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Small respite as crunch time literally approaches for St Heliers Art Deco houses

Small respite as crunch time literally approaches for St Heliers Art Deco houses

It’s crunch time in Turua Street as protestors make a final stand to save three Spanish style Art Deco cottages in Auckland’s St Heliers suburb. Having maintained vigil for much of the week in anticipation of the arrival of bulldozers, there's been a slight respite as protesters await a decision from the  Environment Court. NBR reports Save Our St Heliers Inc (SOS) filed an application for an enforcement order under the Resource Management Act, which the group hopes will save the buildings from imminent demolition. Protestors—who say they're  prepared to stand in front of bulldozers— have picketed through the night following an announcement by Auckland Mayor Len Brown earlier this week that last ditch negotiations between the council, the developer and local residents had failed to bring a resolution to save the houses. 

But the Mayor’s statement has outraged members of the SOS (formerly Save Turua St).

“At no time have the residents been able to speak to the Mayor personally. The talks have all been between the council and the site owners Mike and Sandra Markham behind closed doors,” says group spokesperson and Art Deco Society head Dorothy McHattie. 

The New Zealand Herald reports developer Mike Markham of Anacona Group paid protestors a visit Tuesday night, telling them to—according to SOS campaigner Sally Hughes— “go home and have a good sleep”. He also said the bulldozers would be arriving today. 

Resource consent by Ancona Group was lodged in 2009 for the demolition of 8-20 Turua Street to allow the construction of a mixed use building. However work on the demolition of the three properties at 8, 10 and 12 Turua Street was suspended in December after the Mayor met with Markham and his team to look at other options. 

That meeting is one McHattie describes as one-sided. She says that after SOS managed to get the council to consider a motion for a heritage order at the council meeting in December, the discussion was put on hold until the end of the meeting so that the council could seek further information and professional advice. 

"In the meantime, the chief executive of the Auckland Council, Doug MacKay, consulted with the developer only. When the council returned to discussing the motion, MacKay introduced the motion with a summary of what the developer thought, but not the other side. And that is what informed the councillors to make their decision. And that is just wrong," she says.

Still, Brown is adamant the council did everything it could to save the houses.

“We have done everything we could have, given the outcome of the process to date, including the plan change which was handed down by the Environment Court,” he says. “Absolutely everything that could be reasonably and legally be done was done in this case, but unfortunately, that was not enough.” 

But SOS rejects the Mayor’s claim. McHattie has called on Brown to make good on his election promises to protect Auckland from this sort of destruction. 

“Let's talk in the present tense not wring our hands with regret and say we won't let it happen again,” she says. 

The option of buying the properties is one Brown says would be too costly, stating that in the end the developer would only sell all of his properties in the area in one block, for a price which included full recovery of costs and margin. 

“That could have cost more than $10 million. While you can’t put a price on preserving our city’s heritage, it is difficult to justify this sort of unplanned cost,” says Brown. 

But SOS say the investment potential of buying the properties has not been factored in by the council. 

“This could be a wonderful tourist destination,” says McHattie. “It just needs some imagination which this Mayor clearly doesn't have. If a temporary investment was needed it would be in prime real estate that could be on sold with its heritage protection in place.” 

Brown says the possibility of including the facades of the properties in the new development was also discussed, but no agreement could be reached on this either. 

There was also hope a heritage order could potentially save the day, but Brown says that’s not the case because the buildings “did not have the heritage qualities necessary to issue a heritage order and once again, that decision would have resulted in the council being taken to court and potentially ended up costing ratepayers millions of dollars”. 

Councillor Sandra Coney disputes this argument, and on Sunday wrote to her fellow councillors and Doug MacKay. 

Coney is critical of MacKay's assessment of the heritage matter, pointing out that a number of crucial conclusions have been false or based on incorrect assumptions. 

Her letter outlines the failings of the previous and present council to carry out a heritage assessment of the buildings in Turua Street despite it having been recommended in the council's own reports that they have had access to for a number of years. 

“I believe the existing reports carried out by ACC provide ample 'reasonable basis' for Auckland Council seeking a heritage order,” she states. She goes on to say that she has not seen any grounds to sanction the demolition of the Turua Street buildings and without that the council is poorly placed to support demolition. 

“It could be seen as derelict in its duty for not picking up on the recommendation of the 2004 report to assess these buildings to see if they qualified for inclusion of the Schedules of the District Plan which would have afforded the necessary protection.” 

Coney's letter is supported by Mike Lee and Cameron Brewer, who voted along with four other councillors for heritage protection for the buildings. 

Brewer, councillor for Orakei and chairman of the District Plan & Urban Design Panel, has been a strong advocate for preserving the Turua St properties.

In a statement earlier this month, Brewer described Turua St as a metaphor of a wider public mood.

“This whole issue has shown that Aucklanders' highly value their built environment and the character of their villages. After years of desecration of Auckland's built environment, people have had a guts full.” 

He says heritage matters present a new opportunity for the new council. 

"The uproar over Turua Street has shown the new council that the public expects so much more when it comes to local heritage. In all the spatial and district planning that's going on over the next couple years, concrete protection of our valued character and heritage must be a priority."

In summing up the desperate situation, McHattie says: "There’s an idea that developers have a right to develop their properties to the max, but don’t we as citizens have the right to have our cities as we want them to be? What has been planned is only about maximising the profit of the developer. But I fail to see why they should override the wishes of the community which will have the development inflicted upon it."