Prime sites not likely to be developed any time soon
The Press' property editor Liz McDonald investigates the story behind two of Christchurch's most notorious eyesores.
Most Christchurch residents have seen the properties - the old saleyards opposite Hagley Park, once called the city's most notorious eyesore, and the overgrown and dilapidated Antonio House in Riccarton Rd.
The unhappy neighbours and the beleaguered Christchurch City Council are certainly familiar with both sites.
But little is known about the owners themselves - the mysterious overseas developers who never developed. They have variously been described in media reports as Korean, Taiwanese, or simply foreign.
The properties are owned by the Chiu family who came to Christchurch from Taiwan and now move between both places. The family is Ching-yang Chiu, his wife, Shern Yun-shian Chiu, and their University of Canterbury-educated daughter and son, Mu Han and Wei-lun.
Their Christchurch development holdings alone have rating valuations exceeding $20 million, and they pay close to $130,000 a year in rates while earning little or no income from the assets.
Twenty years ago, the Chius bought Antonio House in Upper Riccarton, a heritage-listed brick mansion with 279 rooms on 1.5 hectares. But their efforts to turn it into motels foundered a decade ago, a mortgagee's attempt to sell it in 2008 came to nothing, and today locals run working bees to keep the weeds down.
Even bigger and more valuable is the family's six-hectare saleyard and truck park site in Deans Ave, bought in 1997.
The Chius' bid to put a hotel on it became a costly and fruitless battle with authorities, and by the time a six-storey apartment block was agreed upon, the global downturn hit and the plan was shelved. Attempts to sell the subdivided truck yard chunk of the site in 2006 failed.
Both development sites now languish, amassing thick council files of fire hazard, abatement and obstruction notices, complaints from citizenry, and details of staff visits over squatters and rubbish, plus a prosecution.
Then there was the Chius' appeal against the council's Blenheim Rd deviation, delaying the multimillion-dollar project for more than a year and costing the family $38,000 in court costs when they provided no evidence.
All four Chius are shareholders in either one or both of their property ownership companies, Neowell Investments and Wellstar. Some of them are in Taiwan and their double-storey brick home, valued at more than $1 million on a back section in Clyde Rd in Ilam, is tenanted. Mu Han owns a business registered in the city, and Wei-lun is the only family member registered on a Christchurch electoral roll.
Associates say the family is private, despite their headline-grabbing property enterprises.
Their lawyer said they fly back and forth, their accountant corresponds mostly by email, and a real estate agent who has handled millions of dollars worth of their property said he has never met them.
Ching-yang Chiu spoke briefly to The Press from his home in the Taiwanese capital of Taipei, but has little English and did not answer questions. Other family members did not return messages.
Instead, the public face of the Chiu's Christchurch property business is Wellstar director Seam Kheon (Sam) Yau.
Malaysian-born Yau is not media-shy. A convenience store owner, justice of the peace, and spokesman for the Canterbury Malaysian Society, he ran second to Gerry Brownlee as the Labour Party parliamentary candidate for Ilam in 2008.
Yau defended the Chius' enterprises to The Press, blaming the council for the development hassles, and New Zealand society for the vandalism, theft and squatting on private property.
He said they would still like to develop their land, and believes some of the public criticism is racially based.
So how have the family's valuable development sites become public nuisances?
Ching-yang Chiu is said to have extensive property development experience overseas.
One Christchurch associate said the Chius "had developed properties all around the world, so they absolutely could have done so here, but we are far more regulatory and the market absolutely clobbered them. In some places overseas, if you want to put up a hotel you can."
Real estate sources say the properties were too big, making roading and subdivision too costly even without the drawn-out zoning battles, and pricing them out of the reach of local developers who may have taken them on.
For now at least, none of that seems to have changed. The two prime sites are still providing only capital gain for their owners, rates for the city, and plenty of work for council staff.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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