Whanganui could save its heritage buildings and solve it accommodation crisis with the stroke of a pen.

That's according to city lawyer Jamie Waugh, a leading light behind the rejuvenation of Castlecliff.

Waugh, who also sits on the town centre regeneration steering group, said that with good legal advice Whanganui could look at taking a relaxed approach around change of use for historical commercial buildings.

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"What's sitting in that main street is a museum piece… we're staring down the barrel of losing that taonga or that treasure that the city has because of largely compliance or written issues," he told Whanganui District Council's long term plan hearing.

Whanganui had a housing shortage but "we've got an entire street with buildings that could be turned into hundreds of apartments… they're also empty at the moment".

Those building were becoming uneconomical because Whanganui does not need the commercial space.

Waugh said renting them out as residential would solve two problems.

"At the moment my understanding to have a building be safe enough you need to get to 34 per cent of the current building code... that becomes a non-earthquake prone building."

But there was a higher standard applied to get a change the use of a building to residential, adding huge cost.

Waugh, also a lawyer, said the way he read the Building Act was that owners needed to do what was reasonably practical.

"If it's not practical and it's not reasonable then you don't need to do it.

"You get lower rent in this town than almost any other provincial centre which means as near as reasonably practical can be the lowest line in New Zealand."

Waugh said council should investigate what ability it had to remove "artificial barriers".

"What I'm suggesting is that with the stroke of a pen, some decent policy and legal opinion, Whanganui can be the most economic place to redevelop historic buildings in the country.

"This is leading edge type of thinking. A no holds barred way of getting to where we want to go which is more houses, same amount of historic buildings.

"I'm not talking about not earthquake strengthening buildings. You have to get to up to the standard of earthquake strengthening.

"It's a legal question in terms of liability for the council. We're not talking about buildings falling over."