Built heritage in Hamilton - can we win the war?

OLD COURTHOUSE: Action needed.
OLD COURTHOUSE: Action needed.

It is not surprising that the demolition of St John's Methodist Church in Hamilton East took so many people by surprise. That's the typical heritage scenario, that we don't know what we've got till it's gone. Heritage conservation is so often a reactive business - we lose a building that has stood for many years and only then realise that it was one of the ways in which we located ourselves and recognised our neighbourhood or community.

Churches in particular often serve that function of landmark and touchstone: Even if they are used by others and only ever full to capacity for weddings and funerals. That's why the fate of Christchurch's Anglican Cathedral has caused such an upset: Its ruinous state disturbs the mental landscape that all of us with a connection to the city carry with us. If a city's historic buildings are demolished what will take their place as containers of our memories?

And speaking of Christchurch, the city from which I hail and try to avoid now at all cost, it does seem worth reminding folk that property developers were using the threat of earthquakes as the rationale for demolishing heritage buildings long before the 2010 and 2011 Canterbury quakes.

Of course since February 2011 the environment in which we discuss the need for earthquake strengthening has changed dramatically. That said, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the impact of the earthquakes concluded that strengthening a building to 34 per cent of "new building standard" [NBS] will be sufficient for preserving life.

That's the same position that was held before the quakes.

So if a property owner chooses to strengthen an earthquake-prone building beyond 34 per cent then that's a matter of policy rather than a statutory obligation. Of course your congregation, tenant or insurer might like you to go to 67 per cent or even 100 per cent of NBS - but you don't have to according to the law.

What's more, there's a five-year window to assess buildings to see if they fall below the 34 per cent threshold, and another decade or more on top of that until strengthening or demolition must take place.

So, where does that leave us in Hamilton? The city has struggled to recognise and appreciate its built heritage ever since I arrived in February 1996. That very same month the city lost a very fine example of post-war Modernism when the BNZ was demolished in Victoria St. I don't recall anyone lying in front of the bulldozer and I readily confess I did nothing to raise the possibility of its retention either. [I was new in town, starting a new job, and weary from spending many hours trying to save heritage buildings in Christchurch - oh what a futile exercise that turned out to be!]

But, here's the thing.

If we don't value the built environment of our towns and cities then to what extent do we care what happens in them? At least those of us who were involved in the recent submissions and hearings for Hamilton's Proposed District Plan can take some comfort in the fact that we made a contribution to the process - and will have bragging or whinging rights as a consequence.

While it is enormously disappointing that the council devised the District Plan with such speed and parsimony that no funding was available to do anything but roll over the existing heritage schedule, it's time now to move on and remain hopeful. It's not enough to offer up brickbats to those who decide, rightly or wrongly, to demolish historic buildings in out midst. If you care about the fate of a historic building then be part of its ongoing care and protection.

Councils look to their communities to let them know what is valued and should be protected. At the same time communities need councils to ensure that robust and defensible information leads to good decision-making. The reaction to the loss of St John's and, in my view, the much more significant loss of built heritage values at Temple View suggests that not only do people want to know what's going on in their community, they also want to know that the bulldozers at dawn scenario is not going to rob them of the chance to have their say and contribute to the cost of keeping what is valued. So look around - what building do you want to be able to show your grandchildren?

Ann McEwan is a Hamilton heritage consultant.