Council planners want to squeeze an extra 280,000 homes into Auckland in the next three decades. Developers say it can't be done - and if it does happen, Aucklanders aren't going to like it. Andrew Laxon reports
Lorraine Tai loves her new house. She and her partner Patrick Rankin, and their 11-month-old son Ollie, moved into their two-bedroom first home in west Auckland just over a month ago.
The semi-detached weatherboard building sits on a brand new street in the uncompleted Hobsonville Point subdivision on the old air base. At just 4.4m wide on a 209sqm section, it looks narrow from the street but manages to fit in a spacious kitchen and living area across most of the ground floor, opening on to a small back yard. Upstairs there are two bedrooms with double wardrobes, a bathroom with a separate shower and bath and a laundry tucked into a double cupboard.
Lorraine, who was brought up in nearby Kumeu, likes the easy access to the soon-to-be-redeveloped Westgate shopping centre and the fact that she can take Ollie to work with her mother, running a cafe and catering business at a Huapai cafe.
Patrick takes the West Harbour ferry to work in town and a service direct from the subdivision is due to start at the end of the year.
On the face of it, the family is the ideal advertisement for Auckland Council's "compact city" vision of how we will live in 30 years time. Their house, which measures 98sqm across both storeys, is less than half the size of an average Auckland home. At just under $400,000, it flies in the face of recent trends towards four- or five-bedroom new homes which cost $600,000 or more. And the development gets top marks from the council as a model for its master plan to fight urban sprawl and the affordable housing crisis.
"Hobsonville Point shows that people are prepared to accept more affordable, attached intensified houses, as long as these houses are well-designed, and the area has high amenity, and a range of housing types and values," says the council's Auckland Plan, approvingly.
If the wording sounds a little defensive, it reflects a long, bitter struggle over the city's future, driven by predictions of huge changes.
Auckland planners warn that up to a million extra people will live in the city in the next three decades, requiring an extra 400,000 homes - close to double the current level of 507,000. They aim to put 120,000 of these houses on rural land on Auckland's outskirts and fit the other 280,000 inside the current city limit. That means about four out of 10 Aucklanders will live in smaller homes, generally joined up or much closer to their neighbours.
The region's first Auckland Plan admits this will be a huge shift away from the traditional Kiwi detached home with its own section. It sets out ambitious targets; more than 60 per cent of new homes will need to be attached by 2041 and attached houses overall will increase from about 25 per cent to an estimated 40 per cent of all the city's housing.
But though the planners believe Aucklanders are increasingly happy to live in terraced homes and apartments, Lorraine doesn't share that long term vision for her family.
"I see this as shorter-term for us because as soon as Ollie gets bigger, I don't think I'd like to live in such a high-density area."
She says Hobsonville Point was always more about location and its investment potential as a rental property for her and Patrick, a property manager. Within about five years, once she is back to her original job as a barrister, they want a bigger three- or four-bedroom house with more space outside for Ollie and possibly a brother or sister to play.
She agrees in theory with the council's efforts to stop the city sprawling further out and thinks high density living sounds appealing in the inner city - "you're willing to make more compromises in lifestyle to be in the midst of where it's all happening" - but she wonders about its attractions in the outer suburbs.
Others have been more forthright. Property Council member Brady Nixon last year described the council's draft plan as "somewhere between a lucid dream and a near-death hallucination". The public backlash started in January when the Herald published details of a confidential analysis, which showed computer-generated impressions of the amount of high-density development required to meet council targets.
An image of Northcote Point with four-storey apartment blocks stretching round to the Chelsea sugar refinery in Birkenhead - inspired by Cremorne on Sydney's North Shore - drew a stunned reaction from the local board and compact city critic councillor Dick Quax, who said he was "gobsmacked".
Board deputy chairman Nick Kearney said the result was partly predictable, given the compact city guidelines, but it would "go down like a bucket of cold sick in my area".
The analysis by property developer Patrick Fontein and architects Jasmax also made far-reaching predictions for other suburbs, such as Te Atatu ("the entire peninsula needs up-zoning... could be a great intensification hotspot for the next 20-40 years"), Mt Albert ("a litmus test for political resilience") and a medium and high-rise boom in Panmure and Glen Innes ("the entire Tamaki area is ripe for redevelopment and should be rezoned").
But despite its enthusiasm for some development opportunities, the report's wider conclusion - shared to varying degrees by the Property Council, the Productivity Commission and the Government - is that the council's plan is unworkable, even in its toned-down final version.
Critics predict the zoning changes and housing action plans on offer will come nowhere near close to providing the extra 280,000 homes required within city boundaries.
If the council goes for broke and allows waves of terraced housing and low- to medium-rise apartments to wash across whole suburbs (the only way to achieve its aims, according to the Jasmax report) there will be a huge community and political backlash.
More likely, say developers, the outcry will never happen because there is not enough buyer demand, building industry capacity or vacant land for this kind of housing and the planners will have to go back to the drawing board.
Nixon says community reaction to current high-density developments shows what a tough sell the compact city strategy will be.
For instance, he says, a plan to extend Milford's shopping mall and add three luxury apartment blocks up to 16 storeys high has attracted about 3800 submissions, mainly from bitterly opposed local residents.
"It'll be interesting to see how the politicians deal with it because they tend to say in one breath; 'We want intensification' but then in the next breath; 'As long as it happens somewhere else'."
Mayor Len Brown says he understands many Aucklanders have become wary of high-density housing after a rash of poor quality "shoebox" developments, especially in the inner city, but believes they will come round if they are shown well-designed projects where they can imagine themselves living.
"I know there's some poor examples. We want to use those as motivating factors to ensure that in the new united Auckland we put a high focus on quality. We will... celebrate where we've done well and really lean on those who are not building to the quality that we would expect."
AUCKLAND TAKES up a lot of room for a city of only 1.5 million people. It stretches 74km from Waiwera to Drury, covering 55,000ha but is relatively sparsely populated, with only 10 homes on every hectare.
At this rate of growth, it could gobble up another 32,000ha by 2041 and, as deputy mayor Penny Hulse put it last month, Aucklanders don't want to see their city "sprawling from Northland to Hamilton".
Local politicians and planners have been battling to stop this sprawl since 1999, when the compact city concept was born. The former Auckland Regional Council agreed with local councils that three-quarters of all new housing would be confined to city limits, with only a quarter outside them.
Crucially the new housing would be herded into "high-density centres", close to public transport. The plan partly worked - as apartments boomed in the next decade the proportion of multi-unit homes jumped to 25 per cent - but most developments were in coastal suburbs like Orewa and Takapuna, well away from the planners' favoured railway lines.
When the new Super City, headed by Brown, cemented the 75/25 split in its September draft plan, worried property developers launched a charm counter-offensive.
Property Council chief executive officer Connal Townsend headed a group which met senior planners, arguing the council had to base its intensification target on evidence but the land it required to build 300,000 extra houses within city limits did not exist.
The meetings led to the Jasmax-D4 analysis, which pointed out in deliberately provocative terms how many multi-storey buildings would be needed across the city skyline for the plan to succeed.
The council commissioned an independent review of the findings by property development consultant Martin Udale, which confirmed the problem and threw in some extra dire warnings for good measure.
Udale predicted the plan would require the building industry to quadruple the average supply of attached housing it had delivered in the past 20 years, which was not credible and could create further pressure to build on greenfields sites in the countryside.
Assuming four new houses could be developed for each existing house, 100,000 homes would have to be demolished and replaced with 400,000 new ones.
And if the council intensified to an optimistic 35 homes per hectare, it would need to find 8000 to 10,000 hectares - about half to two thirds the area of the Auckland isthmus - for the extra housing. "Put another way, a land area requiring more than 300 Wynyard Quarters or more than 30 Tamakis within the exisiting urban area."
The council responded with some concessions in March. The intensification target dropped to 70 per cent, with provision to fall to 60 per cent if necessary. More significantly from the developers' point of view, large chunks of most suburbs were made available for the first time and the timeframe also slipped back.
Under the revised plan, the council still aims to more than double the current house building rate to 10,000 homes a year in the next decade, then almost double it again to 18,000 homes a year from 2022 to 2031 - which the plan admits is "very challenging" - before levelling off slightly to 12,000 a year in the final decade.
In other words the target looks as far-fetched as ever, yet Townsend is full of praise for the council, describing the plan as pretty good with a reasonable chance of success.
"We don't know about the ratios - 75/25 or 60/40 - they're not important. The priority is to get denser housing off the ground and to do it in places where you're actually going to be able to sell it."
So are the developers happy because the delayed timeframe and five-yearly progress reviews means the targets could fall to more realistic numbers if intensification is slower than forecast?
Absolutely, says Townsend. The Property Council also agreed with council officials that intensification still has a bad image with many home buyers and it would be better to start with fewer well-designed projects in the first decade to work up demand slowly.
"Let's start off gently and get those good examples in place first, rather than try to do it all on day one, which we thought would be quite impractical and quite self-destructive because it would alienate people and destroy the market."
AUCKLAND COUNCIL chief planning officer Roger Blakeley acknowledges the plan requires "radical change" but says the council is already working hard with building companies to revive the industry and produce smaller, more affordable homes like those at Hobsonville Point.
He talks enthusiastically of smaller, mass-produced housing by large companies, which could knock $150,000 off house prices. The council is also working with developers to get the most out of its own property and is considering faster consent times, cheaper fees and more flexible zoning rules, which may allow developers to put more units on a site in exchange for more open space.
Nixon applauds the intention but believes it won't have much effect. He says most local builders are one-man operators, who won't touch apartments or most multi-unit housing because the building materials and add-ons (such as stairwells, lifts and carparks) made them too expensive.
"You can build an apartment building for around $3500 a metre in construction costs, you can build a really top-end signature home for $1500 a metre. It's just not rocket science that you're going to get more for your money from a house."
From the buyer's point of view, he says, a two-bedroom apartment costs as much as a three-bedroom house, yet banks demand a 30 per cent deposit for apartments or unit-title terrace housing because the land is not owned freehold. As a result, virtually all apartment buyers have been investors using their own homes as security and this market has dried up in the economic downturn.
He predicts a modest increase in high-density housing in the forseeable future, mainly through more subdivision of back sections and freehold terrace housing, and continuing pressure to free up land outside the urban limit.
Udale is slightly more optimistic. He says intensification in bigger Australian cities over the past 20 to 40 years suggests market forces will eventually achieve what Auckland planners and politicians cannot.
"As the city grows the trade-off between living on the periphery and closer to the middle will become more obvious in terms of the time it takes to get there, congestion and so on. At 1.5 million people we are just getting to the start point... Once we get to 2 million people, I think those choices will become that much more obvious again."