Heritage trust recommendations ignored

BEN HEATHER
Last updated 05:00 19/11/2011

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Twenty-seven Christchurch heritage buildings have been flattened despite New Zealand's top heritage body recommending they be saved.

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust has released more than 100 official reports to The Press, detailing a desperate struggle to save Christchurch heritage from the wrecking ball.

While the February 22 earthquake irrevocably destroyed many heritage buildings, the reports show the trust recommended saving or partially retaining 27 buildings that were instead demolished.

Civil Defence or the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (Cera) often overrode the trust's recommendations – which were backed by engineers – and three buildings appear to have been demolished without any official approval.

Others – such as the Zetland Hotel – were bulldozed by authorities despite the best efforts of their owners.

Buildings demolished in spite of the trust's advice include St John the Baptist Church, the Regent Theatre and the Horse Bazaar. The reports show the trust had in many cases argued the buildings posed no risk of collapse. It had questioned owners' claims the buildings were uneconomic to repair.

The trust is a Crown entity, reporting to Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson, described as the "guardian of Aotearoa New Zealand's national heritage".

Trust board member and Christchurch heritage advocate Anna Crighton said a "hasty" demolition process had allowed for the wholesale destruction of heritage. It needed to be desperately overhauled. "History will show just what a huge mistake we have made, ripping out our city heart," she said.

The trust had fought to save many buildings, but in post-quake Christchurch it had no formal power, she said.

But trust chief executive Bruce Chapman said while the loss of heritage was sad it needed to balanced against pragmatism.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act had stripped the trust's power over heritage in Christchurch, reducing it to an advisory role, he said.

"Within the Christchurch CBD, neither the [Christchurch] City Council nor the NZHPT have the powers that they once had, nor do we manage the demolition decision-making process.

"Whether the process or system as set out above is the `right one' depends on your perspective."

Cera demolition manager Warwick Isaacs said owners and heritage advocates had been given time to save buildings, but often the money was not available.

"I think we are in 100 per cent agreement on the truly significant buildings – it is the other less significant ones that have struggled to attract funding," he said.

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Owners also had to deal with the tough decision of spending their insurance money to shore up a damaged building. If they did it would eat into the funds available to rebuild.

In a report on the heritage-listed Elizabeth House on Circuit St, the trust said the building could be saved and the owner had provided no evidence of the supposed untenable cost of repairing the buildings.

Cera approved the building for demolition.

The trust also strongly urged the facade of the Guthrey Centre in City Mall be retained.

"The first-floor masonry frontage is relatively intact and shows no damage to the brickwork."

The building was completely demolished, with the site now used for the Restart temporary shopping precinct.

The former Canterbury Library on Cambridge Tce was another lost battle.

The owner had offered "no reason" for wanting to demolish the buildings, which housed the city's first public library, and engineering reports showed they could clearly be saved, the trust said.

The buildings have all been demolished.

The loss of heritage since the February 22 earthquake has been contentious, sparking a protest outside Cera's office this month.

In September, Christchurch Central MP Brendon Burns called the trust "gutless" in its advocacy for Christchurch heritage.

- The Press

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