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 Christchurch heritage is once again in the news with a number of articles published vocalising concern for the current regime of heritage building treatment and demolition. 

Unfortunately it sounds all too familiar with the same debates, criticisms and problems as the first time round, voiced in the weeks after the February earthquake by professionals and advocates alike; 

The speed of destruction, the lack of care given to heritage fabric during demolition, and poor long term strategies.

The Press, based in Christchurch, has been the loudest voice with 3 articles in the last week, recording dismay and anger at the rate and reasons for destruction, the apparent ineffectiveness of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT), and lessons from overseas experience.

One can only guess at the reason for this new burst of media awareness, but having listened to part of the interview by Kathryn Ryan with Anna Crighton, the Chairperson of the Christchurch Heritage Buildings Fund, on Radio New Zealand this morning, Crighton’s description of Christchurch CBD was extremely sad as she described it as open and flat.

Recent visibility of what a levelled city looks like makes for a striking comparison with Christchurch a year ago, when the historic quarter around High St was full of heritage buildings and character…And as they say, a picture speaks a thousand words.

And a picture can evoke raw emotion and hit you with the reality stick.

Heritage made up a large part of the appeal of Christchurch CBD. Now with varying figures being bandied about regarding the number of buildings that have been and projected to be demolished, the reality may be coming home to more people that, heritage can be an integral part of identity and culture….and it is being lost, fast.

Dr Kit Miyamoto of Miyamoto International brought an international perspective to the heritage question last week.  CEO of an engineering firm that has assisted many cities following major natural disasters, including earthquakes in Kobe, Istanbul and Mexico, he has voiced his concern at the numbers of buildings to be demolished. 

He and business partner Michael King, are reported as saying that they have seen cities in a far worse situation that Christchurch, and that many of the heritage buildings in the CBD can be saved.  Costs are high, but if the heritage fabric of the city is what make Christchurch Christchurch, then every effort should be put in to save this. 

They also advocated for opening up the CBD as soon as possible to discourage the ‘doughnut effect’ which sees a lack of investors entering a work space, discouraging still more potential investors. 

An equally damning effect on the CBD from the heritage conservation perspective is,

‘as individual buildings are levelled leaving spaces amongst the inner city, these result in increased building decay and damage.  Buildings normally protected by their neighbour are exposed to new sources of damage, be it weather or airborne chemicals and particles, accelerating the destruction of already failing buildings.’ (Brigid Gallagher)

Ie. The heritage fabric (the bricks and mortar) that is Christchurch identity, further crumbles on increased exposure.

There needs to be a balance between the use of the CBD, the length of time the CBD is left abandoned, and the numbers of buildings to be demolished or restored.

Underlying this of course is cost and will.

NZHPT, who have been heavily criticised for their apparent apathy this week has replied that emergency powers put in place following the February quake have left them less able to protect.  Chairperson, Bruce Chapman has said that the Trust is disappointed in the numbers being demolished, but the way things stand now the decision ‘comes down to the wishes of the owners.’

Of the 176 that NZHPT assessed Chapman says that they have mainly argued for retention rather than demolition.  150+ have however been tagged for partial or full demolition. The Christchurch City Council numbered about 80 listed buildings demolished by the end of July in another article in The Press in August.

Dr Miyamoto was also dismayed at the numbers.  Of about 2400 buildings in the CBD area, 1200 (50%) earmarked for demolition is ‘unbelievable’, stating that 10% should be a more realistic number.  He says,

‘I don’t understand why this should be. In general your building stock has stood up very well in comparison with other cities and you have good codes and excellent engineers.”

Anna Crighton this morning also remarked that the key to heritage retention and restoration requires the support of the owners.  That, and dollars, which is where the Canterbury Earthquake Heritage Building Fund comes in.

So far 2 buildings have been earmarked for restoration, and that more were on the table, ‘as we speak’.  The 2 named in the interview were the New City Hotel in Colombo Street and the Masonic Lodge in Lyttleton, both of which have met certain criteria to be eligible for funding.  Others apparently will not.   There is currently $4.5million available.

Crighton concluded with the opinion that,

 those people who did make the decision to apply for heritage building restoration funding and receive it, would be, in the future, in possession a very rare asset. 

Dr Miyamoto concluded,

 ‘New Zealand’s EQC insurance structure is very good and is an exception globally.  It gives you a lot of options other countries don’t have,” he says. ‘The city still has the potential to become an international model and provide a blueprint for earthquake recovery. If further demolitions are halted right away he could see as a part of that model the city could distinguish itself with a high retention rate of its unique character base.’

Doesn’t that sound like a good idea for a country world famous for its innovation?