Once, a house with land for a vege garden was the norm. Now just a few ‘last men standing’ remain, finds Cherie Howie.

No wonder Lydia Smith's clivias bloom brilliantly. The bright orange, bell-shaped flowers are growing in multi-million dollar soil.

The 69-year-old, and her husband Ian, 72, are living the quarter-acre dream less than three kilometres from the hustle and bustle of downtown Auckland.

They're among the few - just seven intact, single-title, quarter-acre (1011sq m) sections are left in downtown Auckland and the eight suburbs that border it.

Another three sections between 1215sq m and 1451sq m also remain.

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Together, those 10 residential sections represent the last of a disappearing way of life in the most central suburbs of our biggest city - a home and a chunk of land big enough for a vege garden, fruit trees and energetic children.

As Auckland has grown, many sections we live on have shrunk, sliced up to host many more homes than originally intended.

Drive through large swathes of the city and you could be forgiven for thinking the dream of the quarter-acre, pavlova paradise is dead.

The change is, unsurprisingly, most pronounced in central suburbs, although some areas, such as Ponsonby and Freemans Bay were never quarter-acre strongholds.

Other parts of Auckland are also transforming, and will continue to do so as intensification increases under the proposed Unitary Plan, the rulebook for city development for the next 10 years. But holdouts remain.

The Smiths, who have lived in their turn-of-the-20th-century villa on a 1011sq m section of Parnell's Alberon St since 1979, are among a tiny number of central Auckland homeowners who have resisted the marching tide of progress.

And though they could have cashed in years ago, they have no regrets. "We love it here," Lydia Smith said as she showed the Herald on Sunday the couple's rambling garden.

They have ripped out the agapanthus but original fruit trees, sturdy cabbage trees and towering pohutukawa remain.

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Last quarter-acre sections feature. Property at 24 Alberon St in Parnell, Auckland. 7 October 2015 Herald on Sunday Photograph by Michael Craig.
Last quarter-acre sections feature. Property at 24 Alberon St in Parnell, Auckland. 7 October 2015 Herald on Sunday Photograph by Michael Craig.

Most of their neighbours have letters attached to the end of their street numbers, but they had always resisted the temptation to subdivide, she said.

The couple paid $53,000 ($278,000 in 2015 dollars) for their four-bedroom villa, after negotiating $10,000 off the asking price, in part because the property was in what was then considered to be a less-desirable part of Parnell.

"It was a lot of money back then. Mt Eden [properties] were in the $30,000s so I thought this was about right."

Their choice of location was driven by austerity - the newly-introduced carless days law meant the couple, raising two children, wanted to be close enough to walk to jobs in the central city, Ian Smith said. "This wasn't upmarket then. It was the university side of Parnell."

Amazingly, they faced significant criticism from family members nervous about the house's age. It was extensively renovated in the early 1980s and while the Smiths did not want to say what the property might be worth now, it has a capital value of $2.7m.

Their children are now raising families of their own so they are open to selling at some point but no firm decisions have been made. Multiple real estate agents were frequently in touch, Lydia Smith said.

Sir Thomas Thorp is another quarter-acre hold-out. The 89-year-old bought his Judge St home for $300,000 ($1.57m in today's dollars) in 1979.

The property, which borders Martyn Fields Reserve and has breathtaking views of Waitemata Harbour, has a capital value of $2.6m.

A former high-profile High Court judge, Sir Thomas said real estate agents called about twice a month, but he did not want to sell the home in which he raised a family.

"I'm staying here while I can. It's a superb place, private and close to the city. I haven't thought of subdividing. I'm hoping it will go to a decent-sized family when I move."

Barfoot and Thompson managing director Peter Thompson said widespread subdivision of quarter-acre sections began in the late 1980s and had gained pace since.

"Certainly, the number of quarter-acre sections is diminishing at a quick rate. For those who are sitting on them, it adds a lot of value.

"It was everyone's dream to grow up on a quarter-acre section, but obviously the population growth and the Unitary Plan, saying expand upwards and outwards, will take the quarter-acre sections out of the city."

Those who had grown up in or raised families on their large, central-city properties often expressed a wish for it to remain a family home, he said.

Auckland Council chief of strategy Jim Quinn said Auckland's population was expected to increase between 750,000 and a million in the next 30 years. Intensification was vital to meet demand.

"I don't think anybody wants to see that sprawl for miles and miles, and all the problems that come with that. So obviously we need land release to enable some wider growth, but we also need to intensify, and that's what the Unitary Plan is signalling."

How we crunched the numbers

 Lydia Smith is still living in her quarter-acre paradise. Photo / Michael Craig
Lydia Smith is still living in her quarter-acre paradise. Photo / Michael Craig

The Herald on Sunday asked Auckland Council how many residential properties greater than 1000 square metres were left in downtown Auckland and the neighbouring suburbs of St Mary's Bay, Herne Bay, Freemans Bay, Ponsonby, Arch Hill, Newton, Grafton and Parnell.

Those areas contain about 5600 homes, excluding apartments and units. We then checked the addresses of those greater than 1000sq m on Google Earth to make sure the sections did not contain multiple houses, and excluded properties larger than the traditional quarter-acre size of 1011sq m only because they were spread across more than one title, such as in the case of Prime Minister John Key's Parnell mansion.

We found 10 properties on single titles and housing single, detached homes. Seven - in Parnell, Grafton and Herne Bay - were between 1004sq m and 1011sq m. Three, in Parnell and Herne Bay, were between 1215sq m and 1451sq m.