The debate over change

By Graham Skellern

Public engagement on the Unitary Plan is unprecedented in local government history

View shafts to Auckland's cones, such as Maungawhau Mr Eden will be protected under the Unitary Plan.
View shafts to Auckland's cones, such as Maungawhau Mr Eden will be protected under the Unitary Plan.

The big project for Auckland is the Unitary Plan and for weeks earlier this year residents debated the shape of the city over the barbecues, across the dinner tables and in the community halls.

Should we change or stay just the way we are? We've all been in this conundrum before.

Many of the residents worried about the future look of their neighbourhoods, but submerged in the passionate debate was the goal to make Auckland the world's most liveable city. Now, that would be something.

Auckland was ranked third in the world in the latest Mercer Quality of Living survey behind Vienna and Zurich and ahead of Munich and Vancouver. For the first time Lonely Planet placed Auckland in the top 10 cities of the world (in fact 10th) to visit.

But in the Mercer 2012 City Infrastructure Rankings, Auckland came in 43rd with Singapore on top. The global consultant's rankings are based on electricity, water availability, telephone, mail, public transportation, traffic congestion and airport effectiveness.

Auckland has work to do, particularly on public transport and traffic congestion, but it has plans to jump up the quality of living rankings. The Unitary Plan is the important rulebook to implement the 30-year vision detailed in the Auckland Plan.

Penny Hurlse.
Penny Hurlse.

Deputy mayor Penny Hulse, who is overseeing the Unitary Plan process, says: "It's fascinating. The reason why we're doing the plan is to build a city that works and that includes improving the public transportation.

"It's not about cramming in another one million people but having timely infrastructure, so people moving here are not shocked by bad planning. If people don't arrive as we thought, then the houses won't get built as fast. That's life.

"But we can't let Auckland languish with a housing crisis, and we can't let shoddy design continue and building take place in the wrong places," she says. "I'm comfortable where we have got to in the Unitary Plan process, and we can keep building trust about the whole concept of intensification.

"There are huge benefits about being able to walk to the shops and work, and live in a vibrant community. Some people see intensification as frightening but if it's done well then it can be transformative."

The Unitary Plan sets the planning and design rules to make Auckland a quality, compact city rather than an urban sprawl. The Unitary Plan also protects the natural environment, heritage buildings and sites, views of the volcanic cones, and sets aside adequate land for future commercial development.

Already locked into the Unitary Plan is a new rule that anyone must first obtain a resource consent to demolish a pre-1940s building. If the building is found to have no heritage value, then the deposit for the resource consent application will be refunded.

The intensification is based around metropolitan and town or local centres located along the public transport corridors, especially the rapid transit network or rail.

The new building will spread out in a concentric circle from each centre - moving from terrace housing and apartments (restricted to four-six storeys depending on location) to mixed housing urban (three storeys), mixed housing suburban (two storeys) and then single housing (two storeys).

As well as the City Centre, the metropolitan areas undergoing the most intensification will be Albany, Takapuna, Westgate/Massey North, Henderson, New Lynn, Newmarket, Sylvia Park, Botany, Manukau and Papakura.

Town centres are areas such as Orewa, Browns Bay, Glenfield, Avondale, Mangere, Onehunga, Remuera, Howick and Takanini. Local centres are the likes of Mairangi Bay, Belmont, Hobsonville, Blockhouse Bay, Mt Eden, Greyn Lynn, Mission Bay, Meadowlands, Homai and Clendon.

Roger Blakeley.
Roger Blakeley.

Roger Blakeley, chief planning officer for Auckland Council, says people will be able to live closer to where they work, with commercial development occurring near the population centres. This will help reduce traffic congestion and improve the quality of life.

So the traffic problem is resolved within 30 years?

"Yes," says Blakeley.

"We will have high quality, high frequency rail and bus services. We will have lots of dedicated cycling and walkways. They are more cost- effective than building more roads, and cars are an inefficient way of moving people around the city.

"The city rail link will be finished, and there will be rail to the airport and North Shore (via the second harbour crossing). Bus services will feed into the rail, and the Skypath on the existing harbour bridge will link up the cycling and walking network.

"The 1960s saw cars take over cities around the world with large freeways and parking lots. But the cities lost their human scale," says Blakeley.

The residential plans are designed to bring a new face to Auckland. "We have to have a flexibility of choice in housing that meets different needs and different budgets. This need is with us now," Blakeley says.

"Soon there will be more one or two person households than three persons plus - our present housing stock is not geared to meet that need. We need a mix of terraced and town houses, apartments and single houses on a section."

Blakeley says he was delighted about the response to the draft Unitary Plan. "We said 'wouldn't it be great if we had a passionate debate amongst Aucklanders about the future shape of the city'. And that's exactly what happened."

There were 250 community meetings from mid-March to the end of May, some attended by up to 500 people. A total of 15,000 people participated in the meetings, a further 90,000 people visited the Unitary Plan website, and the council received 21,000 items of feedback.

"This level of community engagement is unprecedented in New Zealand local government history," says Blakeley.

It earned Auckland Council the Society of Local Government Managers (SOLGM) 2013 Supreme Award for its Community Relations on the Unitary Plan.

"What we noticed in the debate was the generational gap," Blakeley says. "The older people who went to the meetings organised by Auckland 2040 objected loudly to the intensification.

"But the younger people who were active on social media wanted to live in a more intensified city - they wanted to experience the extra vibrancy that comes with that, including cultural, retail and recreational activity.

"We are talking about international best practice, here," he says. "Vancouver has done it, and Copenhagen and Vienna are also following the quality, compact city strategy. As the Danish architect Jan Gehl (he's an adviser to Auckland) said in his book Cities for People, 'you can't keep sprawling outwards'."

Blakeley says "we saw a lot of Nimby (Not In My Backyard) during the Unitary Plan debate. I'm convinced that when more and more people see examples of housing development that embodies flexibility of choice, quality and affordability, they will become comfortable with the idea of intensification."

He names developments by Hobsonville Land Company at Hobsonville Point and Ockham Investments at Kingsland, Ellerslie and Grey Lynn as examples of future living in Auckland. He says they have a range of sizes and types of housing, ensuring it's quality at a price people can afford.

"We didn't get all the intensification we hoped for in the proposed Unitary Plan this time, but it will be reviewed perhaps every five to 10 years, and there will be the opportunity to change the zoning of some areas."

Asked if the estimate of a further one million people living in Auckland within 30 years is still valid considering the latest Census, Blakeley says: "There is no better figure, at the moment."

He says Auckland's population prediction of about 2.5 million by 2040 was based on high-growth projections provided by Statistics New Zealand - and over the past few decades Auckland's growth has consistently exceeded those projections.

"The latest Census covered the last seven years and the lower than expected growth was affected by the global financial crisis and a net outflow of migration, particularly to Australia. But at the end of the seven-year period, the Australian economy weakened and the migration to Auckland turned around.

"We can't use the Census snapshot as a basis for a 30-year forward growth projection. We have to take into account fertility rates and international and national migration to Auckland. When the long term growth projections come out (from Statistics NZ) next year, that will be the best information.

"All that can happen is if the one million projection falls a little short, we have provided more capacity than we thought - maybe for 32 years rather than 30 years - and it hasn't cost any more." he says.

During the Unitary Plan debate, Takapuna neighbours Guy Haddleton and planner Richard Burton formed Auckland 2040 which finished up in an alliance with more than 70 residents' associations and other groups, including Character Coalition.

Auckland 2040 was opposed to intensification in the suburbs.

Burton says Auckland 2040 "got 70 per cent of what we were after. The rest is detail in the Mixed Housing Suburban zone - that is still very intensive.

"Originally, the draft plan allowed unrestricted apartment building of three or four storeys over 56 per cent of the residential land in Auckland. That has come down to 15 per cent, and from that point of view there's a degree of rational thinking in the council.

"Their desire is to focus higher intensity development around the town centres and along arterial routes, and I think that's appropriate."

Burton is concerned that rules for height to boundary, coverage and yards have been relaxed too much, particularly when they are applied to existing built-in neighbourhoods.

"They will have quite a significant impact - for instance, adjoining rear yards will be one metre each rather than 6 metres and there will be no room for plantings."

He believes there should be design controls on developments of three and less units, particularly in-fill - "that's where the problems have occurred historically in Auckland when a unit has been added at the back of a house."

Hulse says council has put into the Unitary Plan strong requirements for developments of two or units, "along the old fashioned lines of height to boundary and shading. They still apply but we are trying to balance it - making it easier for people to build but with a house. We have to draw a bit of line in the sand."

Burton says Auckland 2040 will active in the formal submissions phase. "We need to protect the values that have already made Auckland a liveable city. Auckland has its own character, spread out in a more relaxed environment with a sense of spaciousness and lots of plantings and gardens.

"While Auckland needs to be more intensive, I don't think the intensification needs to spread to every nook and cranny," he said.

Main changes from the draft Unitary Plan

The plan was first released as a draft in March for a 11-week public engagement, and residents responded. Following the feedback, Auckland councillors made the following changes:

• The Mixed Housing Zone (the most contentious issue) was split into two: Suburban and Urban.

• Housing in the suburban area, taking up 40 per cent of the residential land in Auckland, can only go two storeys (maximum height 8m), at a density of one unit for every 400 sq m of site as a permitted activity. If you have a site of 1200 sq m or more with a 20m frontage, you can build with a minimum section size of 200 sq m.

• Mixed housing urban, taking up 10 per cent of the residential land and closer to the centres, can reach three storeys (maximum height 10m, plus 1m for portion of a roof). Four or more dwellings can go on a 1200 sq m site with no minimum site density but there also has to be a 20m frontage.

• A development of four or more dwellings in Mixed Housing Urban and Suburban zones requires a non-notified resource consent and will be subject to urban design assessment.

• Terrace Housing and Apartment zone takes up 5 per cent of the residential land area.

• There is a range of maximum heights, from four storeys next to most centres and up to six storeys next to the metropolitan centres. There is no minimum site density control. Outside the city centre, the minimum apartment size is increased to 40 sq m (plus 10 sq m balcony) for a studio and 45 sq m (plus 8 sq m balcony) for a one bedroom.

• There are new setback rules for terrace houses and apartments where they adjoin a Mixed Housing Urban or Suburban zone - 3m for two-storeyed buildings, 7m for four storeys and 11m for five or six storeys.

• Front yards are 4m in Mixed Housing Suburban and 2.5m in Mixed Housing Urban, while rear and side yards are 1m.

• Dispensation from the major development rules will go through a resource consent application.

How it breaks down

• Terrace Housing and Apartment Buildings, 5 per cent of residential land area, 4-6 storeys.

• Mixed Housing Urban, 10 per cent of land area, 3 storeys.

• Mixed Housing Suburban, 40 per cent of land area, 2 storeys.

• Single house, 32 per cent of land area, rural and coastal 4 per cent and large lot 9 per cent, all maximum of 2 storeys.

Where to from here?

• Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan notified for formal submissions on September 30 and running through to February 28, 2014.

• Submissions will be considered by an independent hearing panel set up by ministers for the Environment and Conservation.

• Those wanting to make verbal submissions will be heard by the panel, and the panel may also arrange mediation around key issues to find solutions. The hearing process could take up to 12-15 months.

• The panel will make its recommendations to Auckland Council on the final Unitary Plan.

• The parts of the recommendations Council agrees with will immediately become operative, with appeals only on points of law. If the Council disagrees with some recommendations, anyone can appeal the (Council) decisions to the Environment Court.

• The final Unitary Plan will be operative by September 30, 2016 - three years after first being notified.

• It replaces 14 district and regional plans and policies, and is the largest statutory planning process in New Zealand local government's history.

- NZ Herald

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