“A swampy jungle of interlaced flax and cutting grass, taller than a mounted horseman, and so dense it is more practical to go by river than attempt to force a path through it.” Missionary William Colenso describes the Heretaunga Plains in 1844.

The Ngaruroro was one of the rivers Colenso might have navigated, and at that time it ran from Fernhill to Havelock North, along a route where Heretaunga Street runs today. In the great flood of 1867 the Ngaruroro changed course, the swamp was drained, and by the time of Colenso’s death in 1899, Hastings was a thriving market town.

Wool was the white gold that saw Hastings prosper, and as the graziers drained the Plains and stripped the hill country to create pasture, businesses serving the rural community grew rapidly. And the trains passed through the middle of the town carrying wool and meat to the port at Ahuriri for shipping ‘back home’.

The first subdivision of land in Hastings was a one hundred acres block offered in 1/4, 1/2 and 1 acre sections by Francis Hicks in 1873. The streets named by Hawke’s Bay’s first property developer characterise his background and allegiance – King and Queen, and Nelson, Market and Avenue. And as the son of a prosperous Cornish sheep farmer he may well have visited the English seaside resort of St. Aubyn.

The ‘main street’, which is the axis between East and West, Hicks named Victoria, of course, until it was found her name was already taken, and it was changed to Heretaunga.

The department store arrives

Francis Hicks lived to see his bare land transformed, and the year before his death in 1911, a ‘modern’ department store, equal to any in the towns of his beloved England, was built on the northern corner of King and Heretaunga Streets.

Roach’s had nineteen departments, a mail order service, and telephone. But in the 1931 earthquake the building was destroyed; to such a degree, the bodies of most of the seventeen people killed within were not recovered.

Wallace’s old Roach’s becomes nwe Farmers

In its place, an elegant single story building designed by Eric Phillips, was completed by 1934, and along with Westermans and Farmers, provided for the booming demand in consumer goods. The heydays of the privately owned and operated department store came to an end in the 1980s, when American-style ‘big box’ retailers like K Mart and The Warehouse killed off the competition. And with the latest trend for clustered bulk store retail – Nelson Park – sited outside the CDB, inner city retailing has suffered badly.

But in a welcome turn of events, Roach’s building is being revived and will soon host a modern departmental store, which could set a trend in revitalising retailing in central Hastings – the block subdivided by Francis Hicks 140 years ago.

We have Jonathon Wallace to thank for this.

“He’s very good at achieving win/win results for everyone involved,” says Development Manager, Mike Walker. “He knew Farmers were looking to amalgamate their two Hastings stores and we had an existing relationship with them.” Wallace owns the Farmers building in Napier. “Negotiations with property owners and existing tenants were very complex.”

Mike Walker – Wallace Developments

Wallace saw the potential for creating a single site bounded by Heretaunga, King, and Eastbourne streets. He already owned two titles, but when key existing owners were unwilling to sell, he successfully proposed a joint venture, and existing tenants were offered upgraded shops nearby. TSB, strategically located on the prominent corner, had a long-term lease and wanted to stay, so their needs were met by staying put, while construction takes place around them.

Roach’s is a category 2 listed historic building. “The Council had requirements for preservation and Farmers had retail requirements,” says Walker. “Council wanted glass frontage, but Farmers prefer built-in racking on the walls, so with the Council design panel we came to a solution which satisfied both parties.”

The distinctive rotunda has been preserved, and the wrap-around canopy, supported by struts above, echoes the original design. Detail elements like steel muntin windows and concrete formwork have been replicated.

The $20m project instigated by Wallace Developments has been on-sold to Augusta Property Funds. The selling agent, Bayley’s, say the offer is fully subscribed.

As seems typical of Wallace Developments, the building owners of the existing Farmers in Heretaunga Street were included in the process. “They’re investors not developers,” says Walker, “so we approached them and came to an arrangement where we took over their building in exchange for our new Freedom Furniture building on Queen Street. We’ve already signed up a new long term tenant for 1000 square metres, and we’ll develop the other spaces as tenants come on board.”

Start with two cottages

Whereas Jonathon Wallace’s strength is in creating buildings for assured tenants, Hawke’s Bay’s other big developer, David Mackersey, often goes it alone, as in his extensive development on Harding Road in Ahuriri.

At the same time William Colenso was navigating the ‘swampy jungle’ of Heretaunga, a resourceful Scotsman, Alexander Alexander, was going it alone in establishing the first European trading station in Hawke’s Bay, a stone’s throw away from where Mackersey’s new development is built.

By 1873, when the first town block was subdivided in Hastings, Ahuriri already hosted a dense collection of warehouses, a bank, newspaper office, a Customs House, Pilot’s house, many residences, and two hotels.

The original Crown Hotel opened for business in October 1859 but was destroyed by fire in the 1931 earthquake. A new masonry structure in the Art Deco style was built in 1932 for proprietor A.J. Annan. The architect was Ernest Arthur Williams, who also designed the Daily Telegraph Building in Tennyson Street.

Mackersey’s Ahuriri block

David Mackersey’s interest in Ahuriri began in 1990 when he purchased two cottages on the corner
of Harding Road and Bridge Street. As with many of his projects, Mackersey ‘buys and holds,’ waiting for the right opportunity to develop.

That time came in 2003 with the purchase of the Crown Hotel in partnership with Jim Scotland. Several options were considered, but they settled for a bold plan to build a 45-room boutique hotel on the old cottages site, linked to the refurbished Crown.

When adjacent properties became available, Mackersey purchased. He says, “I was offered the Moana Fisheries site and saw the potential to develop the whole block.” And that he did. “We completed in time for the Rugby World Cup.”

“I wanted a blend of retail, offices, entertainment, and accommodation,” says Mackersey.

The result is Navigate – a 26-room, 5-star, luxuriously appointed apartment style hotel; the Globe Theatrette – a plush 45-seat movie/function venue; and ground floor retail that include cafes and a hairdresser. There are also suites of offices and three apartments.

“Ahuriri has great potential,” says Mackersey. He recently purchased the Price Building on West Quay. “We’re looking into the feasibility of what best to do.”

Another property David Mackersey has owned for years, now in partnership with the Lowe family (Lowmac), is the ‘Happy Tav’ site in Havelock North. And its time for redevelopment has come. Plans for a 50-bed boutique hotel are well underway. There will be shops on the ground floor, restaurant and conference rooms. “It’s important the building fits with the Village look, and we’ve been working with the architects and Council to get that right,” says Mackersey.

Environment changes people’s lives

Getting the aesthetic right is the priority of another Bay developer, Andy Coltart. He says, “environment changes peoples lives.” And a visit to Black Barn Winery or the Riverside ‘cottages’ complex is evidence of his attention to the detail of environment.

Coltart’s buildings fit snugly into the landscape. Exterior materials are stone, timber (mostly cedar), and corrugated iron, and the colour palette is small – black and white and tones of beige. Interiors are generous in their spaciousness and there are reflections of past Bay architects – adzed beams reminiscent of Chapman-Taylor, and bay window seating in the style of John Scott.

Grape vines are interspersed with hedges, shrubs, and specimen trees. “We’re always planting trees,” Coltart says. “That’s a great thing about living in Hawke’s Bay. Everything you plant takes off, and it lessens the visual impact of the buildings.”

Andy Coltart

The Black Barn story started nearly 20 years ago when Andy Coltart purchased Rush cottage from the Joll family and adjacent Lombardi wines from the Green family. He teamed up with Kim Thorp, a local lad, who was ready to return home to combine a stellar career in Saatchi and Saatchi with a more leisurely lifestyle. Together they have created a winery and cultural complex that includes a concert amphitheatre, art gallery, farmers’ produce market, and award-winning restaurant.

And the accommodation side of the business supplements the cultural aspect. “The Riverside owners treat us as family,” says the Gallery assistant. “They come and eat and drink here, and chat to everyone.”

The ownership aspect is unique, as the Riverside properties are on separate titles, and mostly owned by foreigners, who spend a few months a year in residence, and when not, the houses are let as accommodation. “It’s a win/win situation,” says Coltart. “The owners can come here whenever they like and it reduces their costs.”

What is remarkable about Andy Coltart is that he is self-trained as a designer. He works with ‘experts,’ but the design initiatives are his, and his attention to overall design detail extends to the furniture, and the employment of a full-time cabinet maker crafting timber he has carefully stored for many years.

Coltart has other ‘farm park’ developments in the pipeline, and a town-house project in central Havelock North is being considered … “As an alternative to going into a retirement home, close to all the amenities, where we can create a sense of community.”

Creating community

It’s doubtful that Francis Hicks was thinking about community when he subdivided the first land in Hastings. He arrived on the sailing ship William Watson in 1859, wearing a bell-topper and swallow-tails, and spent his first years living as a gentleman in Auckland and Rotorua, where ‘he painted local scenes’.

Whether smitten by the gold fever or cut off from funds ‘back home’, Hicks prospected in Sydney, then Otago, but to meagre reward. When he came to Hastings, he first worked as a fencing contractor, then in 1871 he purchased a 100 acres off Thomas Tanner for 400 pounds. Two years later he subdivided, and by 1875, when the last section sold, he had multiplied his investment 25 fold.

Francis Hicks spent his profits on leaving Hawke’s Bay, buying a farm, and raising a family. He was forty when he married, and his school teacher wife bore him five sons and eight daughters – making his own community – and he didn’t develop land again.

Lex Benson-Cooper

Lex Benson-Cooper is also a ‘one-off’ developer, but unlike Hicks, creating community is a prime feature of his Endsleigh Park subdivision in Havelock North.

He bought the land 25 years ago for $100,000. Thousands of trees have been planted over the years, providing habitat for birds, and wetland ecosystems have been formed in the valleys. The sections for sale are around 1000 square metres and occupiers will share 18 hectares of recreational land. “There are walking and bike tracks, and shared orchards, and we’ll build pavilions at the tennis court and sports field … places for people to meet and socialise,” says Benson-Cooper.

The massive undertaking of building the subdivision has consumed his life, so much so he’s had to put his work as an artist on hold. “I need a continuous block of time to do a painting, but that’s not possible while doing this, it’s all consuming.” And as a newbie in the development business he admits to getting some things wrong. “We’re going to reshape these sites,” he says, pointing to three sections on a sloping hillside. “By cutting them in there’ll be a 2.5 metre elevation between each one, and those trees are corridors for birds,” he says of wide strips of planting.

The view is a panorama from Paki Paki to Mahia. “I love watching the light change,” says the artist, “and imagine when all the trees are mature. I’m talking a hundred years.”

“I won’t be doing any more subdivisions. This is it,” says Benson-Cooper, and he gives the impression he’s keen to get back into his studio, and to explore his growing interest in architecture.

Unlike our first property developer, Francis Hicks, who left the province for Waikato as soon as his subdivision was sold, Lex Benson-Cooper was born in Hawke’s Bay and intends to stay here.

And today’s most active Bay developers are also deeply embedded.

“My roots are here,” says David Mackersey. “I don’t invest outside Hawke’s Bay. It’s been good to me, and I want to give something back.”

Andy Coltart was born on a farm in central Hawke’s Bay, and says, “it’s the best place to live,” and he will continue creating environments, “that can change people’s lives.”

Jonathon Wallace wasn’t born here, but he spent summers with his teenage sweetheart at Waimarama beach, and stayed here to raise his family with her.

Given their attachment to Hawke’s Bay, there is hope that our current crop of developers will create buildings sympathetic with the past, while embracing the new smart technologies to ensure a sustainable future.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Simon Tremain and Ton Remmerswaal for giving me an overview of the property scene, and I’m grateful for the time given by the interviewees. Historical information is from, A History of Hastings, by M.B. Boyd, and Port to Port by Don Wilkie.

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