Erawan Thai Restaurant

Written by: Brian Rudman
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 21 September 2012

Herne Bay restaurant latest victim of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ effect on Auckland’s historic villas.

The grand old dame standing guard over the corner of Jervois Rd and Lawrence St. Photo / Chris Gorman

Iconic is a word so devalued by mis-use that when something truly symbolic and representative comes along, like the century-old grand villa about to be ripped from the Herne Bay ridge, it seems inadequate.

If ever there was a story-book villa, it’s the grand old dame standing guard over the corner of Jervois Rd and Lawrence St; for the past 20 years, home to the Erawan Thai Restaurant. It looks down from its ridge-top roost over row upon row of lesser villas stretching out across Ponsonby and Grey Lynn. A sort of mother hen to those laid out below.

But not for much longer if owner Jessica Woo gets her way. She is seeking permission to cut it up and cart it off on the back of a truck. Ms Woo has not disclosed her plans for the 1616sq m site once it becomes vacant. Not even to her shocked tenant.

As the building is outside the Residential 1 heritage zone of most of the surrounding neighbourhood, unfortunately there’s little Auckland Council can do to stop her.

Local councillor Mike Lee is doing his best to delay the destruction by calling on council officers to complete a heritage assessment.

Unfortunately, it seems that even if that were to reveal that Ed Hillary once lived there, it would not be enough to delay the transporters.

The best that we can hope for is that mayor Len Brown and those of us who live in the area can persuade Ms Woo that she belongs to a wider community, perhaps pointing out to her that the value of her site is directly interrelated to that of the greater neighbourhood.

In recent times, hardly a month goes by when the destruction of another old villa or bungalow is not headlined. It reminds me of the landmark “death by a thousand cuts” report by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Morgan Williams in 2000 on the encroachment of suburbia into the foothills of the Waitakere Ranges.

It was a warning to the protagonists, greenies, councillors, developers alike, “to lift their sights” and focus on what they wanted long term from the ranges. Meeting short-term goals could, he said, have cumulative negative effects leading to “death by a thousand cuts”.

At the time the pro-development majority on the Waitakere City Council wanted subdivision applications to be decided on an individual basis, ignoring the cumulative effect of the individual “cuts”.

Dr Williams called for all involved to come up with “a strong self-reinforcing vision our how the community wants the Waitakere Ranges to be … a shared view of how an area might evolve during the lifetime of the current community and future generations”.

He said “there needs to be a commitment to the retention of key natural characteristics, the establishment of some clear bottom lines”.

Without this, the area will end up as suburbia, “the result of many little decisions adding up to changes that were not desired.”

Substitute the century-old villas of the old inner west for the trees of Auckland’s outer west suburbs, and Dr William’s timely warning fits like a gentrified sash window.

In 1995, the Auckland City Council commissioned heritage consultant Di Stewart to make a study of Ponsonby Rd and Jervois Rd.

It was commissioned, said the author, “in response to long-standing local concerns about the fragility of the heritage resource along the Ponsonby and Jervois Rd commercial strip and the pressures for development on it. These have increased markedly over the last few years.”

The report recommended “the establishment of conservation overlay zones with accompanying policies, rules and guidelines over Jervois and Ponsonby Rds in order to ensure that the cultural heritage significance is retained in its future use and development”.

It further called for individual zones within the larger, “to ensure that their individual streetscape heritage significance is retained”and for the council to “encourage understanding” of the built heritage “to develop pride in it and to encourage its conservation, restoration and adaptive re-use”.

If the planners had taken the advice of the late Di Stewart more seriously, the iconic Erawan villa might not now be doomed to an uncertain future in the outer wop-wops, and Auckland’s cultural landscape might not be about to suffer yet another damaging cut.