Anne Gibson

Property editor of the NZ Herald

Plan a massive over reaction to quakes: super-safe landlord

Imperial Lane is one of the old buildings that has had seismic strengthening. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Imperial Lane is one of the old buildings that has had seismic strengthening. Photo / Sarah Ivey

When Queen St's Imperial Laneway got its $15 million makeover a couple of years ago, owners poured $4 million into seismic strengthening.

Ross Healy of Phillimore Properties says the 102-year-old Auckland CBD Imperial is now "well above" the minimum seismic standards and shudders about how people in high-rise towers would fare in an earthquake.

A building that is not built to 33 per cent of the standard required of a new building is considered to be earthquake-prone under quake strengthening rules.

"I know where I'd rather be," he says of the old buildings, where enormous new steel beams were craned on to the site beside the Michael Hill, Louis Vuitton and Gucci retail stores, then secured into the exterior walls. Floors were reinforced with strong plywood and bricks were tied together and then into the floors in a multi-pronged engineer-led strategy designed to make the old structures safer.

But Mr Healy is angry about the Government's proposed quake-strengthening plan, predicting it will cause wholesale destruction of precious heritage buildings in what he sees as an over-reaction to the Christchurch earthquakes.

"How many billions of dollars are going to need to be spent in Auckland compared to the real risk of an earthquake and how could that money be spent better on other things like, say, surf life saving?

"Walking down the street is more risky than walking into a building in Auckland. There's a massive over-reaction," he says, raising concerns about the future of buildings in many Auckland suburban shopping strips.

"I'd be surprised if many Ponsonby buildings were up to code," he says, predicting aesthetic ruin with strengthening.

The heritage specialist investment business also owns a strata title shop in Vulcan Lane's below-code Broker House where Moochi trades from and Mr Healy worries about how groups of owners will be able to agree on an upgrade strategy.

Red tape also concerns him, particularly at a time the Government is indicating further streamlining legislation to free-up developers to build more Auckland and Christchurch residences.

Mr Healy's risk assessment is backed up by the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment's building seismic performance consultation document which outlines the relatively low potential for buildings to kill people, compared to the numbers of people dying on roads.

"Altogether, 483 people are recorded as having died in earthquakes in New Zealand since 1843. All but 42 died in the two catastrophic earthquakes in Napier in 1931 (256 people) and Christchurch in 2011 (185 people). By contrast, around 37,000 people have died in road accidents, with 1125 fatalities in just the three-year period from 2008 to 2010," the ministry says.

But the ministry said while earthquakes were rare, they differed from other risks because of the high death toll and impact a single shake could wreak on communities.

The ministry says existing buildings can be strengthened to withstand moderate to large earthquakes but the financial costs are often large compared to the benefits. The dilemma is that people love heritage but there is little public money available to fund strengthening and protection.

Building and Construction Minister Maurice Williamson says nothing is yet decided and public submissions will be crucial to establishing new policies to deal with earthquake-prone buildings.

"I encourage people to have their say," he says of the consultation period which closes today. "Getting the policy right involves striking a balance between the risks posed by buildings in earthquakes and the costs of strengthening or demolishing them," he says.

The Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission report said to protect lives, earthquake-prone structures should be strengthened to one third of the requirements for a new building and it recommended timeframes be set.

- NZ Herald

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