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Failing to save our heritage

The Wellington City Council’s inability to save two Edwardian houses from demolition last week paralleled its inability ten years earlier to save a popular and historic swimming pool in the same area of Mt Cook.

Though the council allowed the pool to be demolished ten years ago, it was a pointless as well as a destructive exercise – the site has remained empty ever since.

Last week’s demolition of the houses in Rugby Street opposite the Basin Reserve was equally destructive. It couldn’t be stopped because the council had failed to give them heritage protection, though they had interiors unchanged since 1912. Without this heritage status the Chinese Embassy, which now owns the site where it plans to build a new Embassy, was legally able to pull them down.

Felicity Wong, the chair of Historic Places Wellington, said the city council had commissioned a heritage architect to write a report about what buildings should be protected in the District Plan. The report included the two houses but she doesn’t know why they didn’t receive heritage status. “I approached the council more than a year ago to ask them to list them.”

The council was similarly ineffectual ten years ago when the entire site had been bought for a supermarket.

The site included the Boys’ Institute pool in Tasman Street – not only the oldest indoor pool in Wellington but also popular with tens of thousands of boys and girls from all over the city who had attended swimming lessons in the pool for more than 90 years. But the council didn’t care. The swimming teachers and their pupils were evicted and the building was demolished, except for its facade. Leaving the site empty and unused ever since.

Demolition was opposed unsuccessfully by the Mount Cook Mobilised group which was formed in 2007. Around 250 residents attended its first public meeting and more than 1400 signed a petition which asked the city council to keep the pool and upgrade it. The council didn’t listen.

In times past, however, the council had given thought to protecting the area where the demolitions have occurred. Early in 2005 it staged the launch, by Prince Charles, of the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol, “which aims to make urban design an essential component in New Zealand towns and cities.” In the same year, the council’s Urban Planning Update announced “the need for more refined provisions for the protection and enhancement of character in Berhampore, Newtown and Mt Cook.”

Only three years after those brave words were published, anyone could see that the council had done nothing to protect Mt Cook’s popular and historic swimming pool. And ten years later, with the demolition of the beautiful Edwardian houses, the council shows that it hasn’t changed. Or learned.

-Wellington.scoop / Lindsay Shelton