Keeping heritage connections vital

Last updated 13:04 01/02/2013

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OPINION: Rob Hall, southern region general manager of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, says 473 of the trust's registered sites in greater Christchurch have survived the earthquakes.

With the exception of a couple of recent shakes, Cantabrians have been thankful for a relatively quiet summer with little seismic activity and lots of warm sunny days that have given people a well-earned chance to relax.

However, as we settle into 2013, it remains a difficult time for many people in Canterbury as we continue to negotiate the earthquake recovery.

Last year saw the deconstruction of a number of familiar heritage buildings. Some of these came down with a fight and protest that evoked passion on both sides of the debate. Despite the feeling of some people, that their efforts at times went unheard as buildings were demolished, many buildings have been saved under difficult circumstances and the emotion displayed shows we care deeply about our communities and our built heritage.

The New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) works closely with councils, the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) and the Christchurch Central Development Unit (CCDU). Like any relationship we don't always agree on outcomes, but the important conversations that people should expect to happen occur within a process mandated under the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act.

In the eyes of some, it can be difficult to justify the retention of damaged historic buildings when there is so much other repair work required to return our province to a prosperous place full of life and soul. However, if this is to be achieved, the preservation of key structures as a connection with the past is vital.

Efforts to preserve our remaining historic buildings are not in vain, rather they are a realisation that Christchurch people need some continuity with the past - our landmarks, traditions and shared cultural heritage - as we build our province's future.

Our heritage buildings tell us a wonderful story of what we have achieved here, and contribute to a wider sense of Canterbury and New Zealand identity - in short, to a sense of home. It would be a travesty for our grandchildren to look back and question why we demolished our taonga when there may have been opportunities to preserve, strengthen and use them.

Preserving our heritage also contributes to our growth economically. Before 2010, half a million international tourists annually deviated from the shortest route around the South Island to visit Christchurch. A major drawcard for the city was its notable collection of Gothic Revival-style architecture, its smaller character, colonial buildings and streetscapes which provided aesthetic and financial benefits to the city.

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As it stands today NZHPT has 473 registered sites in greater Christchurch that have survived. There is no question that this is less than in 2011 and some of these may yet be demolished by their owners for various reasons. However, we have many registered sites left in Canterbury that remind us of our past as we look to the future.

There are great examples of owners and trusts having the commitment, patience, courage and, of course, money to save heritage buildings. Fine examples include Terrace Station in Hororata, the Community of the Sacred Name on Barbados St, St Luke's Church in Little Akaloa, Wood's Mill in Addington, the Excelsior Hotel faade on Manchester St, St Barnabas church in Fendalton, the Heritage Hotel in Cathedral Square and the former Rangiora Town Hall.

As a result of the Canterbury earthquakes, much work is being done by NZHPT staff with owners of heritage properties on repair and retention options. If it is viable to reach a positive economic solution then these buildings are normally saved. Some of these discussions have successful outcomes for heritage and unfortunately some, like Cranmer Court, do not.

As we look to the future with the extensive rebuilding of our city and towns, we should aspire for the retention of heritage within contemporary developments based on New Zealand and international precedents and examples. This includes retaining buildings on their original sites, where possible. In the Christchurch context, the retention of heritage in situ is even more significant due to the extensive loss of surrounding heritage and historic landmarks.

There will be many challenges ahead that will require a great deal of moral courage as planners look to strike the right balance of old and new. Some heritage cases will be lost, but many, where there is a willing owner, will be won as we continue to work towards incorporating our past with the new.

- The Press

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