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Wednesday Mar 09, 2011

Planned development highlights holes in heritage conservation

The debate raging in local heritage circles about a planned development in one of Cape Town's most historically significant inner-city blocks highlights weaknesses in the province's legal and administrative structure for heritage conservation.

The proposed new office building on top of the historic warehouse

This is the opinion of architectural historian Kathy Dumbrell, who was commenting on the proposal to develop the block bounded by Bree, Waterkant and Strand streets, along with Buitengracht, which includes the 19th-century Lutheran Church complex.

The planned development has been designed by renowned conservation architect Gawie Fagan, whose proposals are supported by a significant proportion of the city's professional architectural and heritage community. But others in this community are strongly opposed to it, arguing that the entire block should be a no-development zone. This is also Dumbrell's viewpoint. She said the issue should be widely debated, particularly because the history of the block was directly linked to the wider social history of Cape Town and the country, through the issues of freedom of worship - the Lutherans met here when their denomination was still banned - and, by association, to slavery and the early social fabric of the Cape.

The block was originally owned by wealthy resident Martin Melck, a Lutheran of German origin. On his death in 1781, about two-thirds was transferred to the Lutheran Church and the remaining third, a single large warehouse running the length of Bree Street, between Strand and Waterkant streets, to his daughter.

Casey Augoustides, spokesman for the developers, said the scheme proposed by Fagan heritage architects had been designed to restore, rationalise and protect the remaining historical fabric of this old warehouse.

Dumbrell said the favourable heritage impact assessment by well-known and respected heritage consultant Dr Steve Townsend had been procedurally "absolutely faultless", and that it was correct for people to acknowledge Fagan's expertise and experience.

However, the way the approval process had unfolded, with limited opportunities for comment by interested and affected groups, had exposed weaknesses in the approval system, she argued.

The development proposal had proceeded on the basis that because the historic warehouse was badly degraded, it was not a "no-development" site, and that the owners had existing rights in this respect, Dumbrell said.

"My argument is that it is part of the bigger block, and that there should be no further development on this whole block. This would immediately change the assessment basis."

Because the issue was so significant, it deserved wide debate, she added.

"I certainly respect the views of the practitioners involved, and it's going to be difficult to oppose this proposed development on procedural and heritage grounds given the skill and experience which both the Fagans and Townsend have, and the respect with which our city treats their professional opinions.

"It all depends on public pressure, and I would be really interested to know what people really think about this," Dumbrell said.

Cape Argus

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