Aucklanders tend to take their picturesque volcanoes for granted. But as Geoff Cumming discovers, plans for more high-rise living could wipe out some of our favourite city vistas.
"It's ludicrous," says Margot McRae, the heritage campaigner and playwright.
"They are shooting themselves in the foot with the idea that getting rid of the [height limit] will improve Devonport. It will, in fact, ruin its main attraction."
What attracts visitors to Devonport is, in fact, two things — the low-rise heritage buildings along its main drag and the overarching presence of Mt Victoria (Takarunga), she explains.
If some landowners have their way, those close-up glimpses of the maunga could largely disappear — lost in places, reduced in others — behind a high-rise curtain.
It's not just Devonport where battle lines are drawn: views of all of Auckland's famous volcanoes are in the firing line as big landowners and property developers seek changes to the Auckland unitary plan.
The draft plan promotes intensive development to greater heights in most town centres, commercial and residential zones, particularly on the isthmus. But the "allowable" heights in many places are gazumped by other planning tools such as character overlays and, lesser known, volcanic viewshafts — where heights are limited to protect views of the maunga and other volcanic features.
These "viewshafts" and related Height Sensitive Areas (HSAs) have worked since the mid-1970s to protect views of the volcanic cones. With new ones added over the years, they currently protect views from 87 vantage points. The view of Mt Wellington from Pakuranga Highway; the view from the northern approaches to the harbour bridge — over height-restricted city office towers — to Mt Eden; the view to North Head and Rangitoto from the Museum; Mt Eden again from Tamaki Drive: these are "regionally significant" views that contribute to Auckland's identity as a harbour city built on a volcanic field.
What the height limits save is all those glimpses, those intimate views as you walk along the street ... That view of Mt Victoria just looms over you, and the main street relates to it magnificently.
Many district and local views are similarly protected — allowing Aucklanders to "connect" with the cones. The views may be fleeting; they may not be outstanding (the maunga have suffered enormously since European occupation), but they reinforce what planners call a "sense of place".
As the all-powerful Regional Policy Statement (RPS) says, the cones are "islands of naturalness, of open space and green that interact with an urban landscape ... They set this region apart from other cities in the world."
But what happens if many cones lose their prominence (from near or far) as the wall of high-density apartments and commercial blocks rises? The unitary plan allows 4-8 storey development in suburban town centres, four storeys in business zones, three-level apartments in many residential areas and up to 18 storeys in "metropolitan centres" such as Newmarket.
The unitary plan hearings have given major landowners and property developers the chance to wage war on the viewshaft rules. They (mostly) don't want them rubbed out completely — just the ones that stand in their way. But they have also seized on changes to the Resource Management Act to question the "evidence basis" for current viewshafts and their "economic and social" justification. They want more flexible rules for development proposals which breach height limits within viewshafts.
The challengers include Housing NZ Corporation, shopping mall developer Westfield, The Warehouse Ltd (TWL) and Tramco (developers of the Viaduct Harbour, Newmarket retail and other leasehold commercial strips). Several of these property barons have also joined in an Environment Court appeal, aiming to overturn a number of "new" viewshafts nursed through the planning process over the years.
Housing NZ claims 24,500 more dwellings could be built on the Auckland isthmus if it weren't for viewshafts, easing both the housing shortage and affordability. The unitary plan must help to usher in a compact city to avoid endless urban sprawl, it argues, and the isthmus is best-equipped for intensification.
The main battlefields include:
• Newmarket, where big landowners Tramco and Westfield have redevelopment plans limited by viewshafts to Mt Eden.
• The Karangahape Rd ridgeline.
• Tamaki, where viewshafts to Mt Wellington affect state housing redevelopment by the Tamaki Redevelopment Co and Auckland University's plans for its Tamaki campus.
• Mt Albert, where Tramco is pushing for a 27m-31m height limit on a swathe of land it owns along New North Rd, affecting views of Mt Albert from the western suburbs.
• State housing areas in Owairaka and Three Kings, where Housing NZ wants to redevelop; and
• Devonport, where the local business association says development to four-storeys is needed to "invigorate the town centre".
The big property players have engaged a small platoon of expert witnesses (planning and landscape consultants) and lawyers to attack viewshafts from several angles, before both the hearings panel and the court. Standing up for the views are the council, mana whenua groups and shoestring outfits like the Volcanic Cones Society and Devonport Heritage.
Already, the council has shifted its position, axing 10 viewshafts which, it agreed, were compromised and no longer worth protecting. The draft unitary plan also sacrifices height restrictions (HSAs) between the maunga, upsetting many iwi. And it has doubled the allowable height limit at Mt Albert shops, where a viewshaft cuts across New North Rd (see below). Otherwise the council is broadly sticking to its position that applications to build within viewshafts beyond stated height limits should be treated as "non-complying".
Opponents argue such blanket protection is no longer appropriate — a "more nuanced" regime is needed. "Some cones are more equal than others," says Tramco's lawyer, Trevor Daya-Winterbottom. Though nice to have, many viewshafts are no longer justified given Auckland's housing shortage, population growth and need for intensification, they argue. And, as Housing Minister Nick Smith told the Weekend Herald, the city's housing affordability crisis is linked to land supply: "Land use rules that introduce controls for amenity purposes, such as for the preservation of viewshafts ... carry significant economic and social costs."
Housing NZ has about 30,000 dwellings in Auckland, many of which the Government plans to sell off or redevelop. Many are in the shadow of volcanic cones — state housing estates in Glen Innes/Panmure, Owairaka, Mt Roskill and Three Kings. HNZ claims the viewshafts cause a "potential capacity loss of 1,150 units for HNZC" and a capacity loss across the city of 24,500 dwellings. (The council's economic consultant puts the loss at closer to 16,000.)
Auckland University wants its Tamaki campus, which it plans to vacate, re-zoned for intensive redevelopment with a 24m height limit. Others wanting height limits eased include Baradene College, on the Victoria Ave ridgeline; Ascot-owned Mercy Hospital, on the Mt Eden slopes; and the Elizabeth Knox retirement home beside Mt St John in Epsom.
The big landowners propose a hierarchical system — where views of true "regional significance" are subject to strict height limits but views of mere district or local importance may be sacrificed. They seek changes to the RPS — deleting reference to the volcanic field as of "international, national, regional and local significance" and allowing for "mitigation". Rather than treat height limit breaches as non-complying, they want the council to use more discretion.
Such an approach, warns the Volcanic Cones Society's Greg Smith, risks "death by a thousand cuts" — an accumulation of apparently "minor" infringements could soon make viewshafts pointless.
What irks Smith is that the big landowners have long known about the viewshafts — they are simply using the unitary plan to relitigate.
"You can't get up and say 'this is a limit on development' when it was known about years ago," he says.
"There's plenty of room to grow outside the viewshafts. There's room to intensify from Pukekohe to Wellsford — we don't think it all has to be on the isthmus."
The council has rolled out its own big guns, including planning consultant Peter Reaburn and landscape architect Stephen Brown, to defend the viewshafts. Reaburn says they were factored into the unitary plan, which calls for around 60 per cent of population growth to occur in already built-up areas: they are not a threat to intensification targets.
Brown rejects revisiting the "evidence basis" for the viewshafts. "The principles that underpin viewshaft protection [are] as immutable and unswerving as planning strategies get in an era of countless shades of grey and compromise."
For mana whenua, the current viewshafts are not enough — they want more. Ngati Whatua Orakei seek changes to protect "cultural viewshafts" between sites and places of significance to iwi and hapu. It says the draft plan fails to treat the 14 tupuna maunga (ancestral mountains) as a "cultural landscape" despite their importance to iwi.
Height protections, argues Mangere Mountain Education Trust co-chair Karen Wilson, maintain a visual and spiritual connection for mana whenua between their wider rohe (domain) and the maunga — for instance, views of Mangere from Manukau Harbour and the stonefields.
What's missing from the council's defence is a serious attempt to quantify the benefits of retaining the protected views, particularly as Auckland intensifies. With improved guardianship under joint-iwi control and a bid for World Heritage status looming, the volcanic field's value to Auckland — both as a tourism drawcard and a place to live — could be a social and economic benefit, not just a cost.
Height change could reduce maunga to backdrop
For motorists approaching the city from the Northwestern Motorway, the view that unfolds from the Te Atatu interchange sums up Auckland. Yes, there's a motorway, but the wide view is of harbour and volcanic landforms.
It is no accident that the first cone that looms into view is Mt Albert (Owairaka).
Since the mid-1990s, a protected viewshaft running from the Te Atatu interchange to the maunga has limited the height of development. Now, one of the city's biggest landholders, Tram Lease (a division of Tramco), says the viewshaft, A13, should be deleted from the planning rulebook or substantially modified — arguing it is "not regionally significant". "The viewing audience is typically travelling in vehicles at speed, while trying to merge into the frequently heavy motorway traffic," its expert witness, Clinton Bird, told the unitary plan hearings panel.
"The cone is not iconic, retains little volcanic resemblance and appears contiguous with the surrounding residential slopes."
Tram Lease owns a long strip of New North Rd, alongside the railway line, between the Mt Albert shops and Woodward Rd. This land, it says, has "a significant role to play in Auckland's future compactness and intensification".
It wants to build as high as 31m (nearly four times what's allowed by the current district plan viewshaft), claiming this would "have a negligible effect on the overall visual integrity of the cone".
Another Tramco expert witness, John Schellekens, claims A13 promises to reduce land values "by up to 40 per cent in the context of foregone urban intensification opportunities".
Defending the viewshaft for the Auckland Council, consultant landscape architect Stephen Brown says Mt Albert introduces and reintroduces the volcanic field to a massive volume of road users approaching the city from the west. He warns of the potential for "large blocks of development" along New North Rd to relegate the maunga to a "backdrop" role.
However, the council has already ceded ground, raising the zone height limit to 16.5m in the draft unitary plan and the viewshaft limit even higher.