11 Apr 2024

Demolition by neglect for our heritage buildings

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 11 April 2024

The trade-off between keeping dilapidated heritage buildings and developing much-needed housing for the future.

The Gordon Wilson Flats in central Wellington.

The Gordon Wilson Flats in central Wellington. Photo: Bill McKay

A loophole in the law may allow derelict heritage buildings to be demolished or renovated - pending ministerial approval - but it's caught the ire of architectural experts.

While heritage buildings may be important to preserve, the reality is that they're often too expensive and complicated to fix and are left to fall into disrepair.

"You can't demolish [them] but this often leads to demolition by neglect," says Bill McKay, a senior lecturer at University of Auckland School of Architecture and Planning.

One of the most notable examples is the Gordon Wilson Flats - an 11-story apartment complex, built as social housing in the 1950s.

It's a rare and iconic example of post-war "international style" modernism architecture. It's also falling apart.

"They're pretty prominent, they overlook at lot of the city because they're up on a hill," The Post's council reporter Erin Gourley tells The Detail. 

"They are boarded up, they're covered in graffiti, you can't go in there because the building is earthquake prone."

The flats are owned by Victoria University, which wants to demolish them but hasn't been able to because of the council's heritage listing on the property.

Having a heritage listing means renovations are heavily restricted, and the building can't be torn down.

But now, the council has voted to remove the heritage listing on the Gordon Wilson Flats - along with that of nine other properties in the city - through a loophole in the law.

"Under the process, where heritage listings are nominated and they go through the council, normally the council's decision on them can be appealed to the Environment Court," Gourley says.

That's what happened when they tried to demolish the flats back in 2017. But the law has changed since then, essentially giving councils the final say before the decision goes to the Minister of Housing.

"This is all tied to rules of allowing more housing in cities, and Labour passed a law which said councils have to update their plans.

"As a part of that, no appeals to the Environment Court are allowed. Councils have figured out that they can actually look at heritage listings as well as housing as a part of that process." 

Housing Minister Chris Bishop is reviewing the case and is expected to announce his decision later this month.

Last week, Gourley asked him about the decision.

"He said he didn't think cities should be museums, so that's, I guess, where his head is at the moment. We can't get anything more specific at this point, because while he's considering it, he's not allowed to say exactly what he's going to do."

Despite the difficulties of keeping heritage buildings, Bill McKay thinks it's important.

"People who've grown up or who are very familiar with buildings don't quite know what they've got," he says.

He discusses the idea of subsidies or rates rebates, which could help incentivise owners to look after the buildings.

He also talks about the idea of "adaptive reuse" - taking an existing building and improving it - and suggests it should be easier under the law for this kind of alteration to happen.

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