Richard Burton: Council must get serious about design

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Relaxed building rules in the Unitary Plan will undermine city planners' goal of `quality built environments'.

Proposed rule changes will inevitably lead to bigger, more bulky buildings pressed "hard up'' on neighbours' boundaries.  Photo / Martin Sykes
Proposed rule changes will inevitably lead to bigger, more bulky buildings pressed "hard up'' on neighbours' boundaries. Photo / Martin Sykes

Aucklanders should be concerned. Contrary to the Auckland Council's claims the proposed Unitary Plan will deliver a "quality built environment", planners will have little design input into 99 out of 100 residential developments across the city.

The council's claims of high levels of design control are illusory and don't stack up. They're illusory because, if past trends are anything to go by, very few residential developments will require a resource consent and therefore, be subject to design assessment by the council.

To make matters worse, the plan's development rules have been relaxed allowing more buildings on a site, greater coverage and building bulk.

A review of the past 13 years of residential building consents data says it all. Only 1 per cent of all developments would have reached the threshold of four or more dwellings, requiring a resource consent and design assessment. That means 99 per cent of developments will not require any design input and only need to comply with greatly relaxed development rules.

This will not deliver a quality built environment.

Auckland 2040 fears that the absence of design controls on developments of fewer than four dwellings and the considerable increase in building density, bulk and coverage permitted will encourage poor building design. We are also concerned for neighbours because there is little in the plan that will minimise adverse effects on adjoining properties.

Many of the plan's relaxed building rules will inevitably lead to bigger, more bulky buildings pressed "hard up" on neighbours' boundaries. Building coverage has been increased from 35 per cent to 50 per cent of the site and on larger sites, the density has been increased to one dwelling per 200sq m site area.

In certain circumstances too, for example, in the Mixed House Urban (MHU) and Terrace Housing and Apartment Building (THAB) zones, there is "unlimited density". Reducing rear yards to one metre in residential zones will see the loss of green corridors at the back of sites.

Auckland 2040 questions how these kind of rules can foster a "quality built environment".

If the council is serious about achieving quality urban design then it should have either comprehensive rules specifying the design standards sought in the plan, or require smaller developments to seek a resource consent requiring a design assessment.

No requirement for design input by the council into nearly all residential developments in concert with the dramatically relaxed development rules will have a significant negative impact on Auckland's suburbs; suburbs which over time have developed their own somewhat unique residential character.

Auckland's oldest suburbs such as Ponsonby or Devonport have closely developed stand-alone houses, often on small sites, with minimal yards and little provision for off-street parking.

With subsequent expansion into the suburbs, more emphasis was placed on larger sites which provided room for planting, gardens, outdoor living space and provision for on-site vehicle parking. Housing was predominantly one or two-storey detached. Over time, these suburbs have matured and now feature mature trees and established streetscapes. In-fill housing has also substantially increased the density of many suburbs and while some development hasn't always been the best design, in most areas it has not materially affected the character of the suburb.

All this could change and Auckland's suburbs and residents could be in for a major shock if the plan is allowed to proceed and the relaxed building rules are not amended. For most people, the first time they realise this is an important issue is when a development occurs in their street which is inappropriate. By the time they realise, it is too late.

Residential character has "value" and is vulnerable to inappropriate development. It is the sum total of the topography, the streetscape, the age and style of housing, setbacks from the street and other boundaries, planting, presence of mature trees and the relationship to commercial districts, parks and natural features. Residential character differs quite markedly between suburbs and is highly valued by residents who will fight to preserve it from developments they see as introducing an alien or inappropriate building form.

The evidence that Aucklanders care is not in doubt. There were more than 20,000 submissions to the Draft Unitary Plan, many opposing proposed high density Terraced Housing and Apartment Building development across much of the Auckland Isthmus. Aucklanders do want to retain the character of their suburb and they do want "quality urban design".

Auckland 2040 calls on the Auckland Council to get serious about urban design and provide development rules that, while allowing for residential intensification, do so in a way that enhances the residential character of existing suburbs rather than destroying it.

Richard Burton is spokesman for the Auckland 2040 lobby group.

- NZ Herald

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