Bid to save historic Chch building fails

Demolition of the Manchester Courts building began on Wednesday. Photo / Simon Baker.
Demolition of the Manchester Courts building began on Wednesday. Photo / Simon Baker.

A desperate late bid for an injunction to halt the demolition of the historic Manchester Courts building - badly damaged in the September 4 quake - has failed in the High Court at Christchurch.

At an urgently convened Saturday session, held in chambers, Justice Lester Chisholm dismissed the application for an interim injunction to stop the demolition which has been underway since Wednesday.

Demolition of the Heritage 1 classification building on the corner of Manchester and Hereford Streets will now recommence at 4am on Monday. The demolition was expected to take six weeks.

Hugh Matthews, counsel for the building's owners Victoria Regina Ltd, told the court the bid was "simply too late".

Because of demolition work that had been begun, and the question of public safety and the effect on third parties - 40 businesses can't reoccupy their premises safely until the building comes down - the injunction should not be granted, he said.

"The application has been brought with little merit, but it may well have been brought with the right sentiment," said Mr Matthews.

The legal action, which challenged the Christchurch City Council's order for demolition of the building on October 7 under the Building Act, was brought by Canterbury University geology student Craig Connolly Scott on behalf of a group of residents interested in the preservation of heritage buildings.

It has been estimated that it could cost $10 million to $12 million to save the building.

Counsel for the applicant, Baden Meyer, said the council had "got it wrong" and the demolition order should be reconsidered in terms of whether the building could now be stabilised and retained.

He said he believed the engineering conclusion that the building posed an imminent danger had not been borne out by the events of the last few weeks, during which it had survived earthquake after-shocks.

He said: "There is a ground swell of support to save this building. Although it may not happen in a day or a week, that is not to say a way forward won't be found."

Counsel for the city council, Willie Palmer, said engineers had assessed the building as an imminent danger. If the council had not issued the order, it may have faced pressure from other agencies regarding its safety.

There was also a real concern about access to the building by itinerant people. There had been looting, and fires had been lit within the building.

Justice Chisholm declined an invitation from Mr Matthews to visit the site, saying he had walked past the building today and did not want to substitute his own views for engineers' opinions.

Mr Matthews said supports within the building had already been cut by the demolition work, and it had been significantly weakened since the work began on Wednesday.

No-one had approached the owners about their offer to sell the building for $1, plus a ground rental, to anyone wishing to take it over, he said.

Justice Chisholm said the seven-storey building, constructed in 1905-06, was one of the earliest attempts at a Chicago skyscraper-style building in New Zealand and of considerable heritage value.

Engineers' reports in the days after the quake said the building was unsafe and unstable. One report said it would be very hazardous in moderate or large after-shocks.

The judge said he acknowledged the applicant and those supporting him were driven by laudable motives to try to save a magnificent building "but there are a number of realities which simply cannot be ignored".

The demolition had started and had further weakened the building.

"While there have been expressions of optimism about money being raised to save the building, there is nothing solid and no indication that time with necessarily change the situation."

Granting an interim order for relief could cause delay for no worthwhile purpose.

He dismissed the application and reserved the question of costs.

- NZPA

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