Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Shops that pass ... forever

Shop at 158 Cuba St: up for demolitionOne of the shops that kicked off my "Shops that pass in the night" series was this run-down old space at 158 Cuba St. For the last year it's been home to Aotearoa Streetwear, but prior to that it's been a film set, a secondhand bookshop, an anarcho-feminist art space (does anyone remember The Girlies Project?), a craft shop and home to innumerable temporary and sale shops. Short of including a tattoo parlour and a café that sells heroin under the counter, it's as close as one shop can get to being a microcosm of old-school bohemian upper Cuba St.

New apartments planned for 158 Cuba St - thanks to nzman for the photo - http://www.skyscrapercity.com/showpost.php?p=11193574&postcount=248But not for long. There was a major article on pages E1 and E2 of Saturday's Dominion Post about the fate of buildings that don't meet the new earthquake codes, and it started with a large picture of the 7-storey apartment building that will replace 158 Cuba St. I can understand why some people will be horrified by the very thought of it, but while it's hard to make judgements based upon a single perspective, from an architecural and streetscape point of view I think it's a more than decent replacement (update: thanks to nzman at SkyscraperCity for the picture).

Seven storeys seems awfully tall in the context of mostly low-rise Cuba St, but that's the same as the TAB building (Crombie Lockwood House) a couple of doors down, and just a bit taller than the Watkins building and former "People's Palace" just up the street. In New Zealand, we're used to arty and bohemian quarters being in low-rise neighbourhoods, but that's presumably because any buildings old enough to be cheap and run-down are likely to be from an era when anything above two storeys was rare. In older cities (London, Paris, New York) the equivalents to Cuba St have been in mid-rise districts, so there's nothing inherently wrong with a seven-storey building in such a place. Two to four storeys would seem more fitting here, but given that it's a very narrow building with a 2-3m setback beyond the first floor, and with balconies and plenty of detailing to break up its bulk, it could conceivably be a fine addition to Cuba St.

Stylistically, I have no qualms either. The article quotes the building's architect Karen Krogh about Cuba St: "The last thing we want is for it to be Pleasantville, like Tinakori Rd or Greytown [she could have added Tonks Grove], where everything is ersatz and painted the same colour". I have to agree. Her building is unabashedly contemporary, but I think that the essence of Cuba St is not historical consistency but eclecticism. To this block's current mix of Victorian, Edwardian, Art Deco, sixties modernist and eighties postmodernist, she will be adding what looks like a pretty good example of early 21st Century modern. The Cuba Quarter's vibe doesn't depend upon highly decorated quaintness: Slow Boat Records is quintessentially Cuba St, yet inhabits a plain box of concrete, steel and glass.

But what of the gentrification effect? There will presumably be retail space in the ground floor, but will the history of weird and wonderful retailers that I've celebrated here be ended by the high rents that a new building makes inevitable. Quite possibly, though it's worth noting that the current tenant has already found another space (in the James Smith Market), and in any case is an offshoot of an Auckland shop. Bringing the building up to the new earthquake standards would have been exorbitantly expensive anyway, and perhaps the proceeds from selling 14 apartments above will mean that the owners don't have to charge quite as high a rent for the shop space. As I noted earlier, the gentrification of Cuba St is happening fairly slowly, and there's a whole lot of retail space coming on the market soon to take some of the heat out of the market. I'll be a bit sad to see another bit of scruffy old Te Aro disappear, but there are some much worse potential losses looming thanks to the earthquake standards.

The biggest potential source of worry is noise complaints, given that it's opposite the San Francisco Bath House. Here's hoping that the building's got proper acoustic insulation, and that the people who move in aren't idiots. Perhaps new residents here should sign a covenant that says "I am aware that my home will be across the road from one of Wellington's noisiest music venues, and I know what I'm getting into. If I don't like it, I will move back to Karori."

My one last quibble with the building is that the model shows a large mural of Che Guevara on the first floor. Granted, the appropriation of revolutionary imagery is hardly new in Cuba St, but what seems natural and acceptable in a café or bar really does seem excrutiatingly silly on a shiny new apartment block. I really hope that it's just a placeholder rather than a serious part of the design.


At 6:43 pm, January 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, not surprising but still a shame. I've been wondering when this would happen. It, along with it's shabby neighbours is very (relatively) old, early 1870s from memory, and forms part of the WCC and Historic Places Trust's heritage areas, so permission from both parties will be required. I assume this will be a formality, if it hasn't already been obtained.
It's worth noting that the owners of this building own a number of other historic buildings nearby, and while the loss of this particular building may not be a tragedy for some, I am concerned that it is going to set a precendent for these owners. I know that a larger historic building they own across the road was in the potential firing line last year. I don't know if this is still the case, but I say, be warned!! They've held onto these buildings for many years and I think it's safe to say it's not because they are heritage enthusiasts.

At 11:12 pm, January 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any chance you could post a pic of those apartments over at skyscraper city since i misssed the article in the Dom. I really keen to see the render after reading your description. I always felt it was a matter of time before those buildings went, and while they might be considered historic, they are somewhat of an eyesore

At 9:08 am, January 08, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Anon 1: Do you happen to know which other buildings are owned by the same people? The Dom made me think that the architect (Karen Krogh) was also the owner of this one, but didn't mention any others.

The article mentioned that resource consent has been obtained for the new building, but that they still need consent to demolish the old one. The shop assistant at Aotearoa Streetwear said they were moving out in March, so perhaps that's a hint that demolition isn't far off.

I am worried that the new earthquake rules could become an excuse for wholesale demolition (a la the '80s "demolition derby"). On the other hand, if the cost of strengthening a building is more than it can return economically, there aren't a heck of a lot of options. Sure, the council could step in with some funding or rates relief, but given that their funds for this are necessarily finite, I'd rather they saved it for buildings that are really worth it (e.g. Futuna).

Anon 2: I'd love to, but I only have a crummy cameraphone and it's not good at taking photos of printed images. Does anyone have a scanner?

I half agree with you about this building and some of its neighbours. I don't quite consider them an eyesore (they're a slice of genuinely dodgy, scruffy old Cuba), but there doesn't seem to be much left of historical interest, at least to non-specialist eyes. My chief interest in keeping hold of them is as cheap old buildings (in the Jane Jacobs sense) that enable a rnage of quirky and lively small businesses to operate. But by the time they're brought up to earthquake strength, they'll no longer be cheap!

At 9:32 am, January 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was digging around in my rubbish bin and luckily found my copy of last Saturdays Dominion. You were right this building is going to look great on Cuba Street and the architect should be congratulated. However looking at the article it seems like a lot of buildings could be demolished in Wellington . How can the council demolish those building t 32-43 Willis Street. Surely the council has some responsibility to help pay for the preservation of historic buildings. BTW - I have a 5 megapixel camera so i'll try to post a decent pic of the apartments.

At 10:15 am, January 08, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Thanks for that, I'd love to be able to post a pic or link to one online.

You're right that the 32-43 Willis St buildings would be more of a loss. Given that there have been vague proposals for a high-rise there floating around for a while, their demolition seems to be very likely: I meant to write a general post about the whole issue, but the 158 Cuba building was enough to write about in one post!

I have to correct you on one thing, though: the council isn't going to be demolishing any buildings: the owner is. From what I can work out, they're not listed, and while they're certainly an important part of the streetscape, I wonder whether it's even possible to bring such buildings up to code without leaving pretty much an empty shell. I do agree with the Architectural Centre that the council could do more (e.g. through rates relief or waiving building consent fees) to promote preservation. But whatever it does, there's going to have to be some sort of prioritisation to ensure that buidlings with the most architectural, historical or streetscape value are saved first, as it'll never be possible to save everything that's more than 50 years old.

At 10:31 am, January 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

okay - that's it!!!

i have an old Casio 4Mpixel camera..
It's yours for free if you promise to stop posting grainy greyish cameraphone photos into my Rss readings.

At 10:41 am, January 08, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Thanks for the offer :-) I actually do have access to a decent camera occasionally (you may have noticed some better-than-average photos recently), but the reason I keep using my cameraphone is that I always have it with me. It's 1.3Mpixel, which is more than enough for web work, but the lens and exposure control are both rubbish, and I don't think newer cameraphones are much better in that regard.

And I think in the case of this building, it is actually grainy and greyish!

At 5:54 pm, January 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't agree with you on the scale, the new picture you posted suggests an overly large building relative to those around it. Admittedly, it would help if the TAB building was included to place it in context better, while the 3D nature of the image perhaps makes the apartments look more imposing than they will in reality. Still feel pretty dubious though.

I like a bit of shabby myself, I think it makes a building more mysterious and intriguing, though that is simply a personal feeling. One thing I really like about this building and it's neighbours is the back view from the carparks behind. I find old naked bricks, sheds and outhouses really pleasing. This building will really spoil my viewing pleasure!

At 6:05 pm, January 08, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comment from Anon 1: Tom, I have to apologise and state that my memory has proved a little faulty, and Ms Krogh does indeed own this building and no other. I did some work on the Cuba St heritage buildings last year and noticed that a number of buildings in this block were owned by the same outfit. I incorrectly thought this one was as well.

Despite this I do think my concerns about precedent still stand, though hopefully the new Cuba St heritage area will temper this. I presume consents for this project were issued under the old plan for Cuba St. But, does this project make something of a mockery of the new heritage rules? Or, is it an unavoidable evil that once proposals for tighter rules are publically advertised, owners will ensure they squeeze in before the rules become operational? It's not like the council moves very fast on these matters unless it really wants to.

Sorry again for the error, will check my facts before posting in future.

At 3:32 pm, January 09, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing: long thin site.
Lots of side windows.
Hard against boundary?
What happens when the neighbours build up to their boundary?
Let's hope you like a long, thin, very dark apartment...

At 4:37 pm, January 09, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"I can't agree with you on the scale, the new picture you posted suggests an overly large building relative to those around it."

I think it probably won't be that imposing, since it'll mostly be seen end-on from the street. I would have preferred something a little lower (perhaps 4-6 storeys), or with more of a setback, but I don't think it's outrageously big. On the other hand, now that I've looked again at the picture, I see that it's 8 storeys rather than the 7 that the article said.

"One thing I really like about this building and it's neighbours is the back view from the carparks behind. I find old naked bricks, sheds and outhouses really pleasing. This building will really spoil my viewing pleasure!"

I agree with all that, and one of my main regrets with this development is that it removes what could have been an interesting part of a "Lichfield Lanes"-type quarter in the carpark behind there. Still, it's not the new building per se that's going to spoil our view of evocative urban decay: the main point of the DomPost article was that the costs of strengthening such buildings is much more than it's worth, economically. Anyway, refurbishing the building to make it more structurally sound would also either wipe out that shabbiness, or replace it with a fake shabbiness that's probably even worse.

"Does this project make something of a mockery of the new heritage rules? Or, is it an unavoidable evil that once proposals for tighter rules are publically advertised, owners will ensure they squeeze in before the rules become operational?"

"Mockery" might be too strong a word, but since the Cuba heritage guidelines state "The street wall is relatively evenly scaled in each block and heights, which are typically two- to three-storeyed, varying by just a storey
above or below the median building height in each block" then it's pretty hard to argue that anything taller than four storeys would fit. The top of the street facade follows the cornice of its northern neighbour, which is nice, but the rest of the building isn't set far enough back to give it a sense of separation and retain a consistent street wall. The new rules have an 18m height limit in this part of the Cuba heritage area, so 6 storeys would be allowed, but 7 or 8 is really pushing it.

But as you say, this would have been designed well before the new rules were finalised, given that consent has already been granted. Surprisingly, some of the council officers I've spoken too have said that developers have actually been waiting for the new rules, rather than rushing to get in early.

"What happens when the neighbours build up to their boundary? Let's hope you like a long, thin, very dark apartment..."

I thought the same, but then I realised that this is one way in which the architect/developer has been very clever. Presuming that nothing's already being processed for the site north of here (154-156 Cuba, which is listed on the council's heritage inventory), any future developments would come under the new rules and will only get 75% of the volume to build in, as well as rules about light access and amenity. Thus, those side windows should get at least some space.


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