Auckland councillors sent a mixed message about their concerns for preserving the city's heritage last week. The good news is that the regional development and operations committee decided not to hound Devonport heritage groups and the Historic Places Trust for costs relating to their opposition to the conversion of the historic Masonic Hotel into apartments and a cafe.
The worrying news is that the official advice was to push for legal costs. It was only pressure by senior councillors Sandra Coney, Mike Lee and Christine Fletcher that persuaded the committee by a small margin, 10 to eight, to drop the proposal.
The city's general counsel, Wendy Brandon, said the fear of costs was "an important component in the efficient administration of the justice system to the extent the potential for an adverse award of costs encourages parties to conduct their cases fairly and efficiently".
She tried to soften the intimidatory impact this would have on community groups by pointing out that "while an award of costs may be made against the appellant societies, the council could not seek to enforce the award against the various members of appellant societies".
In other words, if a society winds itself up, former members cannot legally be held responsible for the debts.
But as Ms Coney argued, if Auckland Council set out to "crush these two groups, what message do we send to the wider Auckland community - 'don't disagree with the Auckland Council because we will come after you with all our considerable legal and financial resources'."
The council is supposed to be committed to saving Auckland's rapidly dwindling heritage. It should be pinning medals on groups such as Devonport Heritage, not devising ways to intimidate them. Devonport Heritage was trying to preserve a piece of the colonial-era streetscape, a little skirmish in the losing battle being fought throughout the "old" parts of Auckland to save what is left of the old.
Just the other day, a flyer in my letterbox from a concerned neighbour announced that non-notified consent had been granted for the removal of an old villa on the corner of historic John St and Jervois Rd to make way for a four-storey concrete block commercial building. Closer into town on my way to work, one of the last remaining cottages on College Hill was recently bowled. And on it goes.
Last week's committee narrowly agreed to rezone a small 1890s cottage off Ponsonby Rd from "residential heritage" to Business 2. Marco Creemers, of Samson Corporation, the owner of that building and a vast portfolio of inner suburban "heritage" retail properties, was upset at Coney's suggestion that this rezoning would make it easier to demolish.
He told the Herald: "Samson Corporation has a proven track record of retaining and restoring heritage buildings."
But that's only half the story. Samson, the Friedlander property dynasty's company, also has a proven record of knocking heritage buildings down.
I'll never forget the great bang, and the jolt, when the Friedlanders, unannounced, bulldozed the century-old brick stables behind the shops next to my house.
They were replaced with an ugly, concrete-block storeroom. To stop the subsequent graffiti, a ye olde stable scene "artwork" now graces the wall, shiny with anti-graffiti coating.
A year or two back, Samson also demolished the historic Irish Society Hall, just around the corner from Ponsonby Rd in Great North Rd. It was built as the Empress Theatre in 1914 and was one of the city's first cinemas.
There's also local uproar about Samson's plans to replace a two-storey structurally sound timber cottage on Ponsonby Rd, dating from the 1870s, with a faux modern replacement, which Mr Creemers says is "more appropriate" to the site.
As Mr Creemers says, it's all done by the book, and that's what councillors should be worrying themselves over.
Following the Christchurch earthquakes, the council issued lists of old masonry buildings in Auckland unlikely to survive a similar-sized catastrophe.
But while we sit around and agonise over the effect on our heritage in the unlikely event of a "big one", our historic streetscape is rapidly tumbling, tooth by tooth, while officialdom stands by and does nothing.
Until Mayor Len Brown follows through on his election slogans, we desperately need Devonport Heritage and its ilk.
That a majority of councillors have decided not to pursue them for costs is a good first step.
Now they have to get serious about the central issue - saving heritage.By Brian Rudman Email Brian