Richard Burton: Careful planning needed on apartments

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Apartments have their place, but more planning care - with community say - is needed.

Meetings involving hundreds of residents have been united in opposing the council's proposals on apartments. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Meetings involving hundreds of residents have been united in opposing the council's proposals on apartments. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The draft Auckland Unitary Plan proposes a fundamental change to the urban fabric of Auckland.

Multi-storey, high-density apartment buildings formerly reserved to the inner city and adjoining areas are now proposed to be permitted in some 56 per cent of Auckland's residential areas.

Since the city's inception, residential development has been mainly single- or two-storey houses set on individual sections. This pattern has been repeated in many other cities in NZ, Australia, the United States and elsewhere. In the past few decades infill has been added to the mix. Even though there have been critics of infill housing, the essential urban character of one- or two-storey houses each with their garden has been retained.

A visitor to Auckland 30 years ago returning today would still recognise the Auckland they remembered. The inner core is more developed but the character of the residential areas is much the same.

The council now proposes a radical change. In the mixed-housing zone covering 49 per cent of the residential area the council allows three-storey apartments up to 10m tall and only 4m from side boundaries where the site is more than 1200sq m and 20m frontage.

In the terrace housing and apartment zones covering 7 per cent of the residential area, medium- to high-rise apartments are proposed. With a 30m-wide site, an apartment with 7m side yards can be approved at virtually any height. Such developments require a resource consent approval. But the council specifically states in the draft plan that applications will be considered as a non-notified resource consent with no affected parties' consent.

There are serious regional implications of the council's proposals:

By allowing unrestricted apartment development in the mixed-house zone it has effectively relinquished control over the city's future planning and how its shape will develop. The development community will determine where and at what density development will occur. According to the draft plan, the cumulative effect of development on infrastructure and traffic congestion cannot even be considered in assessing individual resource consents. How will the council plan for efficient infrastructure, roading and public transport when they have no direction over where development will occur over 49 per cent of Auckland? This is the antithesis of good planning.

Residential neighbourhoods are slowly coming to understand the implications of the Unitary Plan and how it may affect them. This is not helped by the size and complexity of the planning documents.

In talking to community groups, it has become clear just how few people understand what the council is proposing. When they do their reaction is one of great concern. It is remarkable that public meetings attended by 200 to 300 people unite in unanimous opposition to the haphazard apartment development proposed by the council. This is unprecedented in my 30 years as a planning consultant. Such a growing groundswell of public opinion should not be ignored by the council.

A recent comment by Mayor Len Brown suggesting a rethink on apartment development suggests the community's concerns are starting to get through, but to what extent will this be reflected in changes to the draft Unitary Plan?

Do apartments have a place in Auckland? Yes, but only after careful planning giving due consideration to residential character, effects on traffic and infrastructure, proximity to significant commercial centres and most importantly meaningful community involvement.

Why don't we reinforce Auckland's current built form? Well-designed infill development can allow for intensification in the suburbs and in those areas having high amenity value, high quality housing and areas that have already experienced significant infill development.

Apartment development also has its place. Low-rise three-storey developments can adjoin the smaller centres and perhaps main transport corridors. Bigger apartments can be located around the large metropolitan centres and the inner city. Centre plans can determine the appropriate mix with community consultation.

Richard Burton is an urban planner and convener of the Auckland 2040 lobby group.

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