22 Aug 2018

'Our town could be destroyed by legislation rather than an earthquake'

8:46 am on 22 August 2018

Locals say the cost to fix earthquake-prone buildings in Marton is putting any potential buyers off, with existing owners desperately racing to beat tougher strengthening deadlines.

Marton, in the Rangitikei district, is a town for sale.

At the intersection of Broadway and Follett Street, three of the four buildings are empty.

The once-grand post office, built in 1925, has a large 'For Sale' sign draped in front of a odd mural where its front doors used to be.

"It's been empty for 30 years," said John Vickers, who heads the local heritage society.

"The windows are starting to go, the pigeons are inside, the wonderful cedar timber is in bad condition... it's sad and we would love a new owner to use the building."

But the opposite is happening.

Not only are low rents - as little at $10,000 a year for a Marton street front property - and high costs to fix earthquake-prone buildings putting buyers off, but existing owners are in a desperate race against tougher deadlines imposed under last year's earthquake-strengthening laws.

"Not enough consideration was given to low-rent, provincial New Zealand," says the deputy mayor of nearby Feilding, Michael Ford.

"We have a major concern that our town centre could be destroyed by legislation, rather than be destroyed by an earthquake."

Veteran retailer Kerry Gracie, who owns and runs his clothing store in what was once the Private Hotel in Feilding, is "absolutely" thinking of walking away.

"I'm of the age now where, say, to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on my building, without getting a new tenant in to recoup some of that money - I just can't afford to do that," he said.

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The once-grand post office was built in 1925. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Fearing the worst, the Manawatu and Rangitikei district councils, along with Tararua and Whanganui, have now joined forces to lobby the Building Minister Jenny Salesa to change the law and put the provinces on a slower track than high-rent cities.

They've written to her and met with her, and drafted in support from Local Government New Zealand.

"We are aware of...building owners who want to demolish heritage-listed buildings," the council's letter to the minister said.

"Demolition by neglect...will, without intervention, decimate our town centres."

So Rangitikei is doing something about it.

The quake-prone legislation envisages town centres becoming priority areas.

In such areas in the country's high-risk quake zones from Kaikōura to Napier, the deadline is cut from 15 years to 7.5 to strengthen or demolish buildings assessed as under 34 percent of new building standards.

But Rangitikei has decided against having any priority areas, after running a community consultation as required by the law.

"That was like tightening the noose around their neck," Rangitikei deputy mayor Nigel Belsham said.

"There is a number of councils, I believe, who've looked at what we've done and are potentially thinking of following our footsteps."

Next up is Manawatu, though it wants to delay its own public consultation on priority areas if it can. As things stand, it must begin this within a month.

The minister said the government was taking concerns about the financial burdens on building owners seriously.

"The new system was not created lightly," Ms Salesa said in a statement.

"In some areas, some building owners will need to make a difficult decision about whether to strengthen, demolish or sell their building," .

She had asked the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to investigate how to resolve concerns with the new laws, including having a look at the "trigger": This is where alterations are worth more than 20 percent of a building's value, so that by law, the fire safety systems and disability access must also be upgraded. Seismic work is very likely to activate this trigger in low-value provincial buildings, without any upgrade allowing for higher rents, due to lack of demand from tenants.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The aim of Marton's pushback is to win some time for the town's 70 historic buildings, half of which are quake-prone.

And to forestall other instances of what's happened on Broadway, where a church group demolished an old building which shared a common wall with the TAB - a brick wall that's now had to be propped up with steel and concrete supports, and fenced off.

Rangitikei is going against the tide in other ways. The council just bought three huge buildings on a corner of Broadway for $175,000 and these could become its new offices, though the rear brick wall moves in the wind, Nigel Belsham said.

Just up the street, Joe Karam picked a building with less problems.

The former All Black, and campaigner for David Bain, is turning the 1930s Hodder and Tolley stock agents' building, which had already been strengthened, into a self-storage business. Most units are already rented.

He bought it, plus an historic country house and spread of land, for less than a three-bedroom house in Te Kauwhata, when he moved to Marton from Waikato a year ago.

"Council would do well to spend some money keeping those buildings," Joe Karam said.

"I think you'd find tenants, I think you'd find investors and buyers.

"The heritage around here is substantial and it would be a great shame to have things knocked over unnecessarily."

Historian John Vickers points to Mr Karam's move as a sign of hope, along with other northern "economic refugees" showing interest in the first floor above shops.

But turning those into apartments would trigger building rules requiring a total overhaul, another vexed point the councils have raised with the government, along with the lack of tax exemptions for quake-strengthening work.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

The solutions were emerging, but not quickly, Mr Vickers said.

"Things happen slowly in provincial New Zealand and we need time."

Nearby, at the Sugar Plum cafe, owner Peter Monk understands the anxieties, though he himself is doing four times more business since moving into Marton off State Highway 1.

He paid $80,000 for the town's oldest building, The Old Granary, built in 1856.

But only because it's wooden and has no seismic strengthening requirements.

For the masonry buildings, he can foresee a wave of demolition.

"That's the fear at the moment - and it looks like that is on the cards because everyone's too scared to touch them really."

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