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Wellington's largest office block evacuated over quake fears

Forty buildings now shut for assessment, and the list keeps growing. Three are scheduled for demolition. PLUS: Emergency powers for Kaikoura. UPDATED with comments from Wellington Mayor Justin Lester.

Thu, 24 Nov 2016

Confirmed structural damage (marked on map here)

  • 61 Molesworth St (scheduled for demolition)
  • Statistics House
  • Courtenay Central Car Park (scheduled for demolition)

Closed for assessment (marked on map here)

  • Asteron Centre (IRD, Callaghan Innovation, Civil Aviation, Asteron)
  • Defence House
  • Thorndon Post Centre/NZ Rugby Union House
  • NZ Post Building (corporate office)
  • UK High Commission
  • Pipitea House (GCSB/SIS)
  • High Court
  • IBM House, Petone
  • Environment House
  • Wellington Customhouse
  • Archives New Zealand
  • Revera House
  • Miramar and Maupuia Community Centre
  • Katherine Mansfield House
  • Pipitea Campus - Victoria University of Wellington
  • Lambton House (including Vodafone)
  • Dept of Internal Affairs
  • Intergen House
  • BNZ Corporate Offices
  • Deloitte House
  • Housing New Zealand headquarters
  • Rankine Brown Building (Victoria University)
  • Central Library
  • Council Service Centre
  • Farmers dept store
  • NEC House
  • Courtenay Central (including Reading Cinemas Complex)
  • Maison Cabriole apartments
  • Dragons (three-story building housing Chinese restaurant)
  • Kazu (two-story building housing Japanese restaurant)
  • Marion Square PostShop
  • The See Here Gallery
  • Tennyson Apartments
  • Toi Pōneke Arts Centre
  • Residential/commercial building adjoining Tennyson Apartments
  • Khandallah Pool
  • Figaro Apartments, Malvina Major Retirement Village, Khandallah (scheduled to be rebuilt)

The list of abandoned buildings in Wellington's CBD keeps growing.

Two thousand five hundred staff who work in the Asteron Centre on Featherston St are at home today after being sent packing at 4pm yesterday. The 15-storey building is home to 2000 IRD staff, plus employees from Callaghan Innovation, Civil Aviation, and Asteron Life.

It's billed by its owner, Featherston Developments, as the city's largest single office building and was completed in 2010.

Staff have been told it will be a minimum two weeks before they can return; Featherston Developments says it is confident the building is safe and has criticised IRD for being an overly cautious tenant.

The high-rise was initially assessed as safe after the 7.8 magnitude Kaikoura quake, but staff told media they raised concerns about cracks in a concrete stairwell.

Asteron Life's parent company Suncorp, said in a statement last night that further inspection of the centre "raised some questions about the integrity of the building's stairwells. We have yet to sight the building report but, as a precautionary measure, we have notified all our people the building is closed until further notice and they should not come to work. We are working through the process to get a clear understanding of the building report and any action we need to take."

According to RNZ's running tally, 40 buildings in and around the capital are closed for damage assessments with three scheduled for demolition (the office tower at 61 Molesworth St, the car park next to the Reading Cinemas complex and the CentrePort-owned Statistics New Zealand House, home to about 600 office workers). 

Cracking in a stairwell at the Asteron Centre.

Some staff are working from home, while a limited number of others have relocated; Statistics New Zealand, for example, has moved about 80 staff into HP Tower on Gilmer Terrace, where it has leased space. 

But uncertainty over how long assessments and repairs will take, and a general paucity of information, make it difficult to assess the scope of the abandoned building crisis. 

Confusion, chaos and shifting information are constant themes.

Some buildings, like Defence House (home to 1200 office workers) are to be shut for months, or more. Others, like NZ Post, indicated there would be a quick all-clear but have remained closed. And others, like Asteron, could potentially be reopened relatively quickly if they pass secondary inspections but it remains far from clear if they will.

The owner of 61 Molesworth St, Eyal Aharoni, yesterday refused to talk to NBR, citing legal advice not to give interviews. The NBR Rich Lister struck controversy after it was revealed a family was still living in the 10-storey tower after it was scheduled for demolition (the demolition had been scheduled to begin on Monday but was delayed after difficulty turning off utilities). He earlier told One News that no one was living in the condemned building.

Meanwhile, the Public Service Association is complaining that Niwa's building on Evans Bay Parade was reopened the day after the 7.8 quake after being inspected by Niwa staff rather than engineers (Niwa says a "site services team" assessed the property). A full engineer's report was not commissioned until the Friday after the quake.

Mayor plays it down
Last week, Building and Housing minister Nick Smith announced an inquiry into the performance of buildings during the 7.8 Kaikoura Quake, with a special emphasis on modern buildings.

Talking to NBR Radio, Wellington mayor Justin Lester played down the situation, saying many owners were taking precautionary measures and tenants could soon be back in their buildings. In some, such as Asteron House, tenants were taking a more cautious approach than the building owner.

Mr Lester noted that an update to the Building Act, kicking in from July next year, will halve the time for yellow-stickered buildings to get up to spec from 15 years to 7.5 years.

Banks won't always lend for quake-strengthening, but the council is already offering financial support such as rates moratoriums, he says.

In terms of a potential office space squeeze, the mayor says 99% of buildings in the CBD are usable. Many of the closures are short-term and precautionary, and modern technology makes working from home feasible for many in the meantime.

"I'd be surprised if Asteron was out of action for too long," he says.

Kaikoura-style wage-subsidy scheme in works
Meanwhile, Wellington Mayor Justin Lester says talks with the government over a Kaikoura-style wage-subsidy scheme for quake-affected businesses continue. He describes the talks as constructive but says they will take several more days as more information is collected.

Emergency powers for agencies in Kaikoura
The government is set to introduce legislation granting emergency powers to agencies involved in relief and recovery work around Kaikoura.

Acting Civil Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee says it will be similar to that used in post-earthquake Christchurch and give recovery agencies the power to close roads, keep areas clear of the public and do any necessary work.

Cross-party talks were held yesterday. The legislation is expected to be fast-tracked through Parliament next week.

Inland Rd to re-open for residents
Yesterday, the Inland Rd to Kaikoura (formerly SH70) was briefly closed for post-aftershock assessment. The local Civil Defence operation says it will be conditionally reopened for local residents today.

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Wellington's largest office block evacuated over quake fears