No warnings for neighbours about 'dangerous' church hall

10:37 am on 9 March 2018

Neighbours of a church hall, which trustees say is at risk of collapsing, have not been warned of the danger, including a primary school just 100 metres away.

The hall on Esplanade Road in Mt Eden

The hall on Esplanade Road in Mt Eden Photo: RNZ / Sarah Robson

The Presbyterian Church has called for the immediate evacuation of neighbours around the old St James Sunday School hall at 31 Esplanade Road in Mt Eden, and for the footpath and road next to it to be closed.

However, church authorities have not warned next-door neighbours, or nearby Ficino Primary School, although some flyers have been distributed in the neighbourhood by an anonymous person.

"The lives of residents living in close proximity to the hall on the southern and eastern side are at risk in the event of a partial or total collapse, as are the lives of passersby," Presbyterian Church Property Trustees chief executive Kos van Lier wrote to Auckland Council on 14 February 14, a letter obtained by RNZ shows.

"The trustees therefore request that the council assist them by immediately isolating any hazards" through a temporary evacuation and closing the adjacent path and road, he wrote.

The church had warned the council but not anyone else, Trustees deputy chair Margaret Galt said.

"We have no authority to shut the footpath - we have told the responsible authority who have the responsibility to tell the other people."

The hall's east side is just metres away from the footpath

The hall's east side is just metres away from the footpath Photo: RNZ / Sarah Robson

In a statement, the Council said the hall was subject to a dangerous building notice issued by the Council in April 2012.

Steve Pearce, Auckland Council's Regulatory Compliance Manager, said the developers' appeal against the September 2017 resource consent decision to demolish the buildings was still before the Environment Court.

"The council is investigating the site and the owners of the church are aware of their obligations under the health and safety legislation. The council has received independent expert advice which stated that, significant earthquake excepted, the Sunday school hall building is not at imminent risk of collapse nor is it beyond point of being safely repaired.

"In order to further address the concerns raised, we have engaged an additional engineering firm to carry out another structural engineering assessment."

He said it was a "difficult situation" due to the historical status of the building.

"The heritage team has been consulted and they have advised they do not believe the building needs to be demolished, but that work can be carried out by the owners to make the building safe.

"At this stage the owners have been advised of work that can be done to restore the building and maintain it as a historical building."

In 2014, the church made a multimillion-dollar deal with a developer, View West, to sell the site, but the sale will only go through if the hall is demolished. The council has blocked that demolition.

Last week the council wrote back to the church, saying it was ordering a further structural engineering assessment, but that an independent engineer who had checked the hall inside and out, and looked at the engineering reports the church's warning was based on, had concluded that "significant earthquake excepted", the hall was "not at imminent risk of collapse".

A 2016 report by another firm, No 8 Engineering, rated the hall at less than five percent of the new building standard for earthquakes. Under 34 percent is earthquake-prone.

No 8 engineeer Oishin Frost has checked the hall as it has deteriorated over the last two years.

"The risk for a kid walking past the building and taking literally 15 or 20 seconds is really low, but it's not a risk I'd want to take," he said.

A report Mr Frost completed for developer View West last October said structural failure was a certainty soon in parts of the three-storey-high, weak-cement, unreinforced hall.

On the south side, "when this wall collapses, it is a certainty that debris will ... be projected in to the neighbouring property".

The hall's nearest neighbour is four metres away

The hall's nearest neighbour is four metres away Photo: RNZ / Sarah Robson

A second engineer reviewed that report.

It found the tall, slender walls had "very low strength" with "extensive cracking", that heavy slate tiles were coming off the high, steep roof, and that a roof truss keystone had failed.

"This lack of support coupled with the lateral load from the other sagging roof trusses ... greatly increases the risk of collapse onto the neighbouring property," Calibre Consulting engineer Eric Simeone wrote.

It could collapse under simple gravity load, he told RNZ, "though I suspect it would need a little more help than that".

Structural calculations to narrow all that down had not been done, Mr Simeone said.

Mr Frost and Mr Simeone said a house next door, which is split into three flats, was most at risk, being just four metres from the hall's south wall.

A woman who moved in a couple of weeks ago two houses down and used the footpath four metres from the hall regularly, was unaware of the risk when RNZ visited.

"The council or the church should inform the people, give them warning," she said.

The hall does have a dangerous building notice stuck on its door that been there for almost six years.

That notice "remains an appropriate response to this building", council director of regulatory services Penny Pirrit wrote to the church last week.

No work had been done on the hall in those six years, except to put up a safety cordon, Margaret Galt said.

A warning sign on the hall door has been there for six years

A warning sign on the hall door has been there for six years Photo: RNZ / Sarah Robson

Mr Frost and Mr Simeone said the hurricane fencing around the hall was useless for stopping any debris in a collapse.

"We can't take the risk with anyone's safety so it's very urgent," Mr Frost said.

That risk could be mitigated by using temporary struts to prop up the hall, he said.

His October report called for an immediate cordon at least 15m on each side of the hall, which would extend well into the road, in the interim.

The wrangle over demolishing the hall is currently before the Enviroment Court after the council blocked it due to the buildin'gs category B heritage listing.

The church could not afford to fix and maintain the hall, Mr van Lier told the council.

"[We] strongly urge the Auckland Council to consider that the safety of life takes precedence over the historic value of a building," he wrote.

The church had not let the hall deteriorate to try to force the council's hand, Mrs Galt told RNZ.


April 2012 - Auckland Council puts a Dangerous Building notice on the Sunday School Hall

December 2014 - Church enters into a deal to sell the hall and church buildings with developer View West

February 2016 - No 8 Engineering, consulting for View West, rates hall under 5 percent of earthquake code

September 2017 - Council commissioners decline resource consent for View West to demolish the hall; developer appeals to the Enviroment Court (ongoing)

October 2017 - No 8 finds "marked deterioration" in hall and calls for an urgent cordon 15-20m out and propping

January 24, 2018 - Reviewing engineer Calibre Consulting concludes "the building in its current form is dangerous to the surrounding public"

Early February - Locals get an unsigned warning letter about the hall; media report the council saying the cordon round the hall is adequate

February 14 - Church asks Council to evacuate neighbours and close adjacent road and footpath

February 19 - Calibre summarises its and No 8's reports, saying risk of collapse has greatly increased

February 28 - Council replies to Church that it will get another engineering assessment, but its advice is there is no imminent risk of collapse