Quake rules hit heritage efforts

Kate Wilson.
Kate Wilson.
Dunedin city councillors fear a tough new approach to New Zealand's earthquake-prone buildings risks derailing progress upgrading Dunedin's heritage buildings.

The concern was raised at yesterday's planning and regulatory committee meeting, as councillors signed off on the council's submission on the Government's Building (Earthquake-prone Buildings) Amendment Bill 2013.

The Bill would give councils five years to assess nearly 200,000 buildings, including all non-residential and high-rise, multi-unit apartment buildings, for earthquake risks.

Owners of earthquake-prone buildings would then get another 15 years to upgrade to at least 34% of building code requirements, at an expected cost of about $1.7 billion.

The council's submission supported the Bill's intent, but argued against many of the changes, which council heritage policy planner Dr Glen Hazelton warned could cost the council $5.6 million in assessment costs.

Cr Kate Wilson told yesterday's meeting she was also nervous the changes ''may well'' impede progress in upgrading the city's heritage buildings under existing council policies.

She wanted that progress underscored in the council's submission, and found support from Cr Jinty MacTavish, who said the city's heritage buildings were an important part of the city's economic development strategy.

Any loss of momentum would come at a cost to the city, which should be stressed to the Government, she said.

''If we lose the momentum, for whatever reason, then that's a real opportunity cost,'' she said.

The council already had an earthquake-prone building policy, introduced in 2011, which gave building owners until July 1 next year to provide the council with initial assessments at their own cost.

However, the council's submission warned some building owners were already scrapping plans to pay for their own assessments, in anticipation of a change in Government policy.

Cr Lee Vandervis told the meeting the Government's ''knee-jerk reaction'' against heritage buildings also ignored the fact the majority of fatalities from the Canterbury earthquakes occurred when more modern buildings collapsed.

''I believe the whole Government reaction to the terrible events in the Christchurch earthquake has been to minimise some council and government responsibility for very bad buildings built not that long ago, and to push it on to heritage buildings,'' he said.

Committee chairman Cr David Benson-Pope said the submission would be fortified to underscore that.

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull said the entire lower South Island was overrepresented when it came to older buildings and the likely economic impact of the proposed changes, but Dunedin was ''the extreme example of that''.

Dr Hazelton said the council wanted a regional approach to new rules, as well as the ability to prioritise some areas, such as George St, and types of improvements, such as parapets, over others, he said.

Reality check

This debate would benefit from some facts, particularly in response to the offering from Cr Vandervis.  

Research after the February 2011 quake indicated that approximately 700 more people would have been killed if older, earthquake-prone and/or damaged buildings had not been empty and dangerous areas had not been barricaded following the September 4 and Boxing Day quakes and ensuing aftershocks.  If the PGC, CTV and other clearly damaged buildings had been dealt with appropriately the death toll would have been much lower.

The old buildings of Christchurch were death traps then, just as many of the similar buildings in Dunedin are now.  Heritage should not take precedence over safety, ever.  People surely have to be more important than the past. 

Rather than viewing earthquake strengthening and in some cases redevelopment of buildings uneconomic to strengthen would actually be the economic boost that Dunedin so desperately needs.  It should be seen as an investment not a cost.

Some will not survive

Some buildings will not survive because we as smaller groups or individuals own buildings that will be hammered by earthquake strengthening costs. Already we cannot maintain at the cost of rising DCC rates, rising insurance, rising cost of garden, plumbing and electrical services.

So all those who argue for a 'fat cat' tax on those who are trying to make ends meet using rental property investment should take their words back and look at the reality.

Older style buildings are on their way out. Our lovely old churches, theatres and municiple buildings are going, going gone; all because some people want to hammer investors and owners of good quality buildings and the heritage of NZ.

Earthquake standards are being used for unequally sharing the cost of the risk.

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