Heritage pipes

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
3 November, 2023

The Wellington City Council is juggling a few financial priorities at the moment.   

The top priority is to clear as many curb-side parking places as possible, to make way for bike lanes. This is a pressing issue. Some of the new lanes accommodate as many as four cyclists per day.   

Then there’s the project to strengthen the old Town Hall. Initially estimated at a paltry $40 million back in 2013, the projected cost has increased slightly to somewhere between $250 and $329 million.   

Some people seem to think that’s a lot. But at only about $4,000 per Wellington household, it remains a bargain. The Town Hall is a charming example of neo-renaissance architecture. It also has world class acoustics for classical music. So what if only a miniscule fraction of those paying for its repair wants to use it?  

Much further down the council’s list of priorities is repairing Wellington’s ageing and leaky sewerage pipes. Frankly, it’s hard to see why such a vanity project should receive funding. But malcontents have been complaining that, because of the leaks, a fair amount of raw sewerage ends up in the harbour.   

Successive councils did their best to ignore this trivial problem, but the anti-raw-sewerage brigade finally gained traction. In 2020, the repairs were designated a Critical Project. They might have succeeded much sooner, had they adopted the tactics of the heritage building lobby.  

Wellington’s most cherished heritage site must surely be the Gordon Wilson Flats on the Terrace. A few philistines say the flats are a dirty, derelict, graffiti-ridden eyesore, and an earthquake risk to boot. But to connoisseurs of fine architecture, the building is a paragon of 1950s modernist high-density social housing. Similar buildings are a commonplace legacy of the Soviet era in Eastern Europe, but the style is rare in New Zealand.  

Victoria University of Wellington, which owns the flats, would like to demolish them to make way for a building it can actually use. Fortunately, our heritage laws prevent such cold-hearted vandalism. Owners cannot simply demolish their buildings just because they own them.  

The Town Hall is also a heritage building, so the Council could not demolish that, either. Its heritage status convinced a majority of councillors that the only option was to repair it.   

So, perhaps the best way to future-proof Wellington’s (Victorian-era) sewerage system would be simply to designate it a heritage site. 

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