Civic spirit helps Lyttelton rebuild

MARC GREENHILL
Last updated 18:25 10/02/2012
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CIVIC SPIRIT: Andrew Turner, chairman of the Lyttelton Harbour Business Association, says quakes reduced more than 60 active businesses in the town to a "handful".

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Lyttelton was likened to a war zone after last February's earthquake but signs of recovery in Canterbury's historic port town are evident. Marc Greenhill reports.



On the surface, it is a typical day on a busy Lyttelton street corner.

Children are playing in a sandpit on a warm summer's day.

Some adults relax with drinks in hand at the Port Hole pub, while others grab a coffee and bite to eat at Tommy Chang's cafe or Freemans restaurant as jazz music fills the air.

However, the corner of London and Canterbury streets is more than just a typical intersection. It has become a symbol of Lyttelton's recovery after a magnitude-6.3 earthquake last February devastated the town.

The sandpit is at the Lyttelton Pentanque Club, a Lyttel Gap Filler project built by the community on the site of the demolished Albion building.

It has been the venue for community barbecues and weekly musical performances over the summer.

Tommy Chang's cafe, known as Dave's Place when first opened at owner Dave Watchorn's home, overlooks the court.

It is Watchorn's first foray into hospitality. At the time of the quake, he was renovating the Canterbury Hotel on Norwich Quay.

"I had virtually just finished it, got it fully tenanted and now it's gone," he says.

The cafe was opened to "maximise what I've got left".

The demolition of the neighbouring Albion building, now the petanque club, created the opportunity.

"When that was gone I was completely exposed. I had to do something and I just thought that would be the best use of the space," Watchorn says.

"People seem to like it. It's just been cobbled together, so it's certainly not how I want it. It's only a start as far as I'm concerned."

The cafe was initially known as Dave's Place, but the new name, Tommy Chang's, pays homage to the building's past as the Chang brothers' fruit and greengrocer business.

The Port Hole bar continued the city's container bar theme when it opened in December where the Volcano Cafe, one of Lyttelton's best- known establishments, was reduced to rubble.

Freemans restaurant survived the quake, but was closed for more than 10 months before reopening on December 23.

Carmel Courtney, a musician and Lyttel Gap Filler co-ordinator, says the intersection development was "well overdue".

"On New Year's Eve, everybody congregated here in the intersection, held hands and counted in the New Year, which was great," she says.

"It's been such a social place in the past and what's been lacking has been a place to gather."

The quake's effect on Lyttelton has mirrored that of its city neighbours.

Like Christchurch, the tight-knit community was rocked by deaths, displaced residents, destruction of the town centre and large-scale damage to its historic fabric.

"In this community, everyone does their bit. There seems to be a whole lot of givers and not a lot of takers," Courtney says.

"There's quite a good balance of people with energy to put into the place."

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It was clear in the days after the quake that many buildings from the port town's colourful past would be lost.

London St, home to several trendy bars and cafes, and Norwich Quay, on the waterfront, were hit hard.

Within months, landmarks such as the Harbourlight Theatre, Empire Hotel, Volcano Cafe and Holy Trinity Church were little more than empty lots. The historic Timeball Station, which only just survived the February quake, was reduced to rubble in June.

Lyttelton writer and Press columnist Joe Bennett described the aftermath at the time as being "like a post-war scene". The quake "came on like a bastard", he said.

Kate Anastasiou, who is battling to save the home of the popular Loons theatre company, says the view around the damaged town even a year later is "surreal".

"Lyttelton's people are still here and lots of stuff keeps going. If you keep your eyes to the ground, you're fine," she says. There is no time to dwell on what has been lost, Anastasiou says.

"People have been in survival mode, trying to find a way to not lose what we had. Do I feel sad when I look down London St? Yeah, I do, but what's the point?" she says.

Lyttelton's town centre is being rebuilt for a second time, after the 1870 fire wiped out many wooden structures.

Local historian Liza Rossie says it is ironic that quake- prone masonry and brick replaced wood after 1870 because it was a fire risk.

A number of the heritage structures, mostly residential cottages that pre-date more well-known buildings, survived the quake.

The Mitre Hotel is still standing, the former masonic building that houses artist Bill Hammond's studio is "teetering" and the Upham Clock remains but needs reinforcing, she says.

The loss of the Timeball Station was the biggest blow for Rossie.

"They had just finished doing it up so beautifully. It's been a restoration project that's been going on since I have lived in Lyttelton - 16 years - and it was just complete. It was so tragic."

The rebuild needs to reflect the town's "creativity and history", Rossie says.

"I think sometimes they try to make [buildings] old, but they look so twee and Disney-like, it's just awful," she says.

"I don't think people have to mimic the old style because Lyttelton's a really eclectic place. They just have to be sympathetic and not put concrete slabs up."

Rossie is keen to see the creation of a history trail, where plaques with photos and information about the demolished heritage buildings are displayed on their former sites.

There are frustrations about the pace of Lyttelton's recovery, with critics blaming red tape and insurance issues for slowing it down.

The town has no public toilets, swimming pool or Plunket rooms and few open community facilities.

The council's master plan for Lyttelton's rebuild will be finalised this month after public submissions. The general feeling among submitters is that London St should remain the shopping precinct and the pre-quake atmosphere retained.

"We'll certainly get a London St which has a very different look and feel. At the same time, we need to be mindful that Lyttelton is a town, not a suburb, and that what we want is a town centre not a a suburban shopping centre," Andrew Turner, chairman of the Lyttelton Harbour Business Association says.

Rebuilding Norwich Quay is an "issue all of its own" because of problems over heavy traffic from the port.

There is strong desire for the street to be "reclaimed for the town" and small retail and hospitality encouraged.

Turner says the quakes reduced more than 60 active businesses in the town to a "handful".

But he says many building owners and operators are either local or strongly connected to Lyttelton and committed to reopening.

"That was reflected in the desire to keep businesses open and get them reopened again immediately after the earthquake."

Turner points to the London St-Canterbury St intersection as an example of what can be achieved.

"That whole corner has really been a success story. I'd like to think that sets the tone for other success stories."

"While the recovery has been a little bit slower than perhaps some people expected, I don't doubt within the next 12 months we'll start to see some very positive things starting to happen.

"Lyttelton's not famous for standing still and I don't think this will be an exception."

- The Press

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