New Zealand's biggest listed retirement village owner has obtained Covid-19 fast-track consent for a controversial new $150 million village on iwi-owned land, disappointing some local opponents.
"It's appalling," Kohimarama resident Jeff Robertson said of the decision to award Ryman Healthcare consent for the East Auckland development.
But a Ryman Healthcare development executive said it was pleasing to be able to start the suburban project which would free up hundreds of homes in the area and ease property market pressure.
Last year, neighbours grouped together to try to stop Ryman from winning consent and the Herald reported how neighbours feared such a big project in the predominantly single-level to two-level residential area near two schools.
Ryman won consent under the Covid-19 Recovery (Fast-track Consenting) Act 2020 which the Government passed to try to speed up work in the face of a possible widespread downturn due to the pandemic.
The retirement giant has leased the 3.1ha greenfields Kohimarama Rd/ John Rymer Pl site from Ngāti Whātua Ōrāki. The heavily sloping ground is beside Selwyn College and is triangular-shaped with boundaries on to the two streets.
Ryman's is the first big commercial project approved under the new urgency process, according to the Environmental Protection Authority.
Robertson said the approval process was "a joke" because far from a downturn, the building sector was working at full capacity.
He lives about 200m from the site, says his living room, dining room, kitchen and deck would face the new buildings "and I'll see the full impact across the skyline of six-level buildings whereas now I see green space".
Robertson, chairman of Kohi Neighbours Inc, said under the Unitary Plan, Ryman was allowed to build predominantly only three levels high as of right.
It had far exceeded that and won consent to develop six levels. Five apartment blocks and a hospital are approved in the six-building scheme.
Jeremy Moore, Ryman chief development officer, welcomed approval from the consenting panel chaired by Ian Gordon with members Trevor Mackie and Juliane Chetham.
Under the urgency law, no hearing was held.
"The village will provide critical healthcare infrastructure for the people of Kohimarama as well as construction work, and long-term sustainable healthcare jobs. It will also free up hundreds of homes in the area at a time when housing is in short supply, and ease pressure on the property market," Moore said.
Ryman had worked closely with local people, the neighbouring Selwyn College, iwi and the Auckland Council to design a village that the community can be proud of, and now were keen to get on and build it, he said.
"It's a beautiful setting for retirees who love the area and want to stay there. All of this is critical at a time when the retired population is growing quickly, and we need to build now to meet the enormous demand ahead."
Robertson said Auckland Council's landscape specialist recommended the height of four buildings be lowered and the council's urban design specialist recommended the height of one building be lowered.
"But only two of the six buildings will be lowered by one story, as a result of an expert's consenting panel decision. The panel hasn't taken into account the specialists' recommendations."
Neighbours do not plan to take legal action to appeal the consent approval.
"Because it's a fast-tracked, the only appeal that could be mounted would be on legal grounds to the High Court. We don't think there are any legal grounds and the costs would be prohibitive. Under a normal process, if you disagree with the council, you can go to the Environment Court. But not in this case.
"It's very disappointing. Very, very few comments or suggestions were incorporated in the panel's decision and consultation with the community is just lip service. Regardless of what's approved, it's the neighbours who will have to live with what's happened and after the contractors leave, we'll be looking at six buildings of four to six storeys in height," Robertson said.
The panel recommended the creation of a community liaison group with Kohi Neighbours Inc., Ryman, Selwyn College and St Thomas's School.
"So there's some attempt to address concerns at the coalface rather than write conditions," he said.
"But that group won't have any real teeth because the council is not required to be part of the group."
The Ōrākei Local Board wanted to be part of that group but the panel turned that down, Robertson said.
"The residents tried to have a voice. Our elected reps have been consistent in their comments about the development which was they're opposed to the height, think traffic will be an issue as well as the impacts of construction on the neighbourhood.
"They share our concerns and we've made great efforts to be balanced, we're not anti-development. We're going to be living here for the four years it takes to build, it's not unreasonable that we have a voice.
"Our local board and the residents' voices have not been listened to. It's appalling.
"Other developers might look at the decision and say 'this is a home-run' and that's not really the intent. Look at Auckland with labour and material shortages and there's no need for commercial projects to go to a fast-track panel to keep the economy moving. The economy is moving all by itself. I don't think creating villages like this was the intent of the act at all."
Robertson said the neighbourhood group had gone to some expense and engaged experts to help them fight the battle.
"It was not just a neighbourhood group of individuals: Bianca Tree from MinterEllisonRuddWatts was engaged for legal, Richard Reid for urban design and landscape architecture and Iain McManus from Civitas Planning."
The panel said it got 71 submissions and granted consent subject to conditions.
Some of the buildings proposed contributed to the perception of an overall built form that was unacceptable in terms of height and dominance, it said.
Ryman can now go ahead and build 124 units, a 98-bed hospital, 74 assisted living suites, 192 carparks, bowling green and other facilities.
Its share price is today trading over $14, giving a $7b-plus market capitalisation.