Council able to manage a compact city - as Freemans Bay homes attest

Auckland's early white settlers used to frighten themselves silly with rumours that Maori invaders were coming over the hills to take over their fair city. These days, the hysteria being drummed up is over the impact on the existing landscape of housing 1.3 million new citizens over the next 30 years.

From the scaremongering going on, you'd think the newcomers were some form of foreign boat people, about to burst into Birkenhead and Freemans Bay overnight, razing old villas and replacing them with Stalinist tower blocks.

All the fuss is over the proposal in the proposed Auckland spatial plan to design a compact city, much along the lines of the old regional council plans, with a rural urban boundary (formerly the metropolitan urban limit) to restrict urban sprawl into the rural hinterland. About 300,000 of the estimated 400,000 new dwellings required by 2040 would be within the RUB, the rest, in planned growth sites, across the boundaries.

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For property developers, and right-wing politicians who claim that containing growth distorts the market, this commitment to existing policies is like a red rag to a bull as the new plan heads towards a vote in March.

Howick councillor Dick Quax, for example, has been across the harbour scaring locals with claims that "hardly an old house [will be] left standing" in Birkenhead. His text comes from a report co-authored by bankrupt property developer and onetime president of the Auckland Property Council Patrick Fontein.

Retired TV1 news boss Bill Ralston has a total meltdown in his latest Listener column, claiming his beloved Freemans Bay with its "charming three-bedroom villas will rapidly be destroyed and replaced by modern multi-unit developments and tower blocks".

"Neighbouring Ponsonby, St Marys Bay, into Herne Bay, presumably out through Grey Lynn to the furthermost extent of the Western Bays, these graceful old suburbs will suffer the same fate."

According to Ralston, nowhere is safe. Across the Shore and to the south, all "will suffer high-rise intensification".

Whatever Mr Quax and Mr Ralston have been sniffing, they should market it as the latest psychedelic trip.

In the capital of our major trading partner, China, they might get away with bulldozing whole neighbourhoods overnight to build highrise Olympic villages, but in Auckland? Bugger me. Our council can't even easily remove a few protest tents from alongside the Town Hall.

Despite the hysteria, the official line of the Property Council is to support a compact city, though they disagree over the 25/75 split between development outside and inside the RUB. A resounding 88 per cent of individual submitters to the plan support the compact model.

The report by Mr Fontein and two Jasmax staffers for Auckland Council argues the plan's targets for intensification are not achievable, and that even with "amendments, enormous political and community issues will almost certainly prohibit intensification to council's desired target". It does concede that with"major rezoning in most current urban areas, requiring huge political resilience", up to 270,000 extra dwellings might be achievable.

However, an in-house analysis of this and other reports takes a more optimistic view, concluding all 400,000 extra dwellings could be accommodated within the RUB.

To me, part of the aversion to more compact housing is the on-going leaky homes disaster. That and the rabbit hutch tower now blighting Hobson St.

The Fontein report is based on market forces and private developers, which is perhaps one reason why their predictions are so negative.

In Freemans Bay there is a small, but very popular showcase of urban intensification that suggests there is an alternative approach. In the late 1960s, unable to attract private developers to its slum replacement project, Auckland City went into the business itself with Sheridan Square, described in the sales documentation as "introducing a new and sophisticated concept of urban living to Auckland ... a prestige group of 17 individual town houses" planned "in accordance with principles of urban life proven in every major country in the world".

Designed by the architectural division of Auckland City and built by Keith Hay Ltd, these two- and three-bedroom dwellings are now sought-after homes, one recently selling for more than $900,000. Off the plans in 1969 on 99-year leases, they cost between $12,900 and $14,100. It was a great marriage of good planning, good design and good building.

It is also a showcase example of what a council can do when it wants to lead the way.