City needs heritage buildings
New Christchurch will need some of its heritage buildings to make sure the richness of its history remains part of its identity. SALLY BLUNDELL reports.
The colour-coded plan of Christchurch's High St precinct, bordered by Bedford Row, Madras, St Asaph and Manchester streets, is mainly orange, meaning the vast majority of buildings in this area have been or are soon to be demolished.
But High St Precinct Group chairman Laurie Rose points to the small rectangles of green - those buildings still standing in what was Christchurch's thriving wining, dining and retail area.
"The demolitions went way beyond what anyone expected, but if you think of [the area] as a broken jaw these are the surviving teeth."
Rose owns two of the 16 shops that make up the 1905 Duncan's Building, once part of an impressive Victorian/Edwardian streetscape that was "bookended" by the shaking and shuddering of neighbouring buildings in the February and June earthquakes.
Some elements, he insists, are recoverable, some will have to be rebuilt, but it remains a promotable asset "with a character that is unique in Christchurch".
"What made High Street so distinctive? It was mellow and relaxed and it had an ambience that came from the era those buildings came from."
Throughout the city that ambience is dwindling. Already 56 properties of a total of 173 (32 percent) on the Historic Places Trust register within the city's four avenues have been demolished and more may go under the newly released blueprint for the revamped CBD. Yet the idea that all unreinforced masonry buildings are death-traps and that the cost of repairs and retrofits will always exceed that of a new building is coming under increasing review. Around the city some 20 registered heritage buildings are already being repaired and strengthened, including the former Magistrate's Court, Knox Church and the New Regent St shops.
And for good reason. United States economic development consultant Donovan Rypkema argues that the preservation of old buildings is key to sustainable economic development.
It provides jobs, much-needed heritage training opportunities and more money flowing around the local community.
Property values in developed heritage districts can appreciate at a greater rate than overall building stock. The initial relative affordability of older buildings is good for creative start-up businesses rarely found in suburban malls. Recycling existing building stock is more sustainable than starting from scratch and, in an age of economic globalisation, distinctive local heritage is vital for tourism and central city revitalisation - as seen in Christchurch's redeveloped lanes and alleyways.
"In hospitality and residential, even character office buildings, people are attracted to old buildings," says Lincoln University property lecturer Brent Nahkies. "Plenty of heritage buildings have shown good economic returns to their owners."
Nahkies accepts that some tenants may be fearful of older buildings, but that, he says, "is a short-term stigma effect that will, over time, be redressed by the market".
And, as Christchurch's architectural heritage continues to disappear, he says, the value of those that remain will increase.
"Long term, we're going to have regrets that we didn't save more, but we will treasure the ones we have saved. In going forward as a city we need something we can build on, rather than a scorched- earth building site."
Saving heritage can be a fraught process. Even after the initial state of emergency, when normal processes around heritage buildings were trumped by emergency protocols, building owners have been faced with uncertainty around insurance, finance and retention options, property values that are often weighted in favour of the land, time pressures and the new city plan.
While many have been working with Historic Places Trust professionals and city council staff on retention and securing issues, earthquake engineering consultant Win Clark says a large number of owners are still traumatised.
"They're looking down the barrel of bankruptcy and if they do retain their [heritage] buildings they don't know if they'll be able to get insurance. While a lot of places offer heritage funding, there is never enough money."
But it's not good enough, he says, to say all brick masonry is unsafe so get rid of it.
"Engineers have to look at life safety - that is the most important thing - but they also need to give cost-estimates for repair and strengthening. Demolition is not the only answer."
Retrofitting is not widely taught in New Zealand, professional expertise is in short supply and costing retrofits is "notoriously contradictory", says University of Auckland's associate professor Jason Ingham.
But for a "comparatively small investment", he says, hazards can be addressed: parapets and chimneys - the first things to fall over - can be secured and walls, diaphragms and strengthened floors anchored into place.
From there, owners may need to jump to "a new level of invasiveness".
"Techniques that worked well in Christchurch were the addition of interior concrete walls, the spraying of reinforced concrete walls against masonry walls and steel or concrete frames inside unreinforced masonry buildings."
While such methods may detract from the character of a building, rules around heritage restoration are becoming more flexible. Even "facadism", once a heritage travesty, has become an acceptable compromise in the face of demolition.
For Rose, such rescue operations are vital for the future of the city. With the southern end of High St now sitting within the prescribed Innovation Precinct, in the elbow of the green frame as proposed in the new CBD blueprint, much depends now on "the character of an innovation precinct and how and when it will be developed. But that designation doesn't prevent the character of the area being developed".
Indeed, if the new green frame has a soft fringe, he says, you would want heritage in there.
"The new build will be sharp and bright and functional but 160 years have gone into building the centre of Christchurch. We need a sense of that previous existence, that patina of age. These factors are not very tangible but without them we are all the poorer."