Bernard Orsman

Bernard Orsman is Super City reporter for the NZ Herald.

'Not in my back yard'

Council plans to allow multi-storey buildings over half of Auckland have run into a brick wall of local opposition. Super City reporter Bernard Orsman surveys opinion in a typical suburban street, where locals are horrified at the proposed changes

Allan Kirk lives on Poronui Street in Mt Eden. Photo / Dean Purcell
Allan Kirk lives on Poronui Street in Mt Eden. Photo / Dean Purcell

Poronui St hardly looks like a battleground. It's a quiet cul-de-sac of middle-class suburbia, tucked behind Mt Eden's self-styled shopping village.

There are dozens of streets like it around Auckland, in character if not in property values. Apart from a few apartments and townhouses, it consists mostly of well-kept villas and bungalows, whose pretty gardens benefit from rich, volcanic soil.

But in a sign of the discontent spreading across many suburbs, the residents of Poronui St are now mobilising to save their homes, sunlight and views of Maungawhau (Mt Eden) against plans for intensification in the new rulebook - or unitary plan.

The plan is a 30-year blueprint for the city that sets out to squeeze a further one million residents into the city over the next 30 years. Instead of urban sprawl, the model is for a "compact" city, with 280,000 new homes in the existing urban area and 160,000 new homes in rural areas.

The plan earmarks four streets east of the Mt Eden village for four-storey apartments and townhouses, including Poronui St, whose street entrance is marked by an earlier attempt at intensification in the form of the one and two-storey art deco Eden Hall, brick and tile Poronui Flats, and Grange Hall. At the end of the cul-de-sac, Poronui St widens to reveal Nicholson Park, a tennis club, a play centre and the entrance to Auckland Normal Intermediate.

Retired Auckland City senior planner Allan Kirk, who has lived in a two-storey villa in Poronui St for more than 40 years, says it's the best street in Auckland.

It was originally subdivided in a north-south orientation to make the most of the sun, he says, and is within walking distance of the village, open fields, tennis clubs, a bowling green, schools and the kindergarten.

Kirk, along with 17 other residents who responded to a Weekend Herald survey, opposes the council's plan for a more compact city and rezoning Poronui from the current rule of two-storey homes to four-storey terraced housing and apartments.

The survey found overwhelming opposition to four-storey development east of the village, including Poronui St. There was strong support for a pre-1994 demolition control and stronger support for Poronui St becoming a historic character area with stricter demolition controls.

Poronui St also sits under a volcanic view shaft, one of many that Kirk helped set up following an uproar in the 1960s over the multi-storey apartment towers The Pines, on the side of Mt Eden.

Introduced in 1977, the view shafts prevented high-rise development blocking views to the mountains.

Several hot issues in the unitary plan are played out in Poronui St. The street has been rezoned from residential to "local centre" with provision for four-storey apartments and terraced housing. It has been granted pre-1944 demolition controls.

The street sits under a volcanic view shaft. And its residents are erupting.

At a public meeting in the Mt Eden Village Centre, Poronui St resident Paula Gosney wanted to know from unitary plan manager John Duguid, who it was that invited the council to rezone the street where her two boys, aged 8 and 10, play with other children.

Others wanted to know why the council was bothering to rezone the street for four-storey apartments when pre-1944 demolition controls and volcanic viewshafts supposedly took precedence.

Residents were also worried about a repeat of the "sausage flats" that have blighted nearby Grange Rd and whether the council was genuine about listening and, more importantly, responding to feedback on the draft unitary plan.

"We are the landowners," said Gosney. "We are supposed to have ownership of that land, but we have this group of people who have come to Mt Eden and made sweeping changes with the stroke of a pen. It would break my heart if they did it."

Hulse - who oversees the political side of the unitary plan - told a council meeting this week that the council was being honest and clear about what is happening to communities.

"We will change the plan where we have got it wrong. Where [people] have better ideas, we will change it," she said.

Statements like this provide little comfort to Gosney and others. In fact, they confirm her worst suspicions that the council is paying lip-service and acting like the Government of Cyprus to steal property rights for a bankrupt agenda.

Locals have support from the Albert-Eden Local Board - although a board resolution opposing terraced housing and apartments from Poronui St to Rautangi Rd has been ignored by council officers and a political working party, chaired by Hulse.

Said board chairman Peter Haynes: "My own view is that such development would destroy the special character of Mt Eden's village. It would overshadow the village centre and, no matter how smart the design, the charm that makes the place special for its residents would be lost forever.

"Because of the volcanic view shafts, as the draft plan stands new housing cannot exceed 8m. That's two storeys. And it's almost all character housing in some streets, which provides further protection against demolition or removal. So, why bother with this zoning?" he asked.

Regional and local planning manager Penny Pirrit, dubbed the "queen of density" by one critic, is hard to pin down on the practical implications of the density, character and volcanic controls for Poronui St.

In one written statement, she says the pre-1944 demolition controls and volcanic viewshaft controls take precedence over four-storey apartments and townhouses, but in another statement says the demolition rule "does not say that sites subject to the overlay can never developed".

Poronui St residents have no say if someone wants to demolish a pre-1944 house because any applications will be decided by council officers on the spurious grounds, according to one council source, that many landowners bought in these areas knowing they were not historic character areas.

The Herald survey found two-to-back yard one backing for the pre-1944 demolition control and 15 of the 18 respondents who wanted Poronui St to gain historic character status and stronger demolition controls. Several commented that Poronui St should have the same historic character status as neighbouring Disraeli St.

On the issue of volcanic viewshafts, Pirrit says Poronui St is near the base of a cone (Maungawhau), which limits the height of new buildings to 8m.

Any attempt to build higher is a "non-complying" activity and would be publicly notified.

Nevertheless, she said, any new building in the volcanic viewshaft requiring a "design-assessed resource consent provides the ability for some innovative approaches to providing greater housing choice and density which do not rely on height".

Although the council has proposed the 8m provision at the base of volcanic cones - stricter than the existing prohibition of 9m - Kirk and others have deep misgivings for buildings up to 20m under view shafts further back from the cones.

In these circumstances, applications would have a lesser "restricted discretionary" category for council planners to decide public input or not.

Kirk, 77, has produced a demographic breakdown of Poronui St that shows more than half the residents are under 30 - and just six over 65 - countering critics' claims (see sidebar) that most opponents of the plan are elderly.

He says he has no moral answer to the "nimby" question.

"That's the dilemma. Do I share Poronui St with others or do the drawbridge thing and say 'I'm bloody in and I don't want more people'?"

The planner and social conscience in Kirk says if the council is serious about Poronui St, it needs to develop a specific, comprehensive plan where the architecture and buildings work for the residents - and not rely on blanket zoning passed over to developers.

"That is a lazy, unprofessional cop-out."

The battle backed by a blog

Hate speech is coming to a street near you - if you live in a quiet piece of suburbia, like Poronui St in Mt Eden, and object to your neighbourhood being rezoned for apartments and infill housing.

In a sign that the council is losing the battle to persuade middle-class suburban Auckland to adapt to a new way of life, it has appointed 28-year-old councillor Michael Goudie to counter more conservative views.

Not only that, but wise heads like deputy-mayor Penny Hulse are turning a blind eye while Goudie promotes an anonymous blog article, We Hate Nimbys (Not In My Back Yard) that labels a "sea of grey hair" opposing a new planning rulebook "selfish, arrogant, narrow -minded and parochial people" who should "just hurry up and die".

Suburbs, including Orewa and Browns Bay that helped elect Goudie to the council in 2010 are branded "soulless, geriatric timebombs" in the blog he calls "brilliant" but that others label "hate speech".

- NZ Herald

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