21 Sep 2017

Heritage enthusiasts fear domino effect

5:38 pm on 21 September 2017

Heritage enthusiasts are afraid there could be a domino effect if the owners of a 110-year-old building in Whanganui are allowed to demolish it.

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall says the city is home to 10 percent of all of New Zealand's heritage buildings. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

The owners of the Thains building on the corner of Victoria Avenue and Taupō Quay said it was not economically viable to earthquake strengthen the building, and they have been unable to sell.

James Thain and Co Ironmongers built the three-storey brick building in 1907.

The Thains building

The Thains building in Whanganui Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

It is listed as a Class B heritage site in the district plan and inside the old town conservation zone.

Flooded in 2015, its awning is broken, paint is peeling and the upper levels - with their distinctive arched windows - are vacant, while gift shops and galleries occupy the retail space below.

Despite its appearance, the chairman of the Earthquake Prone Buildings Taskforce, Richard Thompson, said the building - the gateway to the CBD from the south - was still worth saving.

Earthquake Prone Buildings Taskforce chairman Richard Thompson.

Earthquake Prone Buildings Taskforce chairman Richard Thompson says the building could be converted into high-end apartments. Photo: RNZ / Robin Martin

"The key thing about this building is that it is a corner building and in the main street these corner buildings are really important because they identify and basically bracket these really important intersections and they're the centre point of town."

Whanganui was home to 10 percent of all of New Zealand's heritage buildings and because of their popularity with visitors Mr Thompson said they were worth $40 million a year to the local economy.

"Whanganui's been lucky in that we haven't been through boom growth periods like some other towns in the 70s and 80s where a lot of these old buildings were knocked down and replaced with basically fairly bland, boring construction which was practical but lost all that character."

Mr Thompson said public-private cooperation might be required to save the Thains building and that high-end apartments could be one solution for the site.

Property consultant Noel Mouldey represents the Hawke's Bay family which owns the building.

Mr Mouldey said it met only 5 percent of the new building standard and was dangerous.

Government regulation meant the owners either had to earthquake strengthen the building or see that it was demolished, he said.

"The cost of strengthening is huge, we're talking in excess of $1 million, about $1.8 million by the time it is fully refurbished after the earthquake strengthening.

"So it is totally uneconomic in Whanganui to even consider strengthening the building so we need to go through the process of obtaining approval to demolish."

Mr Mouldey said it was impossible to get a return on the building, which had a capital value of $300,000, and approval to demolish could make it easier to sell.

He said owners of other heritage buildings in Whanganui and beyond would be watching the consents process closely.

"We have a huge propensity of severely earthquake prone buildings in Whanganui that don't meet the code so they're either going to be strengthened or demolished and there could be a domino effect attached to this. I guess in some respects it's a test case."

Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall said it was premature to be talking of demolition.

"Just to demolish and not to do something with the land I would be virulently opposed to that."

Mr McDouall said there was still time to come up with other solutions for the Thains building.

"The $1.8 million to strengthen ... what's the timeframe for that? It's a least a decade away if not two. So the reality is that the millstone is in the future and it is not something that can't be obviated by engineering advances or selling the building to someone who wants to move in there."

The resource consents application for the approval to demolish the building was due to be resubmitted to council this week with additional information.

The owners will find out whether it has been successful after 28 days.

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