St Gerard’s Monastery, high on the hill above Wellington’s Oriental Bay, is yellow-stickered: the Wellington City Council (WCC) has assessed it as earthquake-prone. Its owners, the ICPE (Institute for World Evangelisation – International Catholic Programme of Evangelisation), have fifteen years to strengthen or demolish it.
No-one knows for sure how much it will cost – I’ve heard an engineer give an up-to-$20m estimate. And, following the major earthquakes in Christchurch and Kaikoura, the WCC is keen to get as many buildings as possible strengthened as soon as possible. So the sooner the better for the St Gerard’s strengthening.
The ICPE also owns a house on a small section right next to the Monastery, at no 1 Oriental Terrace – ‘Joe’s Place‘, the red-roofed house tucked among the greenery in the image above, built by Joseph Richard Leadbetter in 1897.
On its second boundary, Joe’s Place adjoins the Oriental Terrace zigzag, a popular pedestrian walkway, with its public gardens tended by residents. The zigzag links Wellington’s waterfront, Oriental Bay and Mount Victoria, as part of the Mount Victoria Lookout Walkway (within the larger Southern Walkway) and is the walkway’s only off-road and intact pocket of heritage wooden houses.
When you use the Lookout Walkway, above the zigzag you can see Joe’s Place and some of the other zigzag houses through viewshafts from Moeller Street. Next door to Joe’s Place is 1A Oriental Terrace. There’s a glimpse of no 3’s roof at the far right and in the foreground is the back of no 4.
These unpretentious domestic dwellings are mostly older than nearby buildings that are recognised by Heritage New Zealand, like St Gerard’s itself and the Seven Sisters down on the waterfront at 188 to 200 Oriental Parade. Apart from no 1A, built in 1919, they were all built around the same time as Joe’s. Although age is just one part of heritage values, it is a significant one.
History is another, and as evidence of an earlier history, Joe’s Place and the zigzag houses add a vibrant element to the St Gerard’s precinct. It’s a history worth cherishing. About where the Monastery now stands, Fanny Fitzgerald and James Edward Fitzgerald, her politician husband who was once very briefly Prime Minister, built and lived in Clyde Cliff or Fitzgerald’s Folly. And when Fanny – a fascinating person, best portrayed by Jennifer Roberts in Fitz; The Colonial Adventures of James Edward Fitzgerald – was widowed. she stayed in their home but sold off some of their land to Joe. She probably built no 3 herself, although she stayed on in Fitzgerald’s Folly, bought by one of her one of her daughters when Fanny died in 1900. In 1906 Fanny’s daughter sold the property to the Redemptorist Fathers, who then moved into the house. They built St Gerard’s Church in 1908 and the Monastery in 1932.
There’s only one redevelopment on the entire zigzag, at the very bottom, based in the footprint of an earlier house from the same era as the rest of the zigzag houses and located opposite the 1905-built no 5, which has a modern addition.
When – as a resident – I garden on the zigzag (focusing on bee-loved plants; others prefer to plant natives or raise fruit and vegetables) I engage with many locals and with increasing numbers of visitors from New Zealand and around the world as they walk up or down. The many ‘regulars’ respond to the garden changes and help themselves to herbs or cape gooseberries or a stray kamokamo.
Locals also help residents with the gardens. One of these, out of the blue, suggested that he register the zigzag on Trip Advisor. And then did so, calling it ‘An historical neighbourhood garden gem linking Oriental Bay and Mt Victoria. For the moderately fit!’ And I made a little site to go with it (and our already established Facebook page and my long historical essay from last year).
The out-of-town visitors tell me that they cherish the intimate, ‘slow’ experience of walking among old houses set in ever-changing public gardens. These people aren’t intrusive, but they feel free to stop and examine what they pass, to photograph the zigzag houses, the gardens and the insects, to express to me how much they enjoy what they see; and to ask questions. They don’t seem to mind that, in the third year of a five-year project, ‘my’ bit of garden isn’t anywhere near perfect.
On its third boundary, Joe’s Place backs onto St Gerard’s Park, in front of the Monastery. This is probably Wellington’s most beautiful tiny park, with 180 degree views and sun all day. It used to be the monks’ garden and orchard and is now owned by the WCC and zoned as ‘Open Space B‘, land valued for its natural character and informal open spaces. Many visitors are delighted when I tell them about it; they take the path I show them and often return to tell me how much they appreciated the park’s views, its peaceful ambience and its park bench.
Not surprisingly, because people who walk tend to value ‘outside’ experiences, even when I refer to St Gerard’s, the visitors tend to show much less interest in that complex than in the zigzag, its little houses and the park. So it’s troubling that their rich experiences may be about to be disrupted.
Change is With Us: Joe’s Place Gets More Land and Will Be Sold
Unfortunately but understandably, the ICPE wants to sell Joe’s Place to help pay for the Monastery to be strengthened. It also wants to increase no 1’s land area, to make it more valuable. To do so, it has exchanged the St Gerard’s-owned path from the zigzag to St Gerard’s Park (outlined in green below) for a narrow strip of Open Space B land that runs past Joe’s Place to the park (outlined in red below). It’s more or less the same slice of green you can see on the left of Joe’s Place in the view from Moeller Street.
This proposal could result in a radical transformation of the zigzag, best illustrated by images of current and possible future building envelopes, kindly supplied by the WCC’s Planning Department.
Inner Residential Zoning – The Old and New Envelopes
Here’s Joe’s Place today, seen – more or less – from Moeller Street but without the vegetation on the zigzag, which alters and softens the view. Like the photograph taken from Moeller Street, it shows the relationship of Joe’s Place to the St Gerard’s wall on its left and to its zigzag neighbour 1A and the next house down, at 3 Oriental Terrace. There’s that glimpse of the sea to its right, too. And the gap between the house and the Monastery that rests the eye with a view of the sky and allows autumn/winter light and sun to fall on the zigzag, as it does in the photograph immediately above.
Joe’s Place sits in harmony with its immediate upper zigzag neighbours, as it does with its neighbours across the zigzag – not seen through this viewshaft. In real life it does the same with the zigzag gardens and St Gerard’s Park, on its other boundaries.
But on the section as it is at present, without the additional land, there’s actually a much larger planning envelope. This is what it looks like.
As with all envelopes, this envelope shows the limits of space that can be used. No development can use the entire space. Any development plan requires resource consents and in Oriental Terrace these are regulated by the Residential Design Guide, the Residential Area Rules and the Mt Victoria North Character Area Design Guide (Mount Victoria North Design Guide).
The Residential Area Rules allow any owner to cover only up to 50% of the site within this envelope and any proposal to exceed 50% – or any of the other development standards – would have to be considered under the relevant rules. (At the moment Joe’s Place covers only 25%.) Effects on neighbours would be closely considered and the applicant might be required to obtain written approval from affected neighbours in order to avoid a notified application. As well, the Mount Victoria North Design Guide acknowledges the significance of the pattern of buildings on the Mt Victoria hillside adjacent to St Gerard’s and requires new development, additions, and alterations to have regard to design guidelines that will ensure that this pattern is continued. (2)
Nevertheless, any development on the present site could easily compromise the area’s distinct, intact, heritage-oriented character. And because the new site is bigger, its development could have even greater potential to do this, even if it covered only 50% of the site.
This image shows the maximum height limit and building recession planes for development on the new, expanded site. As on the present site, it would require resource consent for its design, would be subject to the Mount Victoria North Design Guide and could exceed 50% site coverage in some circumstances.
The current pattern of buildings and their relationship to one another and enjoyment of the public gardens and St Gerard’s Park would be at risk; the visitor’s view, from Moeller Street or the zigzag, might no longer be one of a heritage cottage nestled among green, within a sea view and among sympathetic neighbours.
And when a developer sought consents, there could be little or no public consultation about a new design and its effects. The council’s advice is that–
…if [a new] design was particularly out of keeping with the [Mount Victoria North Design Guide], we might consider public notification. We would also consider the extent to which the building complied with the bulk and location rules (maximum height, site coverage etc). Heritage effects (and related tourism effects) could be of interest, especially if the proposed development detracted from the heritage values of St Gerard’s. (3)
This envelope also raises issues with one of a protected stand of mature pohutukawas, the viewshaft from St Gerard’s Park to Mount Victoria and with the zigzag’s light and sun.
The Pohutukawa, the Viewshaft from St Gerard’s park to Mount Victoria and the Zigzag’s Light and Sun
The strip to be integrated with Joe’s Place has this pohutukawa in the corner between two of its boundaries.
It is protected by covenant, as are the other pohutukawa trees next to it in the council-owned park and the covenant will run with the land. But how well can it be protected and enjoyed under any future development proposal if the land changes from Open Space B to Inner Residential and the new building envelope is larger than the current one?
And, what will happen to the viewshaft through the pohutukawa’s branches, across the strip of land that is now Open Space B, looking across to Mount Victoria, if the zoning that protects it is lost? This matters, given the zigzag’s location on the Mount Victoria Lookout Walkway and with Mount Victoria itself: as they leave or arrive at the park visitors can use it to orientate themselves, look over and say ‘That’s where we’re going!’ or, ‘That’s where we were!’
There’s also the potential loss of an opening for autumn and winter sun to reach the Oriental Terrace zigzag and its dwellings, before the sun drops behind St Gerard’s in mid-afternoon.
But worst of all, any developer would be likely to demolish Joe’s Place before making maximum use of the site. Here’s a close-up of the house, from the zigzag.
So What Can Be Done?
I sigh a lot about the zigzag’s future. But I also think about how to protect the neighbourhood.
First of all, is it possible to prevent the zoning of the little strip alongside Joe’s Place from Open Plan B to Inner Residential? Because the new land area will give a new owner a larger footprint for 50% coverage (or more) regardless, why not keep that green buffer between Joe’s Place and St Gerard’s, and that gap for a view up to Mount Victoria from one end, and for the zigzag’s sun at the other? Could the covenant that now protects the pohutukawa extend to protect the entire strip?
Beyond that, my preference would be for the city to buy the new plot of land, clear it, and use it to connect St Gerard’s Park and the zigzag gardens (currently on a road reserve) as a single, beautiful Open Space B: just imagine, seeing those pohutukawas in all their glory, from the zigzag, and to be able to wander much more easily and pleasantly to and from the zigzag and St Gerard’s Park. It would be sad to lose Joe’s Place, but the gain would be huge, for visitors and locals. Or, the city – or a benefactor (or several) – could buy the new section and convert Joe’s Place into something useful and attractive, like a little museum or cafe (yes, there’s no nearby parking, but there’s an awful lot of foot traffic) or a home-and-studio for artists-and-writers-in-residence, like the Michael King Writers Centre, something Wellington hasn’t got?
My second preference would be for someone to buy Joe’s Place to renovate/restore and live in without (much) further development. It could happen.
What else might help? Adherence to WCC’s pre-1930s Demolition Rule? Intervention by Heritage New Zealand? I checked them out.
The Pre-1930s Demolition Rule
WCC’s pre-1930s Demolition Rule (the Demolition Rule), protects neighbourhoods with a distinct character and significant concentrations of pre-1930s buildings, as identified in the District Plan.
The Mount Victoria North Design Guide’s Appendix 2 lists many qualifying Mount Victoria buildings, in many streets. Here’s a detail from its map. The pre-1930s rule covers the shaded area. The protected area ends just before the zigzag, at ‘ORIENTAL TE’ on the far right.
I think it used also to cover the zigzag area, as in this illustration, but have yet to have this confirmed or refuted.
In this old picture, it’s easy to see how the pattern of the zigzag houses flows from similar houses in nearby streets, many of them still in existence and protected by the Demolition Rule.
It’s also easy to see how even then the zigzag had its own unique character, as a road reserve, with associated trees. (It started out as an extension of Hawker Street, as you can see from that big swoop up the hill towards the right in this photo.)
The Demolition Rule is based on ‘…a presumption that pre-1930 buildings should be retained’ although–
…demolition may also be contemplated in exceptional situations where the proposed replacement building is of such outstanding design quality that it justifies demolition of the existing pre-1930 building.
Exceptions are provided for, but are subject to a rigorous process–
Any application put forward to be considered as ‘exceptional design’ will need to articulate why the design is ‘exceptional’ and will also need to demonstrate that the new building is compatible with the surrounding townscape character, will make a significantly greater contribution to townscape character than the existing pre-1930 building, and that demolition and construction of a new building will not create a detrimental precedent in an area (or neighbourhood) sensitive to change.
To ensure that these applications are subject to a suitably rigorous assessment process they will be considered by an independent panel of appropriately qualified design professionals, and consents will be publicly notified.
Joe’s Place in a neighbourhood with a distinct character and significant concentration of pre-1930s buildings
Whether Joe’s Place is viewed as part of the larger Mount Victoria North Character area – as it is through history and through inclusion in the Mount Victoria North Design Guide – or only in relation to the distinct character of the St Gerard’s precinct, and to the enclave of zigzag houses and to their associated greenery, it unquestionably adds value to visitor experience of the Mount Victoria Walkway, of the zigzag and St Gerard’s. Demolition of Joe’s Place – unless to link the zigzag with St Gerard’s Park – and development within the planning envelope described could create a ‘detrimental precedent in an area sensitive to change’ within a neighbourhood of ‘distinct character’. This would also be true if any of the other zigzag houses were demolished, because collectively they are a small and unique pocket in a unique position.
So why is the zigzag excluded from the Demolition Rule, even though it’s included in the Mount Victoria North Design Guide?
It’s excluded because back in 2008 the council commissioned a Character Review, to (re)assess areas for inclusion in the Demolition Rule and decided that Oriental Terrace did not meet the assessment criteria. (4) But the review’s author missed a few things, so the report has significant factual errors and some flawed conclusions that fail to take relevant factors into account.
Most significantly, he assessed seventeen Oriental Terrace houses and stated that none existed before 1900. But Joe’s Place at no. 1 and three of the other five houses that line the upper zigzag are pre-1900 (nos. 3, 6, 8); a fourth (no. 4) was built in 1900 exactly. The fifth, 1A, was built in 1919, as already mentioned.
Further down the zigzag, the original part of no. 5 is 1905 and the development opposite it, down the bottom of the zigzag, is the single post-1920 building, based within an earlier footprint, perhaps because the zigzag was then covered by the Demolition Rule.
The hillside path that runs off the upper zigzag towards the east, like the westward path to St Gerard’s Park, is less used by zigzag visitors, unless they are keen explorers. But on its upper side the path passes at least one more pre-1900 house, possibly two. All four houses are pre-1930. I don’t know the dates of the three dwellings below the path, but one is probably 1890s-early 1900s.
Because he made the mistake about the pre-1900 buildings, the report writer did not have to address that element as something that matters. He didn’t have to investigate any possible factors that relate to their history, including the houses’ significance within the St Gerard’s precinct as dwellings that pre-date it and in some cases had a strong connection to the Fitzgeralds. So, after using seven criteria to rank the dwellings, he was able to ignore the pre-1900s buildings, the area’s history and its distinct character and offer a superficially reasonable judgment– ‘Oriental Terrace has a high degree of age consistency, and a high proportion of pre-1930s dwellings. However they are neither rare nor visually prominent, and differ markedly in character from the existing areas to which demolition controls already apply’.
The writer doesn’t explain how the dwellings ‘differ markedly from the exisiting areas to which demolition controls already apply’; there’s no reference to their place in the pattern shown in that photo from 1912. Instead, using ratings from ‘1’ – ‘nil or negative, ‘2’ – ‘low’, ‘3’ – moderate ‘ to ‘4’ – ‘high’, he gave Oriental Terrace, essentially the zigzag houses and those above the side path, very low ‘1’s for the Rarity and the Ability to Demonstrate Valued Pattern criteria; ‘2’s for four more: Visual Prominence, Visual Unity or Consistency, Aesthetic Coherence and Contribution to Identity; and its only ‘3’ for Intactness, because of its high concentration of pre-1930s buildings (again failing to acknowledge its high proportion of pre-1900 and exactly 1900 houses).
The ‘2’ rating for Visual Prominence, because ‘it is difficult to obtain a medium and close range view of the area from public spaces’ is as inaccurate as the assessment of the number of pre-1900s dwellings, because opportunities for medium or close views of no. 1 and the other zigzag houses are much enjoyed by all those locals and visitors who wander and walk and run up and down the *very* public space of the zigzag and along the path to St Gerard’s Park, (where Joe’s Place and the other houses that back onto the park are of exactly the right era to enhance visitors’ enjoyment of the park and its pear tree that may date back to the Fitzgeralds). This rating also ignores the reality that the zigzag’s houses are highly visible from other spaces like Moeller Street and Palliser Road on the Lookout Walkway, from St Gerard’s carpark and from other parts of Oriental Bay.
To be fair, in 2008 perhaps no-one could have predicted how popular the zigzag and its houses would become over the next ten years, with locals and visitors to Wellington. And who knew that a series of living gardens, most of them as modest as the adjoining houses, would delight visitors? But the inaccuracy remains.
As a group all the dwellings are only ‘dissimilar to the existing areas to which demolition controls already apply’ in Mount Victoria North because of the things that make them a smaller neighbourhood of ‘distinct character’ within the larger one: their position alongside St Gerard’s, alongside old trees and new gardens and on the Lookout Walkway; and their proximity to Oriental Bay.
Once Visual Prominence is accepted, it’s an easy step to understand that these simple houses do have a relevant Valued Pattern, Aesthetic Coherence and Visual Unity or Consistency for those who pass by, because – like the houses that adjoin another much less popular nearby road reserve, Kennedy Street, and are subject to the Demolition Rule – they are an intact group, with the Aesthetic Coherence that comes from being uniformly wooden, old, unpretentious and diverse. Three of them, nos. 1, 4 and 6, do add a further strong Visual Unity. Did the writer miss the similarities between nos. 4 and 6, because they’re on a steep slope and difficult to photograph together? Nos. 1A and 8 also ‘speak’ to each other, across the zigzag, because no.8 was updated in the 1930s. No.3 is a little different, thanks to Fanny Fitzgerald, I imagine, but it fits with the others on the zigzag and with many others nearby that are subject to the Demolition Rule.
The other criteria, if considered more rigorously, also reinforce the zigzag’s distinct character: Rarity and Identity. The factors already referred to make problematic the ‘1’ the review gives Rarity, because, to contrast the zigzag with Kennedy Street again, the zigzag has a unique history and is located within the St Gerard’s precinct, is on the main route from Mount Victoria to the iconic Oriental Bay beach and is the only off-road part of the Lookout Walkway that is lined with old houses and includes diverse ‘homemade’ gardens. The zigzag and its dwellings also very much contribute to Identity (a ‘2’), because alongside St Gerard’s they provide a complementary and valuable historical attraction; and a much-enjoyed element within the Lookout Walkway/Oriental Bay experience.
As for Valued Pattern, in addition to the larger Mount Victoria Valued Pattern that the zigzag’s part of, there’s the smaller juxtaposition of two heritage eras as a pattern to be valued, with the older, domestic, informal and small-scale dwellings and ever-changing gardens providing a vivid contrast to the more recently built formal, inaccessible and institutional large-scale presence of St Gerard’s.
I’d like the WCC to acknowledge the review’s errors and that, almost a decade after it was undertaken, the patterns of use of this area have changed in ways that give the intact zigzag enclave a higher value than it used to have. Development that ignores historical realities and the upsurge in visitors to the city will compromise the expression of this multifaceted value in a neighbourhood with distinct character: the area deserves protection through the Demolition Rule. However, the council’s current advice is that it does not have any plans to reassess the Mt Victoria area covered by Appendix 2 unless all the property owners that would be affected by the rule agreed. (5) Obviously, St Gerard’s or a new owner of no. 1 who is a developer are unlikely to agree.
So, what about intervention by Heritage New Zealand?
Heritage New Zealand
Heritage New Zealand (HNZ) has been consulted about how the planned new envelope at the extended no 1 site will affect views of St Gerard’s, as a category 1 historic place entered on the New Zealand Heritage List /Rārangi Kōrero as a place of historic outstanding or special importance.
The essence of HNZ’s response is that the envelope–
…is not likely to affect the heritage values of the St Gerard’s building. The enlargement of the height control envelope which controls potential building is greater with the exchange but has minor effects on the visibility of St Gerard’s from public spaces around the Oriental Bay area. The current buildable envelope would allow development on the site already, which is unrealised.
It will be important to the heritage values of the Monastery that the usual standards for buildings and structures applying to the Inner Residential Area, the Residential design Guide and the Mt Victoria North Character Area Design Guide are applied…Any extra allowances to an application for new building will have an effect on the visual heritage values of the Monastery. (5)
But at the moment neither HNZ nor the WCC appear to cherish the heritage (and recreational) values of Joe’s Place or the zigzag. Among my many questions which council officers patiently responded to, I asked about the possible creation of a new Heritage Area instead of working to have the Demolition Rule restored to the zigzag houses. Neither of the responses I received, from two different council sections, encourages this idea.
From the first, a Senior Heritage Advisor (in a team currently preoccupied with earthquake issues, I understand)–
A new Heritage Area … would have to wait for a more comprehensive review of the heritage provisions of the District Plan. My understanding is that this is not a current priority for the District Plan team. (6)
From the second, in the District Plan team–
Heritage Area creation – the decision is not up to officers. You would need to get Councillor buy in, given that imposing a heritage area on property owners would restrict their existing development options (should they wish to take them up), property values etc. (7)
It’s not looking good for Joe’s Place and the zigzag. But I believe in miracles.
(1) Residential Area Rules Rule 22.214.171.124.5: ‘In Residential Areas (excluding the Oriental Bay Height Area) an additional 1m can be added to the maximum height (stated in standards 126.96.36.199.1, 188.8.131.52.4 and 184.108.40.206) of any building with a roof slope of 15 degrees or greater (rising to a central ridge)’.
(2) See e.g. Rule 5.3.4 (Multi-unit Development and Infill Household Units) of the District Plan’s Residential Area Rules and the relevant policies of the Residential Chapter, especially Policy 220.127.116.11: ‘The Council will control infill subdivision within suburban residential areas to facilitate future residential land use subject to conditions or criteria which ensure adverse effects, including cumulative effects, are avoided, remedied or mitigated and that sites are suitable for intended use’.
(3) This could also happen – of course – if current or future owners of any of the properties along Oriental Terrace applied for resource consents to redevelop their properties, which is why the Demolition Rule is so significant. I have no knowledge of what ‘particularly out of keeping’ might mean.
(4) Graeme McIndoe (2008) Wellington City District Plan Residential Review: Character
(5) email HNZ to WCC 22/12/16
(6) email from WCC 22/12/16
(7) email from WCC 14/3/17