Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Good grounds for public hearing

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Photo / Dean Purcell
Photo / Dean Purcell

If world-class liveable Auckland is to have a shiny new 15-storey brothel, then where better to put it than in the Sodom and Gomorrah Precinct, cheek by jowl to the casino. The Catholic bishop says it will destroy our chances of being a "family-friendly place," but let's face it, he's not going to be happy wherever it goes, is he?

What gets up my nose is not the nature of the business going into the new tower block, but that the developers stand to prosper richly as a result of the Palace Hotel's demise.

We all know the story. In November 2010, while Wellington brothel owners John and Michael Chow were in the middle of converting one of the city's few remaining Victorian, brick street-corner pubs into a sex club-brothel, the place started to collapse.

The city council ordered an emergency demolition. A subsequent engineer's report blamed over-excavation of the basement, and the removal of timber and concrete floors "designated to be retained in the approved plans".

Seven months later, an inhouse council inquest declared "structural failure on this scale is almost unheard of in New Zealand" but threw in the towel over prosecution, deciding "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".

After much bluster, the Chow brothers agreed to pay the council's costs. In return for gaining a bare, unencumbered, 522sq metre prime site, it was a very cheap price.

The Chows are now planning a 15-storey purpose-built facility to replace the much smaller piece of Auckland history that just fell down one day under their stewardship.

As if rubbing our faces in their victory, they're seeking a non-notified approval from the city planners, arguing that any impact of the new development on the neighbourhood will be minor.

Looking across the road to the casino conglomeration, or to the west and the neighbouring apartment block, you'd have to agree. But to the east and across Victoria St, it's a different story. In 2007, the Palace Hotel was singled out by city planners as the cornerstone building in a cluster of character buildings identified for special regard under Plan Change 8 of the Auckland City district plan.

This was part of the 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 buildings such as the Palace Hotel "that contribute to the historic built character of a streetscape/block..."

The emphasis was on preserving the neighbouring buildings because, as one report noted, they complement the scheduled Aurora Tavern [subsequently the Palace Hotel ] ... "and provide a link to our past that is virtually lost within this part of the city".

The protection under Plan Change 8 was a joke, really. It didn't even require that facades be saved in a rebuild. All it specified was the preservation of overall streetscape heights and proportions of any rebuilding that occurred adjacent to the Aurora/Palace. In other words, the various restrictions on rebuilding around the Palace were imposed so as to enhance and preserve the 19th-century feel of the old pub.

With the old pub now just a pile of old bricks in some wrecker's yard, the whole raison d'etre for Plan Change 8 has gone.

The supporting buildings no longer have a centrepiece to prop up and enhance. This surely is an issue of more than minor importance, and thus worthy of a notified hearing.

In particular, the owners of the other Plan Change 8 buildings have the right to a public say. Unfortunately for them, the plan change authors didn't contemplate the Palace - a protected building - coming down, so the rebuilding height restrictions imposed on its neighbours was not added to the Palace site. So the Chows can rebuild to the heavens, but their neighbours remain limited to three storeys in order to preserve a streetscape now destroyed.

This is a conundrum for a public hearing, not something for a secretive backroom rubber-stamping. The memory of the fallen Palace Hotel deserves that at least.

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman

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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