Whangārei’s old town hall – still covered in white plastic – three and a half years after being damaged by fire. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Whangārei’s old town hall “eyesore” is to live on in a now $7.43 million renovation due to start by June – in spite of five of the city’s leaders wanting it demolished.
Renovation – for which the cost has gone up by more than 70 per cent in the last three years – narrowly emerged as Whangārei District Council’s choice for the historic 111-year-old building’s future at a council meeting on Thursday.
The renovation is expected to start in May/June and be finished by Christmas next year – subject to the council getting resource and building consents it is aiming to gain this month. This option came ahead of demolishing the building, keeping its facade with a new structure behind it, or selling it off to a private developer.
Demolition would cost $1.45m and take 20 months, a council staff report for Thursday’s meeting said. Retaining the facade, with a new structure behind, would cost about $9.35m and take more than three years.
Fire ravaged the building on Whangārei’s Bank St in October 2019. Three and a half years later it is still cloaked in white plastic wrap and scaffolding.
Councillor Carol Peters said the historic building was currently an eyesore, and she agreed with the community it was taking too long to fix. However, there had however been a huge amount of work to reach the point of being able to physically start its renovation.
“This is a building of particular significance for Whangārei,” Cr Peters said.
Councillor Marie Olsen led the demolition charge at the meeting. She was part of a quintet calling for demolition – and supported by Deputy Mayor Phil Halse and Crs Jayne Golightly, Simon Reid and Paul Yovich in a failed 5:9 vote.
Cr Reid expressed dismay as the push to demolish the building failed.
“There are still only five with fiscal responsibility. We’re in a phase where we’re trying to allocate finances wisely. To me this is a want-to-have, not a need-to-have,” Reid said.
Cr Reid, supported by Cr Golightly, had earlier led the same quintet in the first meeting push for a renovation alternative, which was to instead sell it to a private developer. Reid said it could be sold for $1. This also failed in a 5:9 vote.
The vexed question of what to do about the iconic building was the focus of an intense debate lasting almost two hours, alongside two staff reports.
Renovation emerged as the council’s final choice – by a narrow 57 per cent majority in an 8:6 vote. Crs Peters and Nicholas Connop led the renovation call, voting for the option, along with Mayor Vince Cocurullo and Crs Benney, Ken Couper, Deb Harding, Patrick Holmes and Scott McKenzie.
Halse, Golightly, Olsen, Reid, Phoenix Ruka and Yovich voted against it.
Mayor Cocurullo said demolishing the building would be paid for out of the council’s operating budget, meaning ratepayers would pay, and it would likely require public consultation. Deputy Mayor Halse was against the renovation. He said its financials had too many variables and the project cost would likely climb as a result.
The council in June 2021 approved what was then to be a $4,333,489 restoration plan that included boosting the building’s earthquake strengthening. Thursday’s decision came with the now $7,430,961 renovation price tag, 71 per cent more than in 2021.
The first council staff report said the price hike was because of increased construction costs, driven largely by labour shortages and the cost of materials due to supply chain issues.
A new lift at the rear of the 1912 building is now to be part of the renovation.
The council got a building fire insurance payout of only $2,365,489 for material damage and business interruption in the wake of the fire.
Councillors on Thursday approved the remaining $3,254,784 to cover the renovation price tag increase, just over 60 per cent of this being already earmarked in the coming year’s budget.
Cr Peters said the renovation was a council capital cost, meaning it would not affect council rates.
Renovation will start with repairing fire damage, then undertaking earthquake strengthening, followed by internal alterations. Whangārei-based Arco Group will be the renovation’s lead contractor.
Cr McKenzie said WDC should consider renovating then selling the building.
WDC chief executive Simon Weston said post-renovation, it would be up to councillors to decide what to do regarding rehousing the eight community group tenants that were in the building before the fire.
A 1955 extension to the former municipal offices is also part of the renovation.
The Bank St building Whangārei’s community now calls the old town hall was formerly, in fact, Whangārei City Council’s municipal offices. Whangārei’s previous town hall was sited where the carpark behind the current building is.
■ Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air