Monday, March 27, 2006

Brian Rudman: Wrecker's ball makes mockery of heritage rules

Ten months ago Mayor Dick Hubbard was heralding "sweeping" new regulations "to save the city's character suburbs" from "the unannounced bulldozer".

He declared that "what we're proposing sends the strongest of signals that we are serious about protecting our heritage and neighbourhoods".

What a shame no one seems to have told the developers, the real estate agents and council staff of this crusade. In the Weekend Herald came news that celebrity couple Adam Parore and Sally Ridge had won their battle to demolish a 100-year-old house in the inner-city heritage suburb of Freemans Bay, and that council officials had nodded through the demolition of a century-old house in Marine Parade, Herne Bay.

And to demonstrate what some in the real estate industry think of Mr Hubbard's crusade, what about the headline in Saturday's real estate section under a picture of an old villa in Picton St, Freemans Bay, just a block or two from the Parore property.

"!!DYNAMITE!! Innovate or Detonate!" was the come-on from Maxine Lees of Ray White Real Estate. To be absolutely fair, the small print underneath did say "this precious gem, once properly cut and polished, will once again shine ... "

But if you really believe this, then why the emphasis on dynamite and detonate accompanied with a picture of the million-dollar sea-view freed up if the dynamite was to go off?

The proposed plan changes, which are still snailing their way through the system, affect zones Residential 1 and 2. The Residential 1 change was "to protect the built historic character of Auckland's early established residential neighbourhoods" and the Residential 2 change "is intended to protect the spacious and tree-filled qualities of sites characterised by generously sized lots, wide roads and lower densities, often with period housing".

The change requires that the demolition or removal of any building constructed prior to 1940 in either zone requires a resource consent as a restricted discretionary activity.

Council will review the structural and physical condition of the building and permission to demolish a building may be declined. Previously houses in these two zones could be demolished without a resource consent.

At least the Parore house went to a planning hearing. There, the commissioners, while acknowledging it had heritage value and was repairable, decided demolition would only have "minor effects on the streetscape, visual amenity and heritage character" of the neighbourhood. Which to me at least, seems to ride roughshod over the spirit of the pending new rules.

But the 29 Marine Parade case is risible, suggesting the mayor has his work cut out dragging his staff into brave new world.

Council planner Mike Watson ruled the house on the site was built after 1940 and was therefore not subject to the new rules. What was the basis of this decision? First a report from "building consultant" Alex Burrell who concluded "the building has been subject of many alterations and modifications in its life, which in the absence of council files [before 1960], is most accurately dated early 1950s. It is not an example of heritage building from the pre-war era."

Mr Burrell, better known as Auckland's demolition king, whose business card proclaims "It takes balls to wreck buildings", decided that on the basis of the construction materials used, "the house was built during the early 1960s and substantially renovated in the late 1970s".

He did however concede that "access to the upper levels of the property were not possible due to tenancy reasons, however the basement was accessed ... "

On the basis of this report, council advisers Meridian Planning Consultants declared "this report conclusively demonstrates that the building that exists on the site today did not exist on the site prior to 1940".

Mr Burrell made his judgment based on poking around the exterior and basement of the building. But once demolition began, the telltale 30mm kauri flooring and scrim-lined walls of a pre-1920s home were revealed.

Council officials seem to have taken no note of Quotable Value New Zealand listing it being built between 1900 and 1909, nor of a drainage plan dated 1915 on council files.

This building might have been doomed even under the new rules, but if the perfunctory treatment it got from council staff was an example of the "getting serious" promised by the mayor, then no heritage building is one bit safer.

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