Nakumatt fire: Row over old ‘look’ of new building

Friday April 10 2009

The cleared space where the Nakumatt Downtown supermarket stood. Any new structure on the plot should bear the character of the demolished one, says NMK. Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE

The cleared space where the Nakumatt Downtown supermarket stood. Any new structure on the plot should bear the character of the demolished one, says NMK. Photo/HEZRON NJOROGE 

By JOHN KARIUKI

A major controversy looms over the reconstruction of Woolworths building on Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi, which was gutted by fire early this year killing 30 people.

The building housed the Nakumatt Downtown supermarket. Rubble from the demolition has been cleared and the reconstruction will start soon.

The National Museums of Kenya (NMK), the Architectural Association of Kenya and the City Council Planning Department — the main authorities on constructions in Nairobi — have divergent views on the look and character of the new building.

This follows the revelation that Woolworths had been listed by the government as a historical site, therefore prohibiting any tampering with its pristine appearance.

City Hall officials want more say on the management of sites and monuments in their administrative borders.

Last week, NMK’s regional director in charge of sites and monuments, Kibunja Mzalendo, said the prohibition was still in force and that any new structure on the site should bear the character of the demolished one — especially in size and architecture.

“It has to be within the one-storey limit and be of red brick,” said Dr Mzalendo. It should resemble the Stanbic Bank building on Kimathi Street, which is also of the 1940s era.

In that location, Pan African Insurance building and Westminster House are also listed. The latter was embroiled in controversy following plans to replace it with a taller building.

The plans were fought off by architects, historians and conservationists.

Other listed buildings include Kipande House, which hosts a branch of the Kenya Commercial Bank.

The most publicised rows on Kenyatta Avenue involved the former Donovan Maule Theatre — a European repertory theatre once situated on what is now a huge car park opposite the General Post Office — and the former Nairobi House.

The latter was a government building opposite the Ebrahims Supermarket on the eastern end of Kenyatta Avenue. Both had been sold and demolished but a legal tussle ensued, stopping further development.

The regulations usually apply to existing buildings but the Deputy Director of City Planning, Timothy Odongo, said Woolworths is a special case, owing to the circumstances that led to its demolition.

The outside walls may be required to resemble the demolished building but it can have more floors to reflect the economic realities of its prime location,” said Mr Odongo.

However, the newly elected chairman of the Architectural Association of Kenya, Steve Oundo, said the fire tragedy is a vital aspect of Nairobi’s history and erection of a remembrance hall should supersede the historical value of the original building.

The controversies emerge ahead of the expected enactment of the Veterans and Monuments Bill that will seek to honour the country’s heroes and heroines.

Meanwhile, a way should be found to cushion private investors against the cost of conserving historical buildings. Dr Mzalendo says the NMK has asked the government to offer tax breaks to those whose properties are listed.

“We hope to get an allocation in next year’s budget towards this end,” he said.

Currently, the NMK is listing more buildings in the city for their historical value or social and cultural significance. It has also drawn up plans for monuments.

A tender has already been issued for construction of a mausoleum for Fred Kubai, the only member of the famous Kapenguria Six lacking such an honour.

In Nairobi, statues are planned in honour of Tom Mboya and Ronald Ngala and will be put up on the streets bearing their names.

The University Way will also have a monument to remember Harry Thuku, a pioneer trade unionist.

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