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Nimby wars! What a planned retirement village in Devonport means for all of Auckland

Do the Devonport nimbys have a point? Is it good enough to settle for developments that are merely ‘good enough’? Simon Wilson reports on the retirement village project that has big implications for the whole city.

My parents spent their last years at a Ryman Healthcare facility, so I know a little about that company’s ability to create good living environments. The buildings were built for bare functionality, softened by a pastel colour scheme. There was one flourish: an atrium featuring a large fish pond and tropical plants, but it was so clammily overheated the air clung to you like something faintly fetid.

And on every wall in every public space they had a metaphor of death. Framed prints of painted sunsets, and empty rowboats drawn up on the beach, trees in winter, barren fields with lonely poplars, sailboats bound for that distant horizon, pre-Raphaelite women with cherubs or decked out as Ophelia, garlanded and lying in a stream. That last one’s not even a metaphor, it’s an image of an actual dead person.

I don’t think it was sadism. But it was surprisingly consistent.

The trouble with Ryman is, they’ve got a formula that works – they have waiting lists – so perhaps they don’t feel the need to do a lot better. They also have in-house architectural designers, so despite their busy expansion programme in both New Zealand and Melbourne they’re not in the market for architects with good ideas. And they’re a big publicly listed company with a solid reputation on the stock exchange.

They also provide a valuable service. We need more retirement villages.

Ryman Healthcare’s concept image of the retirement village it wants to build at Ngataringa Bay near Devonport. Photo: supplied

The ruination of Devonport, or something

In Devonport, Ryman wants to build a big new retirement village on undeveloped land with sea views. Already, they’ve had many expressions of interest from people who want to live there.

That’s not a surprise. If you’re getting on a bit and you live in Devonport or nearby, you might be pretty chuffed at the prospect of being able to sell your home but stay in the suburb you love. As you and your friends sell up, new families will move into the area, your own children possibly among them. This is exactly how the Unitary Plan is meant to work, isn’t it? What’s not to like?

Lots, says the Devonport Peninsula Precincts Society. Maybe they’re just nimbys – but two other groups generally in favour of the greater density encouraged by the Unitary Plan are also opposed to the Devonport proposal: the NZ Institute of Architects and the lobby group Urban Auckland. Does that make them nimbys as well? Because, on the face of it, isn’t Devonport the suburb in the whole of Auckland best suited to welcoming a big new upmarket retirement village?

The answers have more than a little to do with those framed metaphors of death, although the various parties may not see it that way.

What they want to build

The retirement village is proposed for land on Ngataringa Rd in Narrow Neck formerly owned by the Navy. Ngāti Whātua now owns the 4.2ha site and has leased it to Ryman for 150 years. It’s sloping parkland, just off Lake Rd and leading down to Ngataringa Bay, as the aerial photo below shows.

Ryman has a council consent to build a village with 273 apartments, a 120-bed hospital and facilities like an indoor pool, theatre, beauty salon and shops. Apartment blocks will be up to six storeys high, with basement parking for 269 vehicles. It will be home to some 600 people. The visual concept at the top of this story gives a fairly good idea of what it might look like.

In January, consent was granted by independent commissioners in a 2-1 split decision. The DPPS filed an appeal with the Environment Court and the NZIA and Urban Auckland joined them. The whole thing was then channelled into mediation, where it’s been for the last two months.

The outcome is expected today and it has big implications not just for the local area but for the city as a whole. [Update: the decision is now likely to be released May 15.]

Aerial photo showing the site of the proposed development, with Lake Road on the right.

Is it the right site?

The majority report of the commissioners declared: “Even amongst those persons who submitted against the proposal, there was virtually unanimous support for the use of the site as a retirement village.” They noted there is a “lack of such facilities generally and in this part of the North Shore in particular”.

That’s certainly true of the NZIA. Paul Edmond (at the time chair of the association’s “urban group”) told me Ngataringa Bay was a “fantastic place” for a retirement village. That’s not why they objected.

Officially, the DPPS says it agrees. Devonport local Iain Rea, speaking for the DPPS, told the Herald on March 9: “We are not opposed to retirement housing, or more intense development on this site.”

Aren’t they? Rea also said the plan would endanger regenerating kauri and pohutukawa on the foreshore, and that it meant “cutting the bay in half, cutting neighbours off from each other, cutting the community in half”.

Those are not the words of someone who wants a better scheme. That’s the language of complete opposition. It’s also the language of someone who rejects, or simply doesn’t understand, that people living in a retirement village are still part of the community.

Besides, take another look at the map. The proposal doesn’t compromise the bush on the foreshore and it won’t deny anyone access to the water’s edge. It won’t cut the community in half. It won’t cut anybody off from anything.

Devonport Peninsual Precincts Society spokesperson Iain Rea and supporters protesting at the independent commissioners’ hearing in December. Screengrab via nzherald.co.nz

Will it create too much traffic?

This was a big concern: the commissioners noted that around 70 per cent of submissions said there would be problems with increased traffic on Lake Rd. That’s the already-busy arterial route that connects Devonport with Takapuna and the route to the harbour bridge.

But remember, it’s a greenfields site ripe for development: one way or another, something is going to be built there. The commissioners said, “Development of the site for residential housing would generate similar, if not more, traffic impacts… potentially at more congested times of the day.”

In other words, because people in retirement villages drive less often than commuters and rarely at peak times, the Ryman plan would be a good option for Lake Rd. If they build a big housing complex on the site instead, it will generate more traffic.

It’s worth noting that Auckland Transport and the council have the traffic problems of Lake Rd under active review. That’s a local battle all on its own, but the key to resolving the issue is not to limit development. It’s to create more efficient public transport.

Image: supplied

Is it the right concept?

In its application Ryman said: “Ryman has given particular consideration in the design of the retirement village to ensure that potential adverse environmental effects are avoided, remedied or mitigated. The landscape plan for the site proposes a park like setting, incorporating the use of both native and exotic species to provide fragrance and colour throughout the different seasons of the year.”

Does that sound lovely? Not to Iain Rea. He says: “Ryman’s proposed complex is not at all sympathetic to its surroundings. A project of this magnitude has to be planned with sensitivity and care, because it will be a significant intervention, not just in a place with a strong character but also in a coastal environment that is an important asset for the whole city.”

Who’s right? Architect Paul Edmond disputes that the area has “strong character”: the Narrow Neck area is not full of character villas, he says, but has a more “hodge-podge” collection of houses.

More importantly, we are not talking about tower blocks here. Take a look at the company’s visualisation. The buildings are not hidden, but because the land is sloping they’re not exactly prominent (and since the initial application some of them have been made lower).

The majority commissioners said, “We find that the bulk, height and location of the proposed buildings establishes a built form on the site that avoids wider dominance or visual effects.”

A section of Ryman’s visual rendering of their proposed Devonport retirement village, with a park and skate ramp in the foreground. Photo: supplied

Is it the right design?

Do the people who put pictures about death on the walls of a retirement village really understand enough about urban design to create a decent place for people to live in the last years of their lives?

This is the heart of the matter. Grey Power has condemned Ryman’s Devonport proposal as “prison architecture”. A bit harsh, but still. Rea believes the scheme is “simply not good enough or smart enough for Auckland in the second decade of the 21st century”. Paul Edmond of NZIA and Julie Stout from Urban Auckland tend to agree. They both told me the Ryman plan was pretty good but they want it to be very good.

That was also the argument of the dissenting independent commissioner, an urban planner called Dave Serjeant. “The nub of the Serjeant objection,” Edmond says, “is that the design should be good. This isn’t bad but it could be better.”

Serjeant wrote: “It would be unfortunate if the interpretation [of the Unitary Plan] were seen to support the proliferation of large bulky buildings that have little or no variation in built form.”

Edmond told me Ryman had not done enough to break up the bulky appearance of the larger buildings in the complex. He suggested one of the problems is that the company does not have at its disposal a “gifted façade designer”.

And that’s what we’re waiting for with the mediation: has Ryman been persuaded it needs better design for its buildings so they’re more pleasing to look at?

Theoretically this won’t be a “test case”, because you can’t set legal precedents when every application has to be considered on its own merits. But it will really. As Edmond says, “This is a test of the assessment criteria and design-related issues.”

We were promised this, when the council adopted the Unitary Plan: councillors and council officers alike assured us the UP contains the mechanisms to ensure really good design.

Does it? That’s what we’re about to find out.

As Rea points out there are six “precincts” like this one awaiting development in Devonport alone. Go with the “good enough” instead of the “really good” here and the city will suffer.

The nimby elements of this case – the elements that say we just don’t want it here – are not the important ones. What’s at stake is: can a developer that already thinks it’s done enough be persuaded that it can and should do better?

And, by the way, you folk at Ryman, that doesn’t mean painting murals on the exterior walls of empty rowboats drawn up on the beach at sunset.

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