Enter the red zone

by Fiona Rae / 16 May, 2011
Our Christchurch writer goes inside the cordon to survey the city's savaged heart.

It doesn’t stink in Christchurch’s CBD any more. The last time I was escorted into the cordoned red zone – the heart of the city, bounded by Oxford Tce and the Avon River, St Asaph St and Madras St – the smell of uncollected garbage and rotting food left by fleeing café owners was gagging.

That was in week three. Word is that it continued getting worse for weeks afterwards. Fish shop owner Ange Leonard described to me in vivid terms how, after a couple of months, the stock in her Manchester St shop would have turned into a foul liquid emitting toxic ammonia. But CERA’s Warwick Isaacs, who guided us through the broken streets on Friday, week 11, says a big effort has been made in the last couple of weeks to purge the red zone of rotting putrescibles. It seems like some kind of progress at least: it remains a scene of overwhelming destruction, but at least it’s not crawling with maggots.

And, compared with two months ago, there’s a little more orderliness about the streets, which are silent and deserted but for the occasional scraping of excavators and the movement of high-vis workers amongst the rubble. Bricks that showered down from facades have been swept back into coherent heaps, and the dusty roads sprinkled with water. And some buildings have simply vanished: the TVNZ building; the elegant ANZ Chambers, the Edwardian flagship of the High St boutique zone; Charlie B’s backpackers and Stonehurst hotel on the corner of Gloucester and Madras; St Pauls church in Madras St, with its four striking stone columns; sundry brick buildings that are noticeable only in their absence. And, of course, the desolate charred remains of the CTV building.

I’m not suggesting any of these demolitions were wrong or avoidable. But it is strange to live in a city where the heart is undergoing such savage surgery, hidden from view behind the hermetic seal of the cordon. Bishop Victoria Matthews talked weeks ago of how we would mourn the loss of the familiar, and it’s true – you look up and expect to see the elegant Avonmore building on the corner of Latimer Square, and find the place eliminated; you expect to feel the dour frontages of Manchester St at your shoulder, and instead there is a pile of smashed kindling, twisted metal and broken bricks.

The other big change last Friday was the brutal honesty of the officials, pointing out high-rise after high-rise with terminal damage. It’s these buildings, not the maligned unreinforced masonry buildings, that raise the risk of paralysis in the CBD for months or years. There’s the famous Grand Chancellor, slumped against the neighbouring All Seasons Hotel and on such a lean that it looks comical. There’s the Victoria Apartments and Craigs building, side by side in Armagh St and both leaning in opposite directions. There’s the Clarendon Towers, where the staff of law firms were stuck for hours on February 22nd because a chunk of the stairwell failed. There’s the Westpac Tower in Cashel St, and Securities House and the Harcourts buildings in Madras St – all of them doomed, and all of them undoubtedly complex demolition jobs. And that’s without counting those high rises about which no decision has yet been made – the Brannigans building in Oxford Tce, the Forsyth Barr building on the corner of Colombo and Armagh – build with great fanfare by Bob Jones in the late 80s, but where the stairwell failed disastrously - the Farmers carpark in Oxford Tce.

Isaacs says 900 buildings in the CBD are to come down, and is demanding owners produce their demolition plans within 10 days or the job will be done for them and the bill will be in the mail. CERA has sweeping powers on its side, but each one of these maimed buildings represents a potential collision of interests between property owners who may be under-insured, insurance companies who may argue damaged buildings are repairable or look for other ways to delay paying out, and a population torn between grief for what is lost and an urgent need for progress and hope.

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