16 Aug 2013

Len’s big chance to set an example

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Written by: Brian Rudman
Photoby: Dean Purcell
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 16 August 2013

The Palace has gone, now its equally historic neighbours must be saved from being demolished for the mayor's rail project.

The Palace has gone, now its equally historic neighbours must be saved from being demolished for the mayor’s rail project.

One inner-city gem has been lost, now the city seems intent on cranking up the bulldozers to bowl its neighbours

Heritage, Shmeritage. It’s show-and-tell time for Mayor Len Brown over preserving Auckland’s past. Less than two years ago, he was outside the doomed 124-year-old Palace Hotel on the corner of inner city Federal and Victoria Sts, giving his reluctant approval for its emergency demolition.

“We are desperately sad to see the loss of this building in our town, in the heart of Auckland. But we feel we have no other choice.”

The hotel had started to collapse during unauthorised excavations in its basement and was deemed unsafe. He had no other option.

Now fast-forward to a planning hearing this week into the route of Mayor Brown’s prized inner-city rail tunnel and what did we hear? Auckland Transport consultants predicting that the late Palace Hotel’s elderly neighbours seemed destined for a similar fate.

Alan Watson, chairman of the five-member panel of commissioners hearing the case for route designation, said the evidence of the council organisation’s two consultants seemed to indicate “an inevitability” about the fate of the block of nine small shops and restaurants running along Victoria St to Albert St.

Heritage consultant Bruce Petry told the hearing it would be disappointing to lose the buildings, but suggested there was a bright side. They were, he said, the only “relatively significant” heritage features at risk from the project.

It was the old “pick ’em off one by one and nobody will notice” approach, so loved by Auckland developers and their consultant planners. But these are hardly the tactics of an administration preaching heritage protection.

The mayor had no other choice when he pulled the plug on the Palace Hotel. But that is not the case with the Palace’s neighbours, and he should have made that clear to Auckland Transport before it began the design process. How, for example, can the Auckland Council demand the Chow brothers, of Palace Hotel infamy, and other developers, respect the remaining vestiges of our built heritage, if it then turns round and cranks up the bulldozers.

If it was monstrous of the Chow brothers’ work gang to carelessly excavate under the foundations of their slice of Victoria St heritage, it’s surely just as monstrous of Len Brown and his team to contemplate doing the same to its neighbours.

It’s these little enclaves of old Auckland which give character and soul to the city. The property at the corner of Albert St was dubbed Martha’s Corner by colourful city landowner Les Harvey, who bought in the 1950s. He named it after a famed madam of the Depression years, who spent the profits from her upstairs brothel running a soup kitchen for the destitute below.

In an interview before he died in 1994, he recalled as a schoolboy seeing the old Maori ladies with their moko, sitting at the corner, smoking their pipes and selling kumara plants and peaches. He took fresh blackberries from Cox’s Creek to trade for their over-ripe peaches.

On the pavement is a low-slung official Auckland City cairn commemorating Les Harvey, and the illegally planted tree now gracing the corner, both presumably doomed by the rail tunnel as well.

Erected in 2001, the plaque reads, “This Oriental Plane tree, propagated from one beside a Montmartre pissoir, was planted by adjacent property owner Les Harvey.”

Mr Harvey had spent his OE in Paris and knew the parent tree well. He’d queued alongside it many times. In the late 1960s, an old Parisian friend, now New Zealand diplomat, sent a cutting via diplomatic pouch as a memento. Without consulting the council, Mr Harvey dug a hole in the busy Albert St pavement and planted it. It is now as high as the building, but the Harvey Tree’s days seem as numbered as the adjacent buildings. Unless the mayor intervenes.

Between 2005 and 2007, Auckland City identified 140 character buildings in the central city deserving protections. The aim was to capture the character and flavour of old parts of the area.

The Martha’s Corner block was highlighted as providing “a link to our past that is virtually lost within this part of the city”.

Like much we hear from politicians on matters of heritage, the document was high on vision, low on enforcement powers. But with a public project like the rail tunnel, it shouldn’t need a big stick to force the preservation of heritage buildings en route. Just the reverse. It should be seen as a chance to set an example to the private sector.



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