Opponents say it could set a precedent for heritage buildings. But developers say there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Chris Casey can’t stop walking, and talking, and pointing. “Bro,” he says, pacing quickly across an empty car park, “they’ve done this in the last month.” He points to several freshly cut tree stumps in the middle of grass berms. They are, he claims, among dozens of trees that disappeared in a single day about a month ago. “The tree slaughter … was heartbreaking. There was a huge outpouring of grief.”
Before I can get a question in, Casey’s on the march again. “This is a dog’s breakfast, this whole thing,” he says. He waves his hands at what’s in front of him, the site of a massive derelict former psychiatric hospital, the surrounding buildings fenced and earmarked for demolition, and the run-down car park. “Come for a wander,” he yells from so far away passing traffic nearly drowns him out. “I’ll show you.”
We’ve met at Gate One of Unitec’s former Te Pūkenga site in Point Chevalier, around the back of the creepy but beautiful building formerly known as Carrington Hospital, or Building One, for a reason. Within the next few months, infrastructure work is set to begin on a major new housing project.
A spokesperson for Te Tūāpapa Kura Kāinga, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development, says more than 4,000 new homes will be built where we’re standing within the next 15 years. It will take two years to complete the ground work, and the homes up to 15 years to build.
But the ministry says parts of Carrington have to go because the current road at Gate One, which winds its way past the back of Carrington Hospital, isn’t up to the job. “The existing road and the services beneath it are ageing and do not have sufficient capacity, nor do they meet the relevant standards for infrastructure to support the housing development planned at this site,” says a spokesperson for the ministry. “An upgrade is required.”
That upgrade means bulldozers will soon move in to knock off parts of Carrington, a former psychiatric hospital known as the Whau Lunatic Asylum which was later used by Unitec as the base of its architecture and design programmes for 30-odd years until it was abandoned in 2018. The building, built in 1865 with bits and pieces added on over the years, is listed as having Category 1 heritage protection by Heritage NZ. When The Spinoff last wrote about the place, we said it had a “complex history” and called it “one of the city’s architectural icons”.
But that’s not enough to stop parts of it from disappearing. About 7% of Carrington – two “fingers” added in the early 1900s that stretch out in front of the carpark Casey and I are standing in – needs to be lopped off to make way for the ministry’s new road. It is consented. It is why the trees have been removed. It is, according to the ministry spokesperson, a done deal, consented by concerned iwi parties, the Marutūāhu and Waiohua-Tāmaki Rōpu. “It is the only option that has been consented, and will therefore allow the development to proceed as planned,” the spokesperson says.
But that isn’t stopping Casey, the Pt Chev Social Enterprise Trust Chair, from campaigning against it. He studied physiotherapy there in the 1980s, and still has his practice nearby. He believes there’s another way for the ministry to build new homes without destroying part of his favourite building. “We’re not anti-housing,” he says. “It sets a precedent to knock down a Category 1 heritage-protected [building].”
When he asked Heritage NZ about other cases of this happening in the past 10 years to heritage protected buildings, he says they told him there were none. In response to queries by The Spinoff, a Heritage NZ spokesperson said it was not opposing the demolition and hoped to have “meaningful ongoing involvement in how the site is affected”. It also said “protection … is a council responsibility”.
The ministry says the demolition job is minor, will allow room for a new access road, and restoration work will make Carrington’s three rear wings the same length. “The intention is that the two wings affected are restored as close as possible to the original walls that existed prior to these extensions being added to the building in the early 1900s,” a spokesperson says.
But that’s not enough for Casey. He visits the site several times a week, fuming about the trees being removed, and making sure nothing else is being done that isn’t consented. He updates supporters through his Facebook group and has organised a petition speaking out against the road. “It is possible to save all of Building One as a community asset without any loss of housing volume or development profitability,” he wrote in his online petition. It has 660 signatures. “Without knowing our history we do not learn our lessons,” wrote one supporter.
It’s also why he’s here, with me, standing in the spring sun, waving his hands, walking faster than I can keep up, inviting media to talk to him for the first time about a demolition job he says is entirely unnecessary. He wants the existing road upgraded, and new buildings built either side of it, co-existing with Carrington, which he has been campaigning to be turned into a community hub.
“This place would have 20,000 students and staff going through this road and filling this place up,” he says, waving his hands again. “We’ve already got a road … it can handle the jandal.”
Casey’s got supporters in high places. “I have signed the petition,” says former prime minister Helen Clark, who took to Facebook recently to complain about the proposed demolition. “I support those working to safeguard Auckland’s heritage suburbs with their Victorian and Edwardian era homes and streetscapes,” she wrote. “I fear we run the risk of haphazard development which destroys the integrity of the historic heritage of our city.” She’s also appalled by the removal of so many trees.
Another is Mark Wallbank. As the head of Haunted Auckland, a group of prominent Auckland ghostbusters, he has spent many nights roaming the corridors of Carrington, setting up equipment and searching for signs of the afterlife. He calls plans to remove parts of it “a sad thing” and says the building could be used for so many things. “Why can’t they just move the road design over a little?” he says. “All that history, gone, to make way for a road.” Wallbank wonders what might happen to the ghosts who are rumoured to roam Carrington’s hallways at night. “There’s a huge list of activity, witnesses, through the years,” he says. “Students and tutors all have experienced things.”
Also backing Casey is photographer Jessica Chloe, who recently trekked around the site and photographed every single tree stump for a series of several hundred bleak photographs.
What isn’t helping Casey’s case is the state of Carrington. It’s been sitting empty since 2018, when Unitec left it and sold the surrounding land back to the government. Ever since, the building has run into disrepair. Graffiti artists have targeted its walls and vandals have broken into the place. Gutters are blocked up. Doors have been kicked in, windows are broken, and many panes are boarded up. Outside areas are overgrown with foliage. “ANIGAV” is written across six panes of dirty outdoor glass.
Inside, Casey says there have been several floods, and mould is growing on the walls and ceilings. Spray paint is sprawled across walls. He blames the ministry and says they should be keeping the building safe and intact. “One of the reasons it looks rumpty is that they haven’t maintained it,” he says, calling it “demolition by neglect”. Another issue is that the building needs costly seismic upgrades, a massive job for a building measuring 8,500 square metres.
But, like the tree in a Carrington courtyard sprouting yellow flowers and showing signs of spring life, Casey can see a way forward, a time in the future when Carrington is restored, its rooms leased out and full of life once again. He compares it to when he was there in the 80s and the place was full of students just like him, training for their careers and positive about the future. “Wouldn’t this be a really funky community hub for arts, creativity and wellbeing?” he asks. “We could tart that up in a week. You’d go, ‘That looks amazing now’.”
He knows he’s up against it. “The ministry will not give an inch,” he says, seemingly resigned to the demolition job going ahead. “It’s a David vs Goliath thing.” On our one-hour tour in the spring sun, Casey tailed off his thoughts just the once. “If we lose our fight …” he said. He never finished his sentence.