Urban intensification: Rise of the apartment
5:00 AM Monday Oct 6, 2014
Developers and council planners have sidelined the community over building heights for some new projects, say worried residents.
The question is being posed by inner-city residents in Grey Lynn and Arch Hill, who say they have had no say about five and six-storey apartment buildings approved on Great North Rd.
It was residents who last year came up with the idea of making the car yards and light industry on Great North Rd a showcase for intensification. A year on, some feel developers propose, and council planners approve, intensification well beyond what the community had in mind.
The feeling of being sidelined comes as the council prepares for hearings on its Unitary Plan, the rulebook that sets out how Auckland will squeeze in another million residents over 30 years.
Grey Lynn Residents' Association chairman Dan Salmon says the community was "sold a cool restaurant but is getting a McDonald's".
At one former car yard site, developer Greer Stephens said council planners had indicated they would look favourably on a seven-storey apartment building if he met higher design standards.
Auckland Council said at the time no commitments had been made to the developer and it had not agreed to anything in terms of height. A decision on any consent application would be made in due course.
"There is a massive air gap in the council's communications between what they have sold communities who have got on board with intensification ... and people reading the rules and finding they are starting points and not finishing points. That is a shock to people," Mr Salmon said.
The community, he insists, is pro-intensification, but just wants to see good buildings built by good developers that take into account the impact on the community.
It was the impact of four developments - The Turing, North Apartments, 217 North and the proposed The Dylan apartment on the corner of Harcourt St - that drew dozens of people to a "community conversation" in the Trades Hall on Great North Rd.
Council planner David Oakhill sought to calm residents' fears by explaining the "somewhat subjective" planning process leading to five- and six-storey apartment buildings in Great North Rd. Mr Oakhill rejected the notion that the rules could be easily broken by developers, saying bad plans were routinely rejected at informal, pre-application meetings.
When developments reach the formal application stage, Mr Oakhill said: "Our job is not to take sides but to look at an application and consider it."
Barrister Paul Cavanagh, QC, says the Resource Management Act gives council planners discretion to approve developments beyond permitted rules. "It's a broad discretion and it's all about effects," he said.
Mr Cavanagh agrees with the view that council planners who opposed the direction that politicians took last year to reduce intensification measures in the draft Unitary Plan are approving projects fitting a pro-intensification agenda.
Not only that, he believes the "deck is stacked against [community groups]" when public hearings proper start this month on the Unitary Plan.
The barrister says community groups, denied funding by the Ministry for the Environment, will be up against well-funded corporates like Fletcher Building and Housing New Zealand, who want the intensification rules loosened.
Dr Roger Blakeley, the council's chief planning officer, declined to be interviewed but in a statement said the applications for apartment buildings in Great North Rd followed the Resource Management Act process for non-complying consents.
All the applications were under existing planning rules, not the proposed Unitary Plan, he said.
Dr Blakeley said the council supported listening to communities, saying there was huge public engagement in preparing the Unitary Plan, which had led to changes being made.
Developer Mark Todd, who is building The Turing on Great North Rd, strongly advocates unrestricted density in a submission to the Unitary Plan.
He says it is the best use of the urban environment because it promotes a diverse and larger housing supply, more affordable options, more green space and less concrete.
Add opportunities for inter-generational living, more vibrant communities, better public transport and, in his view, it's a no-brainer, he says.
The developer is on the same song sheet as youth-based Generation Zero, with more than 10,000 supporters, mostly between the ages of 18 and 30.
Generation Zero's Auckland policy director Luke Christensen says young people these days want to live close to vibrant cities, where they are less likely to drive. Not only that, but the ageing population means people want to downsize from large detached houses, the proportion of families is reducing and the number of households without children is now more than 50 per cent.
Mr Christensen says the most market-attractive areas in Auckland are the city centre, city fringe suburbs, central isthmus and coastal areas to the north and east - but community opposition to intensification in these areas has forced downsizing.
In his view, Great North Rd can accommodate five-, six- and seven-storey apartment buildings, saying developers found it very expensive to build four-storey apartment buildings.
Waitemata Local Board member Vernon Tava says the extra height and density being granted for Great North Rd apartment buildings is a concern to the board.
"We have a contract with the community [for four storeys]," says Mr Tava, "and if [an apartment building] is outside of that it should be notified."
He believes it's still not too late to bring the parties together and come up with a "whole of area approach" for Great North Rd.
Smaller not always cheaper
If you think central city apartments are affordable, think again.
One-bedroom apartments in Great North Rd start at $500,000 and the top penthouses are priced at more than $1.5 million.
Brady Nixon, development manager, says an apartment costs $8000 to $10,000 per sq m to build in Auckland.
A 54sq m one-bedroom apartment at North Apartments is priced at $11,462sq m.
Brady says 238sq m houses at Flatbush in South Auckland valued at $750,000, cost $3150sqm.
"If people think that apartments are going to make for cheaper housing they are mistaken," says Brady.
He says developer margins are very tight and being squeezed by rising construction costs.
Precasters are so busy there is now a four- to five-month pre-order wait and block work costs are rising significantly.
"The only way to produce cheaper houses is smaller houses on smaller plots of land," says Brady.
Changing face of a neighbourhood
Keith Milne has lived in Grey Lynn for 30 years, bucking his father-in-law who did not want his daughter, Jan, living in a slum.
The Milnes have raised a family and seen many changes to the neighbourhood in that time, but nothing like the proposed seven-storey apartment building over their fence with starting prices of $500,000, rising to $1.5 million for a penthouse.
Mr Milne and Arch Hill resident Andy Jacobs support intensification of Great North Rd, but within the current rules allowing a maximum permitted height of 15m, or four storeys.
Mr Milne says since he lived in Harcourt St, the zoning has changed three times to reduce the height and bulk of buildings. Under the Unitary Plan the maximum height is proposed to be lower again, at between 13.5m and 14.5m. But the opposite is happening. The proposed seven-storey apartment building overlooking his villa in Harcourt St exceeds the height restriction by 8.5m and the density provisions by nearly 100 per cent. It's not just the extra height and bulk that worry Mr Milne. It's the extra vehicles, washing and rubbish that come with an additional 15 apartments on a site no bigger than two residential sections.
Mr Milne, a property manager who understands the economics of housing, says developers see the height restrictions in the district plan as a starting point and blames the council for not enforcing its own rulebook to pursue greater intensification.
Mr Jacobs, a designer, questions having a vision for the city and a set of rules if they are routinely flouted by developers.
The council, he says, "should work with the community and not against it". In his case, he was not given a say when a council planner recommended a five-storey apartment building, The Turing, last November.
The extra fifth floor threatens to shade his worker's cottage in Dean St from the winter sun.
Because the extra floor has only just gone up he will not know the impact until next winter.