Brian Rudman
Brian Rudman is a Herald columnist looking at Auckland and national issues

Brian Rudman: Loss of 'protected' hotel makes mockery

The Palace Hotel. Photo / Dean Purcell
The Palace Hotel. Photo / Dean Purcell

Talk about Nero fiddling while Rome burns. Auckland Council is inviting us all to Auckland Heritage Festival 2011 this September and wants ideas about what to celebrate and how. How about donning black armbands and gathering for a wake on the site of the collapsed heritage pub, the Palace Hotel.

Of course they mean well, but does anyone really want to dance on the graves of dead buildings?

Last week, the council announced there would be no prosecutions against any of the companies or individuals in relation to the collapse of the protected Palace Hotel at the corner of inner-city Federal and Victoria Streets last November.

After consultations with the crown solicitor and other advisers, the city's in-house counsel, Wendy Brandon, said: "There is not sufficient evidence as to the specific cause of the collapse to provide a reasonable prospect of a successful criminal or regulatory prosecution."

She said the council was considering whether to refer the disaster "to any professional bodies for further inquiry".

February's official inquiry into the collapse seemed to make the cause clear enough. The basement wall on the Victoria St frontage had given way after excavations in the basement of the building. The collapse was caused by "a loss of lateral support caused by the removal of the timber ground floor, an over-excavation of the foundations, and the removal of a portion of the existing basement concrete floor designated to be retained in the approved plans".

Further, "The stability of the basement retaining wall does not appear to have been adequately addressed in the building design calculations submitted for the most recent building consent."

The report also criticised the level of oversight by council during the project, saying "structural failure on this scale is almost unheard of in New Zealand". It calls for a greater level of communication between heritage staff and consent-monitoring staff when heritage buildings are involved.

Despite all the above finger-pointing, no one, it seems, is to be held to account.

If that's not bad enough, the only parties likely to benefit are the two at the centre of the disaster - the council which stands to reap a future bonanza in increased rates if the proposed replacement 10-storey brothel tower block proceeds, and property owners the Chow brothers, who end up with much larger premises.

The old hotel was not just a 124-year-old, heritage-listed building. It was also the cornerstone building in a cluster of character buildings identified for special regard under Plan Change 8, of the Auckland City district plan.

In 2005, the planners introduced a system of "character overlay" which identified character buildings in the central city not otherwise protected by heritage provisions.

The aim was to capture the character and flavour of old parts of central Auckland by identifying key character buildings "that contribute to the historic built character of a streetscape/block ...".

The Palace Hotel, or Aurora Tavern as it was then known, was singled out as one of those key buildings. It was linked to a block of early 20th century buildings to its east down Victoria St, and to similar-sized buildings across the street. One report noted the loss of these buildings "would destroy the character and human scale of the block and the relationship with the Aurora Tavern". Another said the shops "complement the scheduled Aurora Tavern... and provide a link to our past that is virtually lost within this part of the city".

The eventual plan change in September 2007 introducing the character overlays system was a typical Auckland heritage cop-out, limiting any protection to the facades of these buildings or, more accurately, preserving the overall streetscape heights and proportions if rebuilding took place.

Ironically, the Aurora/Palace Hotel was not included, because it was thought to be safe with its heritage scheduling.

The bizarre outcome is the key building in this specially designated cluster of character buildings is now gone, and the site it occupied is not bound by the planning restrictions designed to protect "the character and human scale of the block". In these circumstances, to see the planned 10-storey box rise on this site would be a travesty.

Before the council spends a penny on a heritage party, let its members stand on the ruins of the old pub and give us a sign we have something to celebrate.

- NZ Herald

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