Change of plan

The Exchange, Princes St and High St looking south in 1948. Photo from Evening Star.
The Exchange, Princes St and High St looking south in 1948. Photo from Evening Star.
The Exchange, as seen today. Photo by Jane Dawber.
The Exchange, as seen today. Photo by Jane Dawber.

Once the financial heart of the city, the Exchange has seen better times. But things are changing. Following the report by museum consultant Dr Rodney Wilson, made public this week, about Dunedin's standing as "a special and unique heritage site", Charmian Smith investigates the rejuvenation of Dunedin's CBD.

Many of us have little reason to spend time in the Exchange.

• Solid centre

As you drive past on Princes St, the area seems dominated by the old chief post office (CPO), now a shadow of its former glory.

There are few people on the wide street and few shops.

However, stop by on a sunny weekday lunchtime and you'll find people sitting in the Exchange plaza eating their lunch and drinking coffee from the coffee caravan.

A block back, people are sunning themselves on the grass in Queens Gardens as the traffic rushes around them on the one-way system, and others slip into the nearby Chinese Garden to enjoy the peace.

Poke about further and despite the blank windows that once were shopfronts but are now offices or hotels, you'll find smart cafes, refurbished pubs, and modern offices full of people tucked away in smartly renovated old buildings.

And between the buildings, you may even stumble on intriguing old bluestone and brick courtyards where drays once unloaded goods for the surrounding warehouses.

Unfortunately, you are more likely to come across a car park where a building has been demolished and all such history obliterated.

That is not to say that the area's future lies in expanses of asphalt.

Indeed, brighter prospects have been serially discussed over the years.

Some of the most familiar include converting the former CPO into a hotel, or the former Bank of New Zealand into accommodation.

Though these two have not yet come to pass, and though it may not seem like it to the casual observer, there's a quiet revitalisation going on in the wider area.

Buildings are being redeveloped into modern offices and new apartments, and three upmarket tourist hotels - the Southern Cross, Mercure, and Dunedin City in Princes St - are expanding.

Businesses including hairdressers, gyms, cafes, pubs, and an organic supermarket have opened, providing services for the many people working and living in the area.

It may not be the busy commercial and retail area, or transport hub and crossroads some people remember fondly, but it is taking on a vibrancy of its own, an intriguing mix of shabby and chic.

Inside the refurbished Clarion Building in Princes St. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
Inside the refurbished Clarion Building in Princes St. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
One man involved in redeveloping historic buildings in the wider Exchange area is structural engineer Stephen Macknight.

Over the past 15 years, his family has redeveloped the former New Zealand Insurance Company building, now Queens Gardens Court, the former New Zealand Express Company building, now Consultancy House, and most recently the Clarion/Bing Harris buildings between Princes St and High St.

The other members of the family are busy in their respective professions, so buying, redeveloping and tenanting buildings is as much a passion as an investment - although they need to have a fair return, Mr Macknight says.

"We are looking at doing something that is of real value and adds to the area and we get satisfaction from it as well," he says.

Developers often think it's more expensive to renovate and strengthen an old building to modern standards than build a new one, but it depends on what you are trying to do and who your tenants are, he says.

People tend to think they need to increase the floor area to make money out of a building, and that means building a new building.

They don't realise that if the building is upgraded well, suitable tenants will pay higher rents.

In fact, if the main structure is in good condition and you look at it as starting just from the shell of a building with no income, it can be cheaper than building from scratch, Mr Macknight says.

"It doesn't have to be hugely expensive to strengthen and renovate.

All buildings vary, but most of the ones we are talking about aren't big buildings and as part of the new developments, you can include earthquake strengthening without adding a lot of extra cost to it, because you are upgrading for fire between levels and putting new ceilings in and whatnot.

You can tie the building together and provide that earthquake strength without it costing too much.

It scares people off but it doesn't need to - but you need to get good advice."He is saddened when buildings are knocked down and turned into car parks like the old Century Theatre site on the corner of Princes St and Jetty St.

"Not only was the building pulled down but it was allowed to be made into a car park, because if it hadn't been, somebody would have had to do something with it.

Now they're getting a reasonable income as a car park so it won't happen for a long time," he said.

The main risk with old buildings is they deteriorate if they are not occupied, he says.

"If they are not redeveloped, they get secondary reuse and people abuse them and don't look after them so they set into a further stage of decay."

A resource consent decision is still pending over the proposed demolition of a row of historic buildings with protected facades on the corner of Princes and Stafford streets, which the developer claims have deteriorated.

When Octa bought the old National Bank building 10 years ago, it came with plans to convert it into student apartments, Mr Cockerill says.

"It wasn't the appropriate reuse for a building with this dignity and position and understanding."

Octa's innovative and sustainable renovation of the building has won several national and international awards, and now more than 70 people work in it, with major tenants including Motor Trade Finance in the splendid banking chamber, and Tourism Dunedin in the tower block.

"We found the city council and the Historic Places Trust very good to deal with and, yes, we benefited from rates relief and all that, but we are paying a lot more rates now than we would if we had left the building the way it was."

"Dunedin has several smart engineers who can come up with innovative solutions to earthquake-strengthening and fireproofing older buildings, but it takes determination to make it happen, and the challenge is to do it economically."

He is pleased to see there is a proposal to encourage a technology precinct in the Exchange area.

Many knowledge companies liked to be seen in funky spaces, to which old buildings lend themselves, he says.

Peter Harris, manager of the city council economic development unit, says there are many innovative but low-profile software businesses in Dunedin, many clustered around the Exchange, whose customers are mainly offshore.

The idea of a technology park for the city has been mooted, but put aside as too complicated and expensive at present, according to Mr Harris.

However, the economic development team felt that many of the advantages of a park, such as raised profile, shared services such as boardroom facilities, and networking between people in different firms, could be encouraged in a technology precinct using existing buildings and services.

"Some of the businesses say they don't sell things here so why do they need a profile here. But I think there is a need for a profile if you are wanting to recruit staff or if you are looking for investors," Mr Harris says.

"Sometimes, we are asked what's it going to cost the city council to do, but it's not necessarily about a lot of money. It's about facilitating.

"It's easy to come up with an idea, but it will only happen with the support of the majority of building owners and the support of those technology tenants," he said.

To make the Exchange area more people-friendly, Don Anderson, a town planner who works nearby, would like to see Princes St between Jetty and Rattray streets and Bond, Water and Liverpool streets closed except to buses and local traffic and parking.

It could be softened with trees and places for people to sit and traffic could be rerouted along the one-way system or Jetty/Manse and Rattray streets, which could also be made one-way, he says.

Mr Anderson would also like to revive an old proposal to develop a Chinatown in Rattray St, where there are several Chinese restaurants and Chinese-owned properties.

He suggests a walkway over Rattray St linking malls within the buildings on either side.

However, according to Sonny Chin, whose father, Eddie Chin, planned to develop a Chinatown in the area many years ago, there would be no point now, as many of the buildings on the south side of the street have been bought by the Southern Cross and are being converted into car parks.

The area's history is attracting a new category of visitor all the same.

They carry cameras and brochures, gaze up at the historic buildings and take photographs as they follow various heritage trails and walks.

Museum consultant Dr Rodney Wilson, in a report to the city council recently made public, said Dunedin's heritage was underplayed as a tourist attraction but provided the basis to gain special status as a national heritage city.

Bringing back the people

There is also a possibility the Otago Regional Council might move into the upper floors of the former chief post office.

Dunedin City Council city development manager Anna Johnson says one of the challenges with the Exchange area is relatively low market rentals which discourage landlords from renovating.

If the council invests in the former chief post office, the largest building in the area, it could be an incentive to raise the value of the smaller properties which would then make it economically viable to redevelop them, she says.

These developments could also lead to a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

DCC transportation planning manager Don Hill says if the library moves into the old post office building, the council would look at changes to the traffic and parking in the area.

Traffic could be slowed or calmed, and encouraged to take routes other than along Princes St.


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