Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Chows' brothel unworthy of favours

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15-storey high-rise will be possible only if council grants lots of concessions, but it's hard to see why it should.

John (left) and Michael Chow are behind the brothel plan. Photo / Paul Estcourt
John (left) and Michael Chow are behind the brothel plan. Photo / Paul Estcourt

It's a shame the public hearings into SkyCity's new neighbour, the Chow brothers' high-rise brothel, start on November 12 and not the following Monday. A week later would be the second anniversary of the emergency demolition of the 124-year-old heritage Palace Hotel, forced on Auckland Council following "over-excavation of the foundations" by the Chows' contractors.

A few flags flying at half-mast and a minute's silence before the hearing proper got under way would have been a great way of reminding all those involved of the background to the proceedings.

Appearing before four independent hearings commissioners, headed by experienced planning lawyer David Kirkpatrick, will be a procession of 59 opponents to the proposal. Well, it's a fair guess they'll all be opponents, because of the 218 submissions to the scheme when the submission pro-cess ended in May, only one was in favour.

The Chow brothers tried to avoid having to listen to this litany of opposition by asking the council to fast-track the application directly to the Environment Court.

Their lawyer, Russell Bartlett, arguing that because of "significant public interest" and a "high probability" that any council decision would be appealed anyway, that fast tracking would save money and time all around.

Council officers agreed, noting that "the vast majority" of submissions were against the brothel activity, which in fact was permitted under the district plan.

However, councillors rejected their officials' advice. Not only were they aware of public outrage at the circumstances leading up to the old building's collapse, there was also "sensitivity of the public to the proposed brothel activity".

Personally I'm not fussed about the brothel side of it. A purpose-built brothel, cheek by jowl with a vast gambling den, in an area zoned for entertainment seems well positioned. My outrage is restricted to the circumstances surrounding the demise of the old building, the lack of any attribution of blame and responsibility, and the fact that the brothel owners now stand to reap a multimillion-dollar advantage as a result of the carelessness exercised on their site.

The old Palace Hotel/Aurora Tavern was not just a listed building, one of the few remaining traditional corner pubs of the old central city, it was also the cornerstone building of a cluster of old neighbouring shops, singled out for protection as a key character building "that contribute[s] to the historic built character of a streetscape/block".

The Chows got to work gutting the interior of the three-storey pub to convert it into a modern brothel. Mysteriously, on the afternoon of November 18, 2010, cracks suddenly started opening up on the sides of the building, and as they continued to grow, the council ordered its immediate demolition fearing imminent danger to both neighbouring buildings and people.

The subsequent independent inquest criticised the lack of council oversight, saying: "Structural failure on this scale is almost unheard of in New Zealand." As for the cause, over-excavations of the basement, with the removal of supporting wooden and concrete flooring, resulted in the walls slowly caving in.

Incredibly, no one was called to account. In-house counsel Wendy Brandon declared "there's not sufficient evidence as to the specific cause of the collapse to provide a reasonable prospect of a successful criminal or regulatory prosecution".

After a session of public fulminating against the council for destroying their nice old hotel, and then asking for reimbursement for demolition costs, the Chows quietly handed over the money and set about designing for what was now a much more valuable, unencumbered, central city development site.

The problem is, while owners can be punished for deliberately destroying heritage buildings, in theory at least there seems to be no way of disciplining a person who loses their ancient pile down a hole while their back was turned. Even when their contractors were the ones chipping away at the foundations.

Planning law is not my strong suit but I'm told that the 15-storey building planned is possible, but only if the council agrees to every bonus allocation on offer.

To me it's hard to see a modern high-rise in the centre of a heritage strip as worthy of any bonuses at all.

- NZ Herald

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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