By 3 News online staff
Auckland's iconic St James Theatre has been sold, bringing restoration a step closer.
New owner Relianz Holdings has been granted consent to develop the site and will work with Auckland Notable Properties Trust to conduct a thorough evaluation of work required to reopen the theatre – at an estimated cost of $175 million.
A 39-storey residential tower called St James Suites will be built to help cater for Auckland's growing housing crisis. The tower will also have a 3000-square-metre retail area and 195-capacity car park.
Relianz says it is committed to preserving the building and seeing it used as a performance venue once again.
The Lee family, owners of Relianz, moved to New Zealand from China more than 20 years ago and have a strong musical background. One of the founders of Relianz graduated from University of Auckland's School of Music with a piano performance degree. They have teamed up with Elemental Construction Solutions to lead the development.
"[The Lee family] have a real passion for the arts and it's this passion for performing arts that's fuelled the drive, with the aim to reopen one of Auckland's premier performing arts venues," says director of Elemental Construction Solutions, Mike Gibbon.
Mayor Len Brown says the theatre is an "icon of Auckland in the truest sense" and Aucklanders have hungered for its renovation.
"The theatre has been subject to constant debate and concern in our community for a number of years," says Mr Brown. "[It is] our overarching desire that we conserve and preserve this theatre.
"It's wonderful now that the private sector…step in, take a strong, controlling position, provide great opportunities for apartment development, but in particular lead alongside the Trust…in bringing together the preservation of this very historic site."
He says if the St James reopens in 2018 he would like the first show to be reminiscent of the famous 1981 Royal Variety Performance for Queen Elizabeth.
Bob Kerridge, chief executive of the SPCA, says he is happy to hear the theatre his father once owned will be given a new lease on life.
"My passion has always been that the St James be opened back to Auckland, back to the country, in all its beautiful glory."
Mr Kerridge set up the Saviours of St James Trust after the theatre was closed in 2007 with the aim of re-opening the classic theatre.
"For five years we've been negotiating with the Mayor and the council to purchase the St James themselves, so that we can in fact work as a team to redevelop it.
"I have to say thank you private enterprise for stepping in, because the negotiations the council undertook with the previous owner were nothing less than pathetic."
Mr Kerridge says he was left in the dark about the deal and says it was insulting the trust was left out of negotiations.
"Given the close association I thought we had with the council and the Mayor, it is saddening, in fact, to be treated this way."
He does say his father would have been pleased to hear the theatre has been saved from condemnation.
Originally opened in 1928, the St James Theatre is on the Heritage New Zealand's national list as a category one significant historic place, but was closed in 2007 after a fire in a neighbouring building.
source: newshub archive