22 Feb 2013

Getting high rises right is the trick

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Written by: Brian Rudman
Photo by: Think Photography
Published: The New Zealand Herald – 22 February 2013

Redeveloping city sector by sector, with tight design controls, will ensure end result matches unitary plan

Auckland's successful Wynyard Quarter shows what can be done when tight controls govern development

Auckland’s successful Wynyard Quarter shows what can be done when tight controls govern development

Auckland Deputy Mayor Penny Hulse had the perfect answer to a sceptical radio host wanting to know who on Earth would want to live in one of the high-rise apartments blocks planned for the world’s most liveable city.

She said she and her husband would. With the kids left home, she rather fancied selling up the Waitakere bush section and car and moving into an apartment close to a rail station.

Among critics of the new intensified Auckland, this myth of mum, dad and the kids happily ensconced in a sprawling home on the quarter-acre (1000sq m) section dies hard. The statistics tell a different story. The 2006 Census revealed nearly half (49.2 per cent) of Auckland households contained just one or two people. The Department of Statistics observed “couple-only and one-person households are the fastest growing household types and are projected to increase the most over the next 15 years”.

Hard as it might be for critics to grasp, lots of Aucklanders – both present and future – find the idea of living in a terrace house or apartment close to modern transport links and/or parks, beaches or the city centre rather liberating.

The trick for Auckland will be to do it right. The soon-to-be-revealed draft unitary plan is to be the guidebook. I’ve been trawling through the preliminary document, and it needs experts more skilled in the small print than I am to say whether they’ve nailed it. But in trying to envisage what Auckland would look like in 30 years’ time with one million more residents, it did occur that the fear being expressed is as much about the getting there as the end result. And as a fan of the end result, it’s a concern I share.

Once the new plan comes into play in 2016, potential redevelopment sites will suddenly appear across the whole region, with apartment towers up to 18 storeys allowed in 10 new “metropolitan” centres, four to eight storey blocks in 37 town centres, and new terraces and apartment blocks of up to six storeys popping up in adjacent residential centres. But as set out here, the transition from the old to the new will occur at random, apartment blocks of varying heights, popping up in the midst of existing houses, in no particular order, anywhere they’re allowed.

For the next 30 years, old suburbs will be pocked with eruption after eruption of new developments, as erratically ordered as Auckland’s volcanic cones. Remnant existing householders will be left to await the knock on the door from a cheque-book-waving developer. The risk is of numerous pockets of decay citywide, with property owners in potential redevelopment zones unwilling to throw money away on maintaining a building destined for the wrecker’s ball.

Redevelopment by sector, like the council’s Wynyard Quarter redevelopment or Housing New Zealand’s Hobsonville Village, with their tight controls over design and vision, would not just ensure the end result matched the plan. It would also mean a more ordered and less disruptive programme of development across the city over the next three decades.

Unfortunately, in these free market times, we have to leave it to the tender mercies of the developers – and the rules drawn up to control them. A walk along Hobson St is a warning of how unreliable the market can be when it comes to creating a liveable city, especially when the rules are too slack.

With the intention of packing another million residents into the city limits, one would have expected great attention to lessening the impact neighbours might have on each other. It’s good to see a ban on any more open fires being imposed, along with strict controls on the quantity of particles a new solid fuel burner can discharge.

But the upper limits set for my old sparring party, noise, are far from liveable. With people living close together, regulations controlling such irritating curses as air conditioning units and swimming pool motors are depressing. From Monday to Saturday 7am to 10pm, and Sundays 9am to 6pm, noise levels at the boundary must not exceed a loud 50 decibels, 40 at all other times.

Admittedly, this is tougher than the existing old Auckland City limits. But as the current Auckland District plan notes, past NZ Standards for noise have suggested an upper level of “35 decibels or below is required in sleeping areas to provide adequate protection against disturbance”.

Below 35 sounds a good starting point. In designing the world’s most liveable city, this is the sort of small print that has to be confronted. We only have one chance.



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