A wrecking ball has scattered plans to safeguard Auckland's heritage housing stock as the city gears up for high-density growth. But council planners hope to pick up at least some of the pieces.

First came the rebuff for a "pre-1944 demolition control overlay" in the proposed Unitary Plan, the rulebook for city development for the next 10 years. The independent panel which will make final recommendations on the plan frowns upon the sweeping "overlay" approach for heritage. It warned the council in July the mechanism may be unfair to individual property owners and would need to backed by robust evidence.

Council heritage manager Noel Reardon says the overlay was always intended as a "holding pattern" until evidence is gathered to support more targeted controls protecting intact villa and bungalow neighbourhoods.

But the panel's advice appears to have caused collateral damage: the council has scuppered plans to extend a more targeted planning control - Historic Heritage Areas - to seven new neighbourhoods in some of Auckland's earliest colonial settlements.

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The seven neighbourhoods, in Onehunga, Otahuhu and Balmoral, were to be the first in a progressive rollout of new Historic Heritage Areas (HHAs) across the city. Previously called Conservation Areas, they were ushered in 15 years ago in neighbourhoods such as Burnley Terrace, Mt Eden, and Ardmore Rd/Wanganui Ave, Herne Bay. Designed to ensure high quality examples of an architectural style or era survive, they restrict owners' freedom to modify or demolish character houses.

Parts of Onehunga, including the slopes above Onehunga Bay, were identified for their early "desirable dwellings" and "retained elements of colonial life" including Fencible housing for retired British soldiers. Onehunga Mall, dating from the 1840s, and Otahuhu Town Centre (1848) were others earmarked for designation in the unitary plan.

The council's heritage staff undertook pilot surveys, developed new methodology and brought in consultants to help gather the evidence needed to support designation. But, faced with dozens of owner objections and following the hearings panel's advice on the pre-1944 demolition control, the council has buckled.

In a statement of evidence, Tanya Sorrell, the council's team leader, built and cultural heritage policy, says each area was intended to be thoroughly evaluated to ensure it met criteria. But the council now considers the evidence insufficient to meet the high threshold for HHA scheduling.

"In my view, the timing of the pilot surveys against the timeframes for [Unitary Plan] notification put the survey teams under a lot of pressure to ... perform the depth of critical analysis necessary in every case. The inclusion of some of these HHAs and the programme of work may have been too ambitious."

Though heritage status has hardly dented property values in Burnley Terrace or Ardmore Rd, the proposed HHAs in four Onehunga neighbourhoods did draw more opposition than support. Some argued their streets were compromised by infill and redevelopment; others pointed to flaws in the council's information. Resident Catherine Somerville told the hearing the council had accepted an urban myth that her Symonds St home was built for Governor George Grey. "I'd love it if that was the story of my home but there's no evidence for that."

Sorrell says some of the areas dropped may merit less restrictive protection, such as a proposed historic character overlay or special character status.

Reardon meanwhile says the council plans to pursue the pre-1944 demolition control. Since the panel's July advice, staff have scrambled to gather more evidence to justify introducing the overlay in many older suburbs.

But the deadline for tabling evidence (giving property owners time to lodge supporting or opposing submissions before hearings in February) is too tight to complete the task.

And those lining up to oppose such controls include the city's biggest landlord, Housing NZ, which wants hundreds of properties exempted from special character overlays.

Historic Heritage Areas no longer being pursued:

Onehunga:

Green Hill, Kenny's Estate, Te Papapa Station, Suttie's

Estate, Onehunga Mall.

Otahuhu: Otahuhu Town Centre (Great South Rd).

Balmoral: Devon Estate.