ANALYSIS:

A campaign to stop Wellington's character suburbs from being destroyed has been met with a backlash of people's worst renting stories in the capital's "heritage hellholes".

One person posted on social media: "One time when I was a student we put a scrap of paper on the floor and it hovered because of the constant breeze coming between the floorboards."

Another suggested the heritage bungalow they once lived in should be destroyed because the walls were so damp they got asthma.

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"Heritage housing would fall apart if not for the load-bearing mould," one person said.

The onslaught of anecdotes highlighted the tension between retaining heritage and building quality, high-density, affordable housing.

But it's not as black and white as having one or the other.

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Keep Wellington's Character (KWC) claims Wellington's proposed spatial plan will "destroy" heritage suburbs.

At the moment there are parts of the city identified as character areas, like Thorndon and Mt Victoria.

A resource consent is required to demolish any pre-1930s buildings in these areas.

But the spatial plan proposes to re-jig the boundaries by creating "sub-areas".

Anything outside of the designated sub-areas would no longer be subject to the demolition controls, because they're considered areas that don't exhibit a cohesive streetscape character, or are where character has been compromised.

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Basically, protection would become smaller and more targeted to enable denser development within the broader character area.

Wellington's spatial plan is essentially a 'blueprint' for the city that sets out a plan of action for where and how it should grow and develop over the next 30 years. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Wellington's spatial plan is essentially a 'blueprint' for the city that sets out a plan of action for where and how it should grow and develop over the next 30 years. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Building heights outside of the sub-area could be between four and six storeys.

KWC wants existing demolition protections for heritage suburbs to stay as they are.

"They [the suburbs] should not be broken up with high rise and intense development.

"Protecting a few streetscapes will not adequately reflect their heritage values."

Alan Olliver, a Mt Victoria Historical Society committee member, lives in a home that was orginally built for Wellington City Councillor Nicola Young's great-grandparents.

The spatial plan splices part of his street into a sub-zone, leaving the other part with no demolition protection, which Olliver said was bizarre.

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"Heritage is more than just the façade of a building, it's about the people who lived there and the events that have occurred in those areas.

"History provides a sense of place."

John and Jacobina Luke lived in the house after it was built in 1881 and John went on to become the mayor of Wellington from 1913 to 1921.

The Luke Family, 1897. Photo / Supplied
The Luke Family, 1897. Photo / Supplied

Olliver said he was concerned houses across the street from his could be bought up and the land developed up to six storeys high, "virtually like a wall".

He said he wasn't anti-development but felt all protections were being stripped away, leaving developers completely unimpeded.

Olliver also owns the property next to his, having saved both from the grasps of demolition machines by restoring them.

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He insulated it and rented it out long before the Government's recent Healthy Homes Standards were legislated.

"Now it's a legal requirement to do that, the whole idea of an old home being a leaky one or a damp one and a cold one is no longer really valid," Olliver said.

Auckland University School of Architecture and Planning senior lecturer Dr Elizabeth Aitken Rose said heritage was often rammed to one side in an enormous balancing act.

Heritage was seen as an amenity against the pragmatics of affordable housing, child poverty and clean water, she said.

"They tend to mean that heritage is considered as nice to have if we could get all the other things sorted out."

Alan Olliver's home on Mt Victoria. Photo / Supplied
Alan Olliver's home on Mt Victoria. Photo / Supplied

But Aitken Rose said there was an argument to be made for making the best use of the assets cities already have.

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Like what Olliver has done, buildings can be adapted, insulated and re-wired.

"It's using those places to the best effect that we can as a city, while also looking at where we can provide for new development," Aitken Rose said.

She said that needed to be more nuanced rather than just drawing lines and colouring in new zones allowing for higher density.

More than one city councillor in their time has looked longingly at the car yards on Kent and Cambridge Terraces, for example, as the perfect plots for such housing.

"We need to look at the places that don't add particular value to the townscape and that have been abandoned in a sense," Aitken Rose said.

Spades are currently in the ground at Victoria Lane Apartments, which is the first base-isolated apartment building in Wellington. Image / Supplied.
Spades are currently in the ground at Victoria Lane Apartments, which is the first base-isolated apartment building in Wellington. Image / Supplied.

Victoria University School of Architecture senior lecturer Morten Gjerde said owners of character homes could be unwilling to make their buildings fit for purpose.

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"It may be that building owners are saying 'well for me to upgrade the building to meet the current legislation, it's more economically feasible to redevelop' and that's probably leading to a bit of a tension now," he said.

Gjerde also noted the city council wasn't proposing to abandon all protection of character and he would rather be optimistic about what could be built today.

"We talk to students all the time about contributing to the character of an area, I don't think it would necessarily be about disregarding the character that's there, he said.

"New buildings, even if they're larger in scale, should be designed in a way that respects that character and hopefully contributes to it.

"I'd like to think that we're creating tomorrow's heritage today."

Developer Ian Cassels said buildings have to be marketable to be successful.

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"If somebody is imagining that this foul person, who's called a developer, comes in and builds a monstrosity, then to have that as a real fear they've also got to give credit to some idiot buyer actually wanting to buy into that monstrosity."

Developer Ian Cassels. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Developer Ian Cassels. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Cassels agreed higher density needed to be more nuanced than a zone and something closer to a case-by-case approach was a better idea.

"You might get the first six-storey building in a particular area and then it's not appropriate to put one right next to it," he said.

Cassels also noted there were far more hurdles to go through to get spades in the ground for development than simply what a spatial plan allowed for.

Developments would still need resource consents and even then, it was difficult to actually build, he said.

"At the moment whatever any plan says or any scheme says, however many approvals you get, however many commissioners you get to give you a new consent, you still have people who say you can't do it.

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"Wellington is almost the hardest place to build anything in, we reward people who stop things."

By that, Cassels means his stalled Shelly Bay development.

Lachlan Forsyth lived in a character building in Te Aro in the 2000s, which he not-so-lovingly referred to as the house of horrors.

"It was drafty, decrepit, damp, it stunk of mould, it was regularly visited by mice, one flatmate found a hedgehog living under his bed at one point - god knows how long that had been there for.

"Character can be lovely but not when you're cold or sick."

But he is not necessarily advocating for these buildings to be torn down, just to make them liveable.

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"One of the things that really concerns me is when did we start to place character over people's wellbeing?" Forsyth said.

Unfortunately not every landlord in Wellington is as proactive as Olliver on Mt Victoria, although there is new legislation in force since Forsyth was flatting.

Regardless, there are still plenty of stories to be had of young people living in poor-quality housing.

Allowing the demolition of pre-1930s homes isn't a silver bullet to solve Wellington's housing crisis, but it is part of the jigsaw puzzle.

There are still checks and balances in the resource consent process for future development and it's also not like character areas are the only places where developments will happen.

The proposed spatial plan shouldn't be boiled down to heritage versus high-density housing, the last thing Wellington needs is another messy struggle over progress that leads to nothing being done.

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