Hard Choices Coming on Heritage

Bob Parker wrote recently that Wellington will have to make choices about protecting its heritage from earthquakes, just as Christchurch is now having to do. He’s right, although obviously we don’t have to make agonising decisions with our city in ruins. He’s right that we may not be able to afford as owners and as a community to strengthen every heritage building. That means making choices and we will need to do that carefully and thoughtfully.

Your Council has long taken earthquake resilience seriously. We’ve all just been reminded we live in a seismically active area. The building code in Wellington requires our buildings to be three times as strong as say Auckland’s (to achieve the same code rating). For 20 years we’ve been strengthening roads, bridges, reservoirs, tunnels, and pipes.

Wellington is light years ahead of the rest of the country in assessing whether buildings are earthquake prone. Many buildings were assessed in the 1980s, and have subsequently been strengthened or demolished. Some I think we would now regret having lost. Just 6 existing buildings now have the ‘times up” call but these include category 1 Erskine College and Chapel.

Your Council began a comprehensive programme to assess commercial and apartment buildings some 7 years ago. 4648 pre-1976 buildings were considered potentially earthquake prone (EQP – below 34% of new build code). 4851 have been assessed to 30 June 2013, 4239 comply with the Building code and are not earthquake prone whilst 611 are prone, 134 of these are heritage listed buildings.. That 3,395 is about the same as the rest of the country – put together – and there are believed to be some 70,000 buildings nationwide to be assessed.

611 Wellington buildings so far have been assessed at less than 34%. 131 of these are heritage buildings, with another 39 heritage and monuments still to be assessed. We have 835 buildings heritage listed or in heritage areas, so the vast majority are not considered earthquake prone. That is good news.

Buildings are required to be 34% or above ‘New Build Standard’ to avoid being considered earthquake prone. That means that in the event of a so called ‘moderate earthquake’ (usually considered around 7.3 in magnitude but of course we all know there are complexities such as depth of quake etc) the building it is expected to preserve life but doesn’t necessarily mean the building itself will remain usable. If we want buildings to be usable a higher standard of strengthening may be required. Many owners are doing that for market reasons anyway. They want to retain tenants, people want to be able to continue to operate after a quake. A big big lesson from Christchurch is that we cannot have our few transport routes blocked by dangerous buildings and have the central city closed down for months and years.

Building owners currently have between 10 and 20 years to strengthen their buildings depending on the nature and level of use and its expected that our assessments will be complete by June 2014. The recent announcement by Government does not change these. The new timeframes announced by Governement only applies to buildings assessed once the new law is in place.

Many building owners including heritage building owners have already moved to strengthen their buildings. Examples include the Hope Gibbons, Huddart Parker, Whitcoulls buildings and the Carillon, Embassy, Town Hall (now committed) Thistle Hall and City Gallery. Sometimes strengthening is quite cheap, at other times it runs to many millions of dollars. Private owners will tend to strengthen where it makes sense for them to do so. Council as well as strengthening its own buildings has also long supported private owners with grants to undertake work such as up front engineering and conservation assessments. That is some recognition that heritage listing is about public rather than private benefit.

The challenge will be where it isn’t economically viable or the owner simply doesn’t have the wherewithal. Eventually the yellow stickers become red stickers and the buildings become unusable. The iconic Erskine College in Island Bay is in just this position with a stand off between heritage interests the owner and the Council. The question is which buildings are the must save icons, what level of public support is reasonable (and won’t that be a debate !) and what ownership rights and public access rights might flow from public money being involved ? Government has also been asked repeatedly to assist – allowing strengthening costs to be expensed rather than capitalised would be a significant help for many buildings. It would also seem a good deal cheaper – and safer – than picking up the pieces as it has had to in Canterbury.

I’ve done my inexpert ‘top 40 in Wellington’ (below)and noted which have and haven’t been strengthened. Have I missed something you think should be in the top tier – something that would be an irreplaceable loss ?
What is good in Wellington is that many of our most significant icons are already strengthened. However there remain some very significant buildings still needing strengthening. For me that list is headed by St Gerrards, part of Stewart Dawsons corner, St Mary of the Angels, the Public Trust Building, Opera House, Turnbull House and Shed 11. It critically also includes much of Cuba Street and Courtenay Place which clearly collectively contribute immensely to Wellington’s character. It also includes suburban icons like Erskine Chapel and College, St Marys (Karori), St Johns (Johnsonville), Northland Fire Station and possibly the Ngaio Town Hall, examples of buildings which are important contributors to the character of their communities. Of course there is the current debate over the category I Harcourts building which is prominent in Lambton Quay, though doesn’t appear to be actually earthquake prone. We have not lost a single heritage listed building since the current District Plan was notified in 1994. We’ve also added protections for the character of the older inner city suburbs but as they are comprised of largely small residential units the earthquake assessment process doesn’t apply. Ideally we want to get through the need to ensure resilience without losing any, but that seems unlikely and indeed Historic Places Trust has acknowledged the likely need to make choices.

What would your choices be ? Should public money be involved and if so what ownership and access rights might go with it ? What are the icons of Wellington ? This is an important debate we have to have, and it is one for the whole community.

My top 40 (top 13, next 13, final 14)

Building and HPT category Status Comments

Beehive To be assessed formally but expected to be fine
Cuba St Some strengthened, some EQP
Erskine Chapel Red stickered Stand off between owner, Council, and SECT
Futuna Chapel (I) Assessed at 79% Iconic example of Maori – European architecture.
Government Buildings Restored and strengthened Biggest wooden buildings in the Southern Hemisphere
Old BNZ (actually 4 buildings together) Still to be formally assessed – but should be fine as were base isolated in 1990s
Old St Pauls No strengthening required
Parliament Building Base isolated 1990s – Assessment requested
St Gerrards Yellow Stickered
St James Theatre Strengthened
St Mary of the Angels (Boulcott St) Yellow stickered
Town Hall Strengthening work agreed to start in November
Wellington Railway Station Strengthened

AMP Building IEP 65% Not EQP
Carillon IEP 14% Yellow Stickered Strengthening work under way
Courtenay Place – Blair – Allen St precinct Not EQP
Crematorium 1909 EQP – not yellow stickered yet Karori Cemetery
General Assembly Library Parliament Yet to be assessed
Government House Strengthened 100% Governor General’s residence
High Court Building Outside Policy
Hunter Building Not EQP, strengthened Victoria University
Karori Reservoir Valve Tower Has not been assessed
Katherine Mansfield Birthplace IEP 41% Not EQP
Stewart Dawsons Corner (3 buildings) IEP 24% yellow Stickered
Thistle Inn IEP 40% Not EQP
Wellington Rowing Club IEP 16% POT EQP
Awaiting detailed assessment from WWL

Ashleigh Court – Newtown Building A – Further Info – EQP, Yellow stickered
Building B – Further info – Not EQP

DIC Strengthened
Embassy Theatre Strengthened to 95%
Erskine Main Block Red stickered
Homewood To be assessed British High Commissioner’s residence
Hope Gibbons Building IEP 3% Yellow Stickered
John Street Corner Buildings – Newtown EQP Yellow Stickered
Kirkaldie and Stains Outside Policy, fully strengthened in the 80’s
Public Trust Building IEP 8.1% Yellow Stickered
St Johns Willis St Reassessment of IEP 25% Yellow Stickered – Awaiting detailed assessment from owner
St Margarets College – Tower Building Outside Policy (Built 1997)
St Marys Karori Detailed Assessment –confirms EQP – Queued for Yellow Notice
St Peters Willis St IEP 30% POT EQP – Awaiting qualitative assessment from engineers. Extension granted until 13/09, Notice not issued yet

State Insurance building Further Information – Not EQP
BNZ Te Aro Branch IEP 8% POT EQP – WCC engineers reviewing further info. Notice not issued yet
Dominion Museum Yet to be assessed – IEP from owners
Harcourts Building EQP Yellow stickered
Newtown shops All URM not all assessed
Ngaio Town Hall IEP 53% Not EQP – To be reviewed by engineers