Take a good look at the inner-city buildings pictured on these pages — some could be gone in a few years. Geoff Cumming explains why so much of our heritage is on the block.

They are buildings and houses which help tell the story of Auckland - but how many will survive a planning rulebook designed to squeeze more people in?

Hundreds of historic commercial buildings, in the central city and suburban town centres, lack meaningful protection in the form of the Auckland Council's heritage schedules.

Heritage advocates fear a double whammy: the incoming Unitary Plan promotes higher-density housing in much of suburbia, four-to-eight storey redevelopment in suburban town centres, and up to 18 storeys in "metropolitan centres" such as New Lynn and Takapuna. At the same time, tougher earthquake-strengthening rules will add to owners' incentives to bowl unlisted buildings (most are two-storey, many unreinforced) and redevelop sites more intensively.

Heritage building 214-220 Queen St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Nick Reed
Heritage building 214-220 Queen St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Nick Reed

Just as vulnerable are swathes of suburban housing - wooden villas dating from the 1850s; bungalows from the 1920s - as council moves to include blanket and more targeted heritage controls in the Unitary Plan come unstuck (see accompanying story).

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At stake is more than aesthetics; many heritage buildings wouldn't win a beauty contest. But they link us to early entrepreneurs, educators, doctors, scientists and rogues. They recall people and events that shaped the city for better or worse; corner taverns where plans were hatched and the community role of churches. Architectural styles - from Victorian to Modernist, often innovative - are as eclectic as Auckland has become.

But the council is struggling to ensure the new rulebook strikes the right balance: accommodating up to a million more Aucklanders under the "compact city" blueprint while preserving character and a sense of identity. In the frenzy of amalgamation and the rushed Unitary Plan process that followed, heritage has gathered dust.

Heritage buildings Warwick Building (left) and the Canterbury Arcade (right) on Queen St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Nick Reed
Heritage buildings Warwick Building (left) and the Canterbury Arcade (right) on Queen St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Nick Reed

The Unitary Plan is expected to clear a path for 260,000 homes (about 10,000 a year) to be added to already built-up areas by 2041. Just 2000 items (including buildings) are listed on the council's protected heritage schedules. It aims to double the number of protected places, to about 4000, by 2030 but its long-term budget allows no increase in assessments in the next three years. And plans to survey the historic heritage of the entire region by 2040 have disappeared from the long-term plan.

Buildings scheduled Category A have "exceptional significance" and are generally safe from demolition; those classed Category B enjoy a lesser level of protection. The threshold for scheduling is set high because of the potential effect on property rights - limiting modernisation or site redevelopment. Even so, the heritage schedules have curious gaps: while some areas and building types are well-represented, with others it's open slather.

Heritage restaurant at 5 City St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Nick Reed
Heritage restaurant at 5 City St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Nick Reed

In hearings this past fortnight, heritage agencies have asked the Unitary Plan hearings panel to add about 150 sites and buildings to the schedules. Most are inner-city commercial buildings (some highlighted on this page) whose backstory is well-known but which failed to gain scheduling under the council's old points-based system. Campaigners say they fit new Unitary Plan criteria.

But agencies including the Historic Places Trust (Heritage NZ) and the Civic Trust say hundreds more - in suburban centres and along city-fringe strips such as Karangahape Rd and Ponsonby Rd - fit the bill but haven't had the detailed assessment needed to justify scheduling. They say that, under the Resource Management Act, the council should be doing this work.

Spark heritage building on Airedale St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Nick Reed
Spark heritage building on Airedale St, Auckland CBD. Photo / Nick Reed

HPT has trimmed its wishlist from more than 260 items to less than 100, including just 53 new additions - mainly CBD buildings, churches and dress circle mansions. Those culled are ones it "cannot properly justify" because of lack of research - its regional office has just 1.5 staff. "We cannot in the foreseeable future do a total assessment of all foreseeable heritage items in the area," legal counsel Geraldine Baumann told the hearings panel.

Robyn Byron, HPT's architectural heritage adviser, says there's disappointment the council did not carry out more assessments; instead largely "rolling over" the heritage listings of pre-amalgamation councils.

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"It's a little bit of a missed opportunity. You would think the Unitary Plan was a wonderful opportunity to look comprehensively at heritage."

The Endeans Building at 2 Queen St joined the long list of unprotected heritage buildings in Auckland. Photo / Nick Reed
The Endeans Building at 2 Queen St joined the long list of unprotected heritage buildings in Auckland. Photo / Nick Reed

The council is promoting 69 new sites and features which illustrate the diversity of heritage. Items include: a farmhouse, a bach, a Girl Guides den, a clock, a toilet block, a cricket clubhouse, a retaining wall, gun emplacements, the former Northcote policeman's home ... But it has withdrawn far more candidates in response to owner opposition, admitting to errors in some cases and insufficient evidence in others.

Civic Trust president Allan Matson fears most of the trust's proposed additions will be rejected because owners aren't aware of the process and could claim a breach of natural justice.

Matson says the council is legally obliged to identify and protect significant heritage items from inappropriate development but has been dragging the chain. Most buildings proposed for scheduling were identified as candidates over a decade ago. But the council allocated just $500,000 more for built heritage assessments for the Unitary Plan.

The James Loft, formerly known as the Royal Exchange Assurance building, at 10 O'Connell St joined the long list of unprotected heritage buildings in Auckland. Photo / Nick Reed
The James Loft, formerly known as the Royal Exchange Assurance building, at 10 O'Connell St joined the long list of unprotected heritage buildings in Auckland. Photo / Nick Reed

Council heritage manager Noel Reardon says the buildings now being promoted had failed to meet past scheduling criteria. The inner-city is well-represented on the schedules, he says, and non-listed buildings enjoy some protection through other controls such as precinct plans. He mentions other problems; heritage assessment is costly and time-consuming; the city extends from Wellsford and Warkworth to Waiuku and Pukekohe; some pre-amalgamation councils were not as well-resourced as others and had different priorities. An Environment Court ruling on special character and anticipated RMA reforms affecting "amenity" values such as character added to the headache.

"The biggest challenge was that the Unitary Plan provided an opportunity for building owners to lodge objections on buildings that were already scheduled," Reardon says.

Many owners objected to buildings being upgraded from Category B to Category A, though gains have been made through mediation.

Matson suggests ratepayers will have to contribute more if worthy buildings are to withstand the twin challenges of earthquake-upgrading and the lure of site redevelopment. But the council's built heritage acquisition fund for 2015/16 amounts to just $3 million (it aims to double the fund in coming years).

"I think we are going to lose an awful lot of heritage," Matson told the hearings panel. Another missing ingredient, Matson says, is planning incentives which encourage owners to keep and refurbish heritage buildings. Options include rates rebates and transferable development rights.

But the real answer, he says, is a much bigger contribution from the public purse.

Find out more
To read submissions on the Historic Heritage Schedules:

Go to: hearings.aupihp.govt.nz/hearings

Scroll down to: Topic 032, Historic Heritage Schedules.

Click on: Documents