Penny Hulse: No chance of a city full of high-rise homes

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To avoid Auckland sprawling like Los Angeles, we need to allow for more growth within and outside the urban area. Photo / Janna Dixon
To avoid Auckland sprawling like Los Angeles, we need to allow for more growth within and outside the urban area. Photo / Janna Dixon

Half of suburban Auckland built up with three-storey apartments? Under the rules of the draft Unitary Plan it's about as likely as the sun setting in the east.

In around 2016, the Unitary Plan is set to replace Auckland's eight district plans as the single rule-book for what people can and can't build in our towns, suburbs and urban centres. Among other things, it will propose the rules for how high you can build in different parts of Auckland.

Right now we are seeking views from Aucklanders on the draft plan, with a closing date for submissions of May 31.

Auckland's population is expected to grow by a million people in the next 30 years. This is not a council policy, it's a Statistics NZ forecast, with nearly two-thirds of this growth likely to come from our existing population.

Short of putting barbed wire around our city and telling Aucklanders to stop having babies, this growth is likely to happen, and so we need to plan for it.

The aim of the Unitary Plan is to ensure that we do this in a balanced way, allowing for the city to grow out as well as up.

One of the most vocal concerns during public engagement on the draft Unitary Plan has been that the proposed height limits are too extreme and will damage the character and liveability of some of our towns and suburbs.

We have heard these concerns, and we are working with many of the communities who have voiced them to make sure that the next draft of the plan addresses this. We think these concerns can be dealt with without compromising the aim of the plan to respond in a balanced way to our city's growth. It's important though that we finish the public engagement process and review all of the feedback before we respond in detail.

But we also think it's fair to say that some of the concerns about the impact of height are unfounded.

So what are the height limits proposed for residential Auckland?

Firstly - it is important to mention that the Unitary Plan is not the only set of rules that govern height in the suburbs.

The Resource Management Act does not currently allow councils to make heights above a certain level a prohibited activity. The law requires that applications for more height be tested through the resource consent process against criteria.

So in effect, New Zealand's councils can set height limits, but the law allows people to apply for permission to exceed those limits, and that permission has to be granted if they meet certain criteria.

Here are the height limits the Unitary Plan proposes for residential Auckland:

1. Around 44 per cent can be a maximum height of two storeys. This comprises a "Single House" zone (35 per cent) and a "large lot" residential zone (9 per cent).

2. Around 49 per cent is a "Mixed Housing" zone. Here, the maximum permitted height is still two storeys - or 8m - but it can be up to three storeys if a resource consent application is approved. The applicant would need to meet strict criteria, including whether the building would dominate the next door property, shade on the next door house or yard, and be in keeping with the neighbourhood character.

3. Around 7 per cent of residential Auckland is zoned for a height of up to six stories. In all cases a resource consent would be required regardless of height.

To avoid Auckland sprawling like Los Angeles, we need to allow for more growth within and outside the urban area. The current plan envisages about a 60-40 split, with most of the urban "intensification" happening in the third decade of the plan, and very little over the next 20 years.

If we chose to grow out only we would need to add something like two Christchurches to Auckland's footprint, at enormous cost to ratepayers - who would need to foot the bill for new infrastructure.

But even with a bit more up, the likely scenario over the next 20 to 30 years is that suburban Auckland will continue to consist of mostly of one or two storey buildings, with some additional height leading up to and around town centres.

Other scenarios are possible, but given the kinds of buildings in residential areas, the heritage protections the council is proposing, the economics of building up in suburbs, and the proposed rules in what is a draft of a draft plan which doesn't take effect for three years, they are unlikely.

Penny Hulse is the deputy mayor of Auckland.

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