Property Council New Zealand Wellington branch president Mike Cole also welcomed the announcement, provided the remedial work was carried out efficiently.
The timeframe was stiff, but that was the right way to go. ""You have to put a line in the sand, otherwise someone inevitably ends up dragging their feet."
The Wellington Chamber of Commerce echoed Cole's view, saying the work had to be done.
"We know that masonry facades and parapets can become lethal weapons in an earthquake ... so the sooner this work is done, the safer the city's streets will be," it said.
"The 12-month deadline will be tight for some, but we cannot afford to let this slide."