Ghost town in 10 years

Clock ticking: Otorohanga’s mayor Dale Williams fears much of the  main street will have to be demolished under new earthquake regulations.
Clock ticking: Otorohanga’s mayor Dale Williams fears much of the main street will have to be demolished under new earthquake regulations.

Waikato's small towns risk becoming ghost towns while Hamilton could lose its grand heritage buildings under new government guidelines around earthquake-prone buildings.

Waikato building owners were last night briefed on the Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry's proposals to strengthen buildings following the Christchurch quakes.

The proposals, put forward following the Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission, would require all non-residential and multi-unit, multi-storey residential buildings to have a seismic capacity assessment done within five years.

Owners of buildings identified as earthquake-prone would then have up to 10 years to strengthen or demolish these buildings.

The commission estimates 15,000 to 25,000 buildings, about 8 to 13 per cent of all non-residential and multi-unit, multi-storeyed residential buildings around the country, may currently be classified as earthquake-prone.

But Waikato leaders are warning many more older buildings won't meet the benchmark and are urging the Government to take a prudent approach to ensure the region's heritage buildings are not lost to the wrecking-ball.

Otorohanga mayor Dale Williams says he fears the legislation could turn small-town New Zealand into ghost towns.

Robert Dol, president of the Property Council's Waikato branch, said the body supported much of the ministry's proposals but advocated tax breaks for owners of earthquake-prone buildings.

Mr Dol endorsed buildings having to meet 33 per cent of the structural strength required under the Building Act. The council's biggest concern was around heritage buildings.

"Because of the pure cost of refurbishing those older buildings, it might be easier to demolish them than refurbish them. At the end of the day, owners see buildings as an investment and the bank is not going to lend them money if the owner can't make the building work as an investment."

Waipa mayor Alan Livingston said the council had started a desktop evaluation of commercial buildings in Te Awamutu and Cambridge, adding it was too early to say what impact the ministry's proposals would have on the two townships.

Mr Livingston said all buildings could be made safe but the cost may make it prohibitive to do so.

"It's about arriving at an acceptable balance because if we're not careful we will have demolition by neglect and that will affect our heritage buildings.

"We carried out extensive seismic upgrading of the Cambridge Town Hall about 14 years ago but the question has to be asked: ‘Will it comply with the standards being proposed?' "

Thames Coromandel District mayor Glenn Leach said the Government had to strike a balance between affordable heritage and public safety.

He said towns such as Thames and Coromandel township had international heritage appeal and the Government had to look at heritage funding to enable property owners to preserve older buildings.

Hamilton City Council deputy mayor Gordon Chesterman shared Mr Williams' concerns over the region's small towns and said the city could lose some of its "wonderful old heritage buildings" under the proposed guidelines. He said most property owners just wanted clear signals from the Government.

"Two-storey buildings are what Waikato's main streets are made up of. If you look at the older buildings in Hamilton's Victoria St, we could potentially lose some of our better heritage buildings because the cost of strengthening them will be beyond the economic value of the building.

"We could lose some wonderful old heritage buildings and they will be replaced by modern buildings; hopefully there will be some urban design aspects around them." 

Mayor fears new rules will ruin communities


"I'd say more than 70 per cent of Otorohanga's main street buildings won't meet the benchmark, and I'd guess all of Kawhia's commercial buildings won't either," says Otorohanga Mayor Dale Williams.

"Essentially, all larger homes, flats, commercial and industrial buildings, even cowsheds will have to be engineering assessed at a cost. We believe that almost all buildings built pre-1993 will fail a seismic test. Once the report is received by the building owner, the clock is ticking towards rebuild or demolish. Already insurance companies are requesting these reports before reinsuring, and potential and existing tenants are requesting assurances the buildings are safe."

Mr Williams said most tenants were struggling to pay rent and stay in business and he didn't see how they could pay more rent to cover the work.

"They also won't be able to stay in the buildings if it can't get insurance. So, we could see empty buildings, business closures.

"Also, many landlords may not be able to borrow to rebuild, and will be unlikely to be able to raise rents to compensate. I can see buildings being unsaleable, unrentable, and abandoned all round New Zealand."

Mr Williams was basing his conclusions on those of 10 lower South Island councils whose research showed more than 50 per cent of all commercial and industrial buildings would not pass the seismic test assessment.

"They have identified there will need to be over 20,000 assessments done in the five-year requirement, and ask where are the engineers in New Zealand for this work? They believe this will cost $31m, for the assessments alone. They have costed strengthening work to be around $1.8 billion.

"We haven't done this work at Otorohanga, and submissions close on March 8. A cynic would say that the legislation is already drafted and this is just lip service to consultation.

All councils have agreed to support the South Island councils' submission.

"My advice to the Government is to consult properly with local government. We need to negotiate around levels of risk, cost/benefit analysis, time frames, heritage status and so on.

"If legislation is formed as it's been suggested in the discussion documents, it will dramatically alter the face of all New Zealand towns, and the economic viability of many."

Mr Williams said he was hoping the legislation wouldn't turn small town New Zealand into a series of ghost towns.

Waikato Times