On The Nation: Unitary Plan debate

Press Release – The Nation

On The Nation: Unitary Plan debate

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Headlines:

The Property Institute says the majority of new buildings under the Unitary Plan will be apartments, and there will be enough demand for them.

Architectural critic Tommy Honey says high density housing can be made well, but the Property Institute chief executive Ashley Church says apartments will still be made cheaply if people are willing to buy them.

Youth representative Flora Apulu says what young people need is more affordable options, but Church says a requirement for affordable housing in the Unitary Plan would be unworkable.

Lisa Owen: Well, it’s the final countdown for a plan that will change the face of Auckland. This week, the Independent Hearings Panel issued its blueprint for Auckland’s future, going far beyond the draft unitary plan submitted by the council. It’s supposed to help cool the housing crisis by increasing supply and intensifying the central suburbs, allowing for 420,000 more houses to be built. But will it work? Well, I’m joined by Flora Apulu from the council’s Youth Advisory Panel, chief executive of The Property Institute Ashley Church, Sally Hughes from The Character Coalition and architectural critic Tommy Honey. Tommy, if I can come to you first – what’s the biggest plus or minus do you think in this plan?

Tommy Honey: Well, the biggest plus I think is its ambition, and it’s very bold, and it’s gone, as you say, further than other people thought, but I think it will give choice about where intensity occurs rather than the intensity being crammed into very restricted areas as the previous plan had.

Sally, big and bold, is it? Or…?

Sally Hughes: Yes. The Character Coalition has never been opposed to intensification. We’ve never said no to that. But what we wanted was a say in where that intensification happened to avoid the unnecessary destruction of our finite historical character heritage areas.

Mm. Tommy, what do you think is the biggest plus or minus? Sorry, Ashley, what do you think?

Ashley Church: Lisa, I desperately want to totally support this, and in respective things like the intensification and the increase of the numbers to 420,000 and the up-and-out, all of those things, that’s fantastic. Really concerned about the fact, though, that it’s such breakneck speed that it’s ignoring aspects of culture and heritage, which are important to the development of a sophisticated, modern city.

Flora, do you agree with that?

Flora Apulu: Potentially. I think just from my perspective, being a young person in Auckland, looking at the Unitary Plan, I think it does bring that call to action that council is doing something about Auckland’s growing population, especially the growing population of young people, so, yeah, definitely.

Ashley, if I can come back to you. More than 400 dwellings – capacity for that – what do you think is going to get built?

Church: I think there’ll be a proliferation of apartments, and that’s obvious already. There’s been a lot of talk around the intention to build up in the inner city, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That really reflects, I think, the desire for that kind of accommodation. And I think there’ll be a fairly large increase in the- in respect of the urban boundary, which is going to be increased by 30%, so there’ll be a lot more building of freestanding dwellings on the peripherals of the city. Both of those things are good, but as I said before, my concerns are around the impact on heritage and culture, particularly in the inner city.

So what are you saying – we’re going to get sort of fridge-style apartments or-?

Church: Potentially, and in fact you’ve only got to go back to the ‘90s and early 2000s to see that we’ve already had that. In fact, it was 2006, 2007 that the council put a ban on those sorts of dwellings because they recognised what damage they can do to the culture of the city, and this plan essentially does away with that requirement and goes back to that.

Honey: Well, I’d be surprised if we start to see those. I think people have learnt that those are barely tenantable and horrific to live in. Most developers- The new developments you’re seeing in the existing rules are providing larger houses, or larger apartments really, along the ridge of K Road, Great North Rd there. The ones that they’re producing at the moment are of a much higher quality, because developers know that’s where the market’s heading.

So you basically don’t think that high-density house- it’s inevitable that high-density housing is ugly and of poor quality? You think it’d be made well?

Honey: Oh, absolutely. I think they’re a good example of that.

Yeah. Well, we’ve got some actual pictures, I think, that you’ve provided to us of some examples, so should we take a look at those if we can bring those up. This is the kind of thing you’re talking about?

Honey: Yeah, so this is actually a precedent from Wellington, surprisingly, and I think this is an extraordinary piece of architecture, because it sits in Mt Victoria, which is an historic area; it doesn’t try to be an historic house, but it references them. As a piece of architecture, it’s not too blank, solid walls. It really works hard. What’s amazing is it’s three-storeys high, so it’s- with an underground car park. It’s done by Parsonson Architects – very very capable, a winner of awards. But what’s interesting, it’s on a 560m2 section, which is pretty standard, and they’ve managed to get I think eight apartments on there.

On a 560-? Well, Sally Hughes, that doesn’t look so bad, does it? What is the problem if we have to bowl a few villas to put some of those up?

Honey: One villa. One villa for eight houses.

One villa for eight houses. What’s the problem?

Hughes: That’s not the problem. The problem is in our character areas where there are consistent beautiful houses or bungalows or villas, where that starts to be degraded, that’s the problem. I think intensification can be done very well, but in our older suburbs, I don’t think we’ll achieve what we’re looking for, which is affordable housing, if we start to make inroads into those older suburbs.

Church: Lisa, I take additional issue. I agree with Sally, and, I mean, I’d love to think that Tommy was right, but I don’t think he is. I think that as long as you’ve got commercial developers for whom there are no rules except the marketplace, they are going to go for the lowest common denominator. As long as there’s a buyer – and there are going to be people who are going to buy these shoebox apartments – as long as there’s a buyer, they’re going to build them. So I think, unfortunately, while I’d like to think that’s right, I simply don’t believe it’s true. I think that we will end up with these things, and we will have the same problem that we had in the ‘90s.

Flora, do you think we’re going to get these low-quality mass developments?

Apulu: Yeah, and I guess that’s another one of my biggest concerns, is that, you know, just looking at those pictures, I doubt that a lot of people that I work with- I work with a police youth-development trust called Genesis Youth Trust, and I don’t think a lot of the people I work with would be able to afford those kind of houses and be able to fit the amount of people that live in their families. So it will be interesting to see what kind of quality of housing will be in some parts of Auckland compared to other parts, and that’s my biggest concern, around affordability and quality. If there’s no rules, like what Ashley’s said, then, yeah, my concern is that we’ll have some shoeboxes probably out South Auckland, west, northwest, and then we’ll have these beautiful houses in other parts of Auckland.

I want to come back to the west and the south soon, but I just- Tommy, how much? How much for that terraced house in Auckland? Because that’s the point that Flora makes. She still thinks that’s out of her reach, in many people’s reach.

Honey: Okay, so I actually think it’s a really- The allowance of more areas that could be intensified- If you’re a developer and you’re looking at a 1000m2 site in a leafy suburb or a same-sized site in another suburb that’s not as expensive and you can put the same amount of properties on it, you’re actually going to make more money out of that one that’s not in a leafy suburb. The stand-alone houses are actually safer in this scheme, because they’ve allowed for a lot more intensity elsewhere.

Sally’s not convinced.

Hughes: Well, I’m not convinced, because I’m seeing what’s happening already. There’s a really good example down Tamaki Drive. There were six single-storey apartments, modest, on the waterfront there. They were demolished earlier this year, and two houses worth $4 million have been built in their place. That’s the sort of thing that we’ve seen happening up to now, and the rules-

Honey: But that’s reverse intensity, isn’t it?

Hughes: Exactly.

Honey: But you’re saying that’s a good or a bad thing.

Hughes: No, it’s a bad thing. It’s a really bad thing.

Honey: So it’s a bad thing that there are fewer hou- I’m trying to get this. So I thought you were standing up for the single stand-alone house.

Hughes: No, we want to preserve the character suburbs that are worth preserving, the ones that the council identified through their pre-1944 assessment criteria, which has been lost. Those ones, we want to preserve them as the story of Auckland.

But is all-attractive and all-pretty and aesthetically pleasing good? Because under this plan, those historic houses that need to be protected can still be protected, can’t they?

Hughes: No. No. There is- We’ve gone back to the special-character area. There’s just a slim set of rules that provide one sort of little stop before demolition, but demolition has still been happening. We’ve looked- We’ve seen that a lot across Auckland under the current rules, and that’s what will still be in place.

Ashley?

Church: Lisa, all of this could’ve been avoided. Sally’s right. All of this could’ve been avoided if there was a very strong overlay philosophy in this plan that talked about quality, that talked about quality of development and quality of what we do, and it would’ve dealt with heritage issues; it would’ve dealt with cultural issues; it would’ve dealt with the sorts of issues that Tommy’s talking about, but none of that’s there. It’s a breakneck focus on the development at all speed, and in the process, basically losing what we’ve had in respect of culture and heritage.

Tommy, you still think there are checks and balances for quality, don’t you? Explain that.

Honey: Yeah, I do, but I think there’s a huge responsibility, which is probably going to become the elephant in the room. So they do talk about equality compact urban form, which has been in the Auckland plan for a long time, and I’m not quite sure about the breakneck speed; I don’t think the bulldozers are going to break out tomorrow, but what they’ve talked about is a shift from a rules-led approach to an outcome approach. The key in there is that outcome, quality outcome. No, who’s—

So how do you guarantee it?

Honey: Exactly, and what’s going to happen is it’s—Not all the rulebook’s been thrown away. They’ve kept some rules about yards and height relation to boundary—

But there’s no rules—Ashley’s right, there’s no rules around sizes of main rooms.

Honey: No.

You can jam properties up against each other.

Honey: Well, actually you can’t. When they talk about separation of buildings, they mean within a site, not between you and your neighbour. You can’t go up to your neighbour. So what’s going to happen is people will take proposals to the council that they can build as of right, and people are going to review them. If they’re over a certain scale, they have to be assessed by the council, and that is going to mean that the council has a greater responsibility to be good at assessing, and I’m not sure the council is experienced enough to do that. So the problem in this area is – if you’re going to build 13,000 houses a year and there are 13,000 building consents coming through, the people who are doing that assessing and looking at it have to have a much better understanding of quality. You only have to talk to architects in Auckland about the 23-year-old sitting across the counter telling them what they can’t do, and simply because there is no formal training for people to be quality assessors.

The stopgap is going to be the council, and the volume of houses coming through potentially means that they’re not going to be able to pay the attention to it. Is that what you’re saying?

Hughes: And the track record isn’t good. I mean, everybody can point to a beautiful villa that’s been demolished in their area and something built in its place, and that’s what we’re so concerned about, is that it’s a finite resource, that history of Auckland, and it’s everybody’s history; it’s not just the people that live in that area.

But, Flora, is that standing in the way of the next generation getting a roof over their head?

Apulu: Yeah.

And where is the line?

Apulu: Yeah, I think that the Unitary presents a really great opportunity for the growth for our houses in Auckland, but I think it also provides the options for more medium houses in Auckland, and I think we need affordable houses for young people, young families, all families as well as, yeah, more options. And some of us don’t all want to live in those three-bedroom houses, you know, and some of actually do just need maybe a good-quality one-bedroom apartment, you know. So we need more options, and I think that’s what needs to be done well.

Which brings me back to the question I started asking you – how much are those terraced houses—? To build one of those terraced houses in Auckland, what would that cost?

Honey: Well, how long is a piece of string?

700,000 to 800,000 – is that right, Tommy? Ballpark?

Honey: Yeah, I look at a building in Wellington – which is actually interesting – that is actually built by one family as an investment to rent out; they’re not selling those places in Wellington. That’s just a long-term rental place.

But that’s right, isn’t it? 700,000 to 800,000.

Honey: I would expect if you were going to get eight properties like that on a site, it would cost you in the range of about that. They’re not—

Is that affordable, Flora?

Apulu: Definitely not, for the average young person who’s trying to find a job.

Which brings us to the point that affordable housing—a quota for affordable housing’s been taken out of this plan. They’re going to leave it to the market to drive the supply of the kinds of places that Flora’s talking about, but can we rely on the market for that, Ashley? Because it doesn’t seem to have favoured the first-time buyer now.

Church: Yeah, it’s a really good question. Whether we can rely on the market to do that or not, I’m not sure. I understand why they’ve taken it out, though, because it was a requirement, I think, that was unachievable. It was essentially putting a constraint on developers that was impossible to comply with, so I agree with you that what they’ve done may not necessarily solve that issue, but I think that it needs to be resolved in another way. It wasn’t going to resolve by, effectively, saying to the private sector, ‘Hey, you solve this problem for us.’

Hughes: And it won’t be solved by slicing and dicing the character suburbs. What it needs is a concerted effort between the government, the council and the private sector to get together to provide those affordable houses, which I totally agree are really needed. It’s the biggest need we have.

Mm, but Bill English would probably say, ‘Yeah, we do need to slice and dice a bit.’ In fact, he said, ‘There’s no point having beautifully designed cities if 90% of New Zealanders can’t afford to live in them. We might have to get a bit ugly,’ he says. Might we have to get a bit ugly?

Hughes: There’s plenty of opportunities across Auckland for affordable housing to be built.

Honey: I think he’s aligning cheap, affordable with ugly, and that is completely inappropriate. We can have beautiful cities full of affordable houses that might cost a lot less, and there are many, many examples around the world of this occurring. Just the other day I got an email through my inbox from a real estate agent wanting to sell me a $420,000 studio apartment on K Road, brand-new in very very well-designed development. Now, what happens in the affordable housing argument is people say, ‘Yeah, yes, yes, but that’s just a studio apartment. We’re talking about a three-bedroom house.’ There are many, many—If you go on to Trade Me and search under $400,000 or under $500,000, there are a lot of properties there, and they’re available. What happens is that because elsewhere the prices are really climbing, people think that average price is the entry price. It isn’t, and there are some great ways for people to get into the market.

I want to talk about transport, because a lot of these housing areas, well, they’re going to be clustered around transport hubs and main routes. I’m wondering – are we created demand for services that we don’t already have in place? Britomart’s at capacity for trains; Symonds Street is full with buses; Central Link is years off, Flora, so are we putting people in places where we can’t transport them?

Apulu: Yeah, definitely if we’re looking at putting a lot of the growth going outwards without the, you know—Well, currently, we don’t have the, you know, transport infrastructure or, I don’t think, the social infrastructure to actually to go outwards. So it needs to be—you know, if we are going to build up, we need to make sure that, like what’s everyone’s saying, there’s those good-quality homes and different housing options so that—yeah, it is about putting, you know, young people around those metropolitan areas so that they do have opportunities and access to those opportunities as well. If we keep them on the verge of the—the fringe of the city, how are they going to get there? My little brother works in the city. He needs to take, like, three buses and one train from Manurewa to Auckland. It’s not working.

Fair point, Ashley?

Church: Well, I think in respect of transport infrastructure, while what you’re saying’s correct, I don’t think we have the—to the extent that we need to do this quickly, I don’t think we have the luxury of saying, ‘Let’s get the transport infrastructure in place before we start building.’ We have to build now, and that much I agree with, and if that means that the transport infrastructure’s in catch-up for the next few years, then so be it. It’s just going to have to be, because we have to get this accommodation in place as quickly as possible.

Flora, you also raised the point that there is going to be intensification, heavy intensification, in South Auckland and some out west. There doesn’t seem to be the fuss over intensifying in South Auckland, and people have raised concerns that that possibly is where low-quality housing will be done. Do you have that fear?

Upulu: Yeah. I think there’s already some existing examples of where there’s been density done in South Auckland where it’s not been done well, so I- you know, growing up there as well, I don’t want that to happen, because I’ve seen the adverse effects of when we- when we cluster these just ugly, really low-quality housing, you know, apartments next to each other, where I see kids getting into trouble just by association of proximity, living next to each other. I don’t think that’s good enough for Auckland if we’re going to be the most liveable, and I don’t think any young person or child should have to live in these houses where it’s leaky, where they’re getting health-related issues because of that. Yeah.

Church: Lisa, incidentally, that phrase, ‘the most liveable city’, that’s the key phrase in this whole thing. Nobody disagrees with that, so this thing should be about…

But it’s how we go forward from here. So in the time- No time left now, but I just want to quickly ask you – should the council pass this or not?

Honey: Yes.

Hughes: I think it’s going to, but I’m really worried about the results of that.

Ashley?

Church: I’m with Sally. I think they’re going to, but I’m worried about some of the aspects around quality and culture.

Flora?

Apulu: Yes, but we need to be taking into consideration the Maori cultural impacts assessments for their heritage, character heritage, as well. We need to be taking into consideration before we pass this the quality and provisions for affordable housing.

So basically yes with some tweaks. Okay.

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