Mark Gunton: Battlelines drawn as Milford proves test case for intensification

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The Government knows Auckland's issues become New Zealand's problems. Photo / Richard Robinson
The Government knows Auckland's issues become New Zealand's problems. Photo / Richard Robinson

Milford on Auckland's magnificent North Shore ticks all the right boxes for residential intensification. It has good access to transport and motorway infrastructure and is close to employment centres, schools and recreational amenities. More importantly, it is a great place to live and more Aucklanders would like to live there.

The Auckland Plan identifies many town centres, including Milford, as appropriate areas to provide for more intensive residential development and recognises the need for these centres to increase in height. This is a location where the Auckland Plan has got it right.

New Zealand Retail Property Group Limited (NZRPG) has already improved the amenity of Milford mall, transforming it from a tired, run-down shopping centre to a lively up-market boutique centre. The next logical step is to use the vacant airspace above the mall to deliver highly desirable apartment living.

NZRPG's vision for Milford would set the benchmark for the sort of quality mixed-use development Auckland and its council want.

NZRPG asked expert consultants to prepare a development plan that would produce excellent apartments, be sensitive to the surrounding area and would add to Milford in a positive way. The modelling of options, including differing height limits, resulted in a carefully considered and developed plan change that incorporates a mix of building heights.

However, while NZRPG believed it proposed a positive and logical development which is in step with the direction of Auckland Council's public policy on town centre intensification, the development is vehemently opposed by a section of the Milford community. The Milford Residents Association (MRA) is a well-run, established group who opposed the establishment of the mall in the 1990s and arranged for submissions against the plan change lodged by NZRPG. The MRA has made it clear that it does not accept the Auckland Council's plans for town centre residential intensification at Milford set out in the draft Unitary Plan. NZRPG respects the MRA and their perspective, they care, but so do we.

An Auckland Council hearing on the plan change took place in August-October 2012, four years after the plan change was first lodged with Auckland Council. The appointed panel's decision declined the plan change. The principal reason given was the development was out of character for the area because of the proposed height of the taller towers. In essence the panel agreed with the MRA that the proposal was too high, and too much, too soon.

Ironically, the decision was released as the draft unitary plan was made public.

Has our city made a strategic decision to intensify in Auckland or do we have an aspiration that will be compromised when inevitably the pressure comes on from sections of a local community? Will intensification strategies only be achieved outside of higher socio-economic suburbs where well organised local self-interest groups are less common? Will Auckland be able to deliver intensification in the most sought after locations? Will the development community that has the means to really make a difference bother, or will they head north and south to take the path of least resistance which is low density suburbia on the edges?

The hearing panel was at pains to emphasise that this decision was not a "test case" for intensification. This is wrong.

The market has watched Milford with interest. It absolutely is a test case. Auckland will either "go up" or "go out" - more likely, both.

The Government knows Auckland's issues become New Zealand's problems, and it appears determined not to let optimal planning outcomes around intensification become a victim of Auckland local government's political compromises.

Milford Centre Ltd has lodged an appeal with the Environment Court. It is not what the company had hoped for, but its proposal for Milford is too good to abandon.

Mark Gunton is chairman of the New Zealand Retail Property Group.

- NZ Herald

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