Why Demolition Cannot Be Prevented for Christchurch’s Earthquake-Damaged Heritage Buildings

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The decision to demolish a building takes many considerations. One critical consideration is the site’s safety, commercial viability, and the balance between the weight of the historical value and other considerations almost always favors demolition work. Take the case of the heritage structures in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 2011, a major earthquake shook Christchurch, New Zealand, and the quake’s magnitude is just 6.7. However, subsequent earthquakes, most notably the September 2010 earthquake, which had a magnitude of 7.1 on the Richter Scale, have already brought considerable weakening to most older buildings. 

For it to be slated for demolition, the building should satisfy one, but not limited to, of the following criteria:

  • The building is blighted or had considerable damage for it not to be fit for habitation.
  • The building presents a health hazard.
  • The building has a faulty foundation.
  • In the case of the Meera Towers in Abu Dhabi, the immediate vicinity is amid site redevelopment.

With the considerable damage wrought to the heritage structures of Christchurch, despite the stringent rules governing the disposition of most of these buildings, most of them have to be brought down.

One hundred forty-seven heritage buildings were demolished in Christchurch connected to the earthquake. But, depending on what constitutes a heritage building, the City Council places the number at over 200 buildings. The most notable buildings lost were the Excelsior Hotel built in the 1880s, the Majestic Theater, the Catholic Cathedral, and the former Canterbury Horse Bazaar.

The burden of deciding on which structure is to be demolished fell on the shoulders of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority, better known as CERA. The executive power granted to CERA is outlined in the provisions in the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act 2011. Section 38. 

Apparently, in the case of the 200 plus buildings demolished, the law granted to CERA gave it a precedence to decide on the disposition of the structures affected by the earthquake. That is, despite the strict guidelines for proceeding to demolition, funding has to be provided to facilitate restoration. The building owners are given ten days’ notice, and if a response is not forthcoming, the demolition work will proceed. Building owners can also apply to CERA for demolition consent for other structures. The grant was not forthcoming, especially for older apartment buildings, despite the drive undertaken by tenants and stakeholders.

Take the case of Cranmer Court. This building was constructed in 1873, and the disposition for buildings built before 1900 falls under the jurisdiction of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. The Resource Management Act (RMA) allows buildings to be listed under the city plan to be protected. The Christchurch City Council permitted CERA to be exempted from the requirements of the Building Act of 2004. The change in legislation means CERA can have full consent in proceeding with demolition without requiring approval under the RMA.


What could have saved the buildings?

A building can be saved if there is solid engineering advice discussing how this can be done. The owner must also be willing to preserve the structure and have funds for the restoration work. Without this, the building will be considered a safety risk. For most cases, the issue was the availability of funds. In the case of the Cranmer Court, two buyers considered funding the restoration work. However, the price tag came at $5 Million, and they decided to back out of the deal.


What Was At Work?

The head of CERA, Roger Sutton, was firm on the stand of CERA to prioritize safety. The decision on many buildings was not made hastily, and owners were given the proper notice, and the final decision was based on the evidence they had at the time. Apparently, the blanket authority given to CERA gave them the last call despite the previous legislation in force.  

Dame Anna Crighton, a former City Councilor, has voiced her opposition to the hasty nature of how the decisions were arrived at in demolishing many heritage structures. “They got rid of our identity,” she stated. The entire west side of Manchester Street, which used to contain many historical sites, is now a grassy patch. 

Today the issue seeks to bring out how a mandate to preserve a heritage structure should be. Though safety, among the other considerations cited, is the most important consideration to decide on demolition work, more stringent rules should be applied to heritage structures to prevent what many still consider as indiscriminate destruction of the city’s heritage.




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