05 Nov 2012

Planners’ endorsement of brothel shows we trust them at our peril

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Written by: Brian Rudman
Published: The New Zealand Herald – Monday November 05 2012

Mayor Len Brown and his senior planners are asking us to sit back and let them fast-track a radical new plan for the region. Trust us, they say, we’ll consult widely and get it right. Our side of the bargain is to agree to abandon our appeal rights to the proposal they come up with.

On Friday a report came out of the planners’ office which demonstrated just why we trust them at our peril. It’s the report from lead senior planner Jennifer Valentine to the independent commissioners considering the Chow brothers’ application to replace the demolished Aurora/Palace Hotel with a 15-storey brothel. Ms Valentine dismisses the effect such a high-rise building will have on the adjacent character precinct, to say nothing of the controversy surrounding the old building’s demise, and says the new building should go ahead.

For a mayor and council which expressed such outrage when they had to order the demolition of the 124-year-old hotel after it started to collapse during renovations, this gutless report makes any commitment to heritage seem little more than hot air.

It’s a clear signal to other owners of scheduled buildings that, far from being disciplined by the council for losing a protected building, the chances are you could be handsomely rewarded.

On the night of the emergency demolition two years ago, council chief executive Doug McKay talked of the “tragedy” of having to knock down this “iconic heritage” building. Hotel owner Michael Chow showed no remorse, launching several attacks over the following weeks against the council, in one email saying he and his brother John “are Chinese immigrant from Hong Kong but [that] does not mean people can push us around”.

Council lawyers, in consultation with the Crown solicitors, decided there was not sufficient evidence “as to the specific cause of the collapse” to prosecute.

The fact remains that an iconic building began collapsing while under the control of the Chow brothers and their engineers and building contractors. As a result, they stand to make a windfall gain and, if they get their way, a protected low-rise “character” cluster within the central city will be diminished by the intrusion of a modern tower.

In Friday’s column, which appeared before the council’s report was released, I noted that the 15-storey height was not allowed as of right and that the council could trim this back severely to help alleviate the impact on the surrounding area. But the report is having none of this soppy heritage nonsense.

A group of old buildings running down Victoria St are part of a special “character building” cluster, identified by the planners, to ensure the protected hotel was adjacent to low-rise, vintage neighbours.

Ms Valentine notes that “obviously with the previous presence of the Aurora Hotel this entire group provided a strong area of character buildings”.

However, “the loss of the Aurora Hotel and subsequent replacement with a modern building in my opinion does not detract from these character buildings”. She considers “any actual or potential effects on heritage values are acceptable”.

Lawyers and planning consultants tell me there is room within the law for the council to take a stand here.

Instead, it’s as though the council has taken to heart Mr Chow’s threat that just because he’s an immigrant “does not mean people can push us around”.

If ever there was a need to raise the heritage banner it’s now. Mayor Brown wants us to trust the planners to draw up a radical new blueprint for the region that will make Auckland the world’s most liveable city.

He wants us to place the fate of Auckland’s heritage in their hands.

Yet these are the people who have given up any thought of seeking justice for the old Aurora, or of trying to preserve the surrounding precinct.

What sort of message does that send to those picketing outside the Erewan villa in Jervois Rd? And what sort of message does it send to other potential developers of heritage buildings with delicate foundations?


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