Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Saving Wong Doo building is another win for wreckers

The historic Wong Doo building.
The historic Wong Doo building.

Auckland's embarrassing reputation as the facade capital of the world has been reinforced with Mayor Len Brown's pre-election announcement on the council-backed preservation plans for the historic Wong Doo building.

The 128-year-old, two-storey masonry building on the corner of Hobson and Cook Sts, is to be "saved" by becoming part-pedestal-part facade, of a modern 14-storey retail and apartment tower. To make it happen, the mayor is tossing in an undisclosed amount of ratepayer funds from the council's fledgling Build Heritage Acquisition Fund.

The new building will occupy empty land to the back and north of the old three-shop terrace, with a separate tower rising out of the space presently occupied by the two northern-most shops. Only the corner shop will be retained more or less intact.

The front of the two northern shops will be preserved to serve as a facade for the adjacent tower block, with the floor plate of the old building reinstated.

Wooden match-lining and other historic fabric will be saved and reused. Think Jean Batten building.

"This is an excellent outcome for the first use of the fund," said Mr Brown. "We are saving a piece of Auckland history as part of a project which will inject new investment, retail and residential use into an area which needs revitalisation."

It's not the view shared by heritage campaigner Allan Matson, who has been battling for eight years to save the building. In April 2011, he convinced the council to slap a heritage order on the property to stymie an earlier demolition order granted by the old Auckland City Council. To Mr Matson it's a "dreadful architectural outcome for the city" and a squandering of public funds.

Certainly, saving the corner retail space is a victory of sorts, I guess, but to allow the maximum allowable development across the rest of the entire site, including an incongruous modern tower block, part of which emerges from behind the old shop front and sits atop two-thirds of the heritage building flush to the Hobson St parapet, seems a disastrous outcome.

Two years ago, when he slapped a heritage order on the building, the mayor was pounding his chest, declaring: "We want to send a strong message that the council and the public are serious about stopping the loss of our heritage and the loss of our identity". He added: "We are open to working with developers to find win-win solutions to heritage issues and to see if we can come to a positive outcome".

Well, it's certainly a win for developer KNC Construction Ltd, which gets the maximum development it can squeeze onto the site, and an undisclosed cash contribution from council. But when you read the official reasoning for issuing the heritage order, it's hard to see how it's a win for Auckland.

The Wong Doo building, says the document, is one of no more than 20 scheduled Victorian commercial buildings in the central area. It "has heritage value which the council considers should be protected and preserved". Reasons for protection included its "landmark quality and intactness".

Parks, Recreation and Heritage Forum chairwoman Sandra Coney argues that because of the existing demolition order, the council was not in a strong negotiating position. The heritage order was a temporary measure and the owner could have gone to court demanding their right to reasonable use of their property.

If the mayor had wanted to send that strong message he talked about, why didn't he go to court and argue the definition of "reasonable"?

Predictably enough the Historic Places Trust - with the honourable exception of elected board member Mr Matson - has wimped out yet again and endorsed this proposal.

The Wong Doo building will join the long list of Auckland historic buildings mutilated by architects and politicians so brought up on Hollywood fantasy they're convinced a film set is the real thing. The last awful example of facadism was the Jean Batten building makeover, which so tricked the Auckland architectural community that they gave that travesty of a restoration their 2010 heritage award.

The latest decision reveals the school of facadism - think the old BNZ, the Grand Hotel, the Queens Head Tavern - is still alive and slowly wrecking historic Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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