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Housing minister Chris Bishop in front of housing
Housing minister Chris Bishop in front of housing

PoliticsMay 8, 2024

War for Wellington: Minister approves sweeping upzoning, rejects heritage changes

Housing minister Chris Bishop in front of housing
Housing minister Chris Bishop in front of housing

The final decision on the Wellington District Plan makes it official: High-density housing is legal across most of Wellington.

Housing minister Chris Bishop has announced his decision on the Wellington District Plan, approving a series of amendments to radically upzone most of Wellington, allowing tens of thousands of new townhouses and apartments that were previously illegal to build.

Bishop rejected amendments to remove ten buildings from the heritage protection schedule, including the Gordon Wilson flats and the Miramar Gas Tank. However, he said he was working with mayor Tory Whanau on a policy change to make it easier to delist heritage buildings.

The housing minister’s decision comes after a controversial independent hearings panel made a series of recommendations that would have reduced the amount of housing allowed in the new District Plan. Wellington City Councillors passed several amendments overturning the panel’s decisions. All these amendments had to be signed off by the minister before they could become official. Bishop’s decisions are final and cannot be appealed.

Decisions where Bishop sided with the council:

Adelaide Road will be part of the centre city zone

Bishop sided with the council’s decision to put the notoriously under-used semi-industrial area in the Centre City Zone, the zone which allows the tallest buildings. The IHP previously recommended Adelaide Road should be excluded from the CCZ and ruled as a mixed use zone.

The walkable catchment will be 15 minutes

Despite the IHP’s view that people cannot possibly walk uphill, Bishop has sided with the council’s map of the walkable catchments. Anywhere within a 15 minute walk of the Centre City Zone will be zoned to allow six-storey apartments by default. The Adelaide road decision, which extends the CCZ, means most of Newtown is now within the walking catchment.

Smaller character precincts 

The council’s preferred size for character areas (85 hectares) wins out over the IHP’s recommendation of 206 hectares.

The Johnsonville train is a train 

The Johnsonville train line has been officially designated as “mass rapid transit” (a term that literally means train). This allow six-storey apartments within walking distance of all the train stations on the line.

Ten-minute walking catchments around all train stations

Again, Bishop sided with the council’s more ambitious amendments, expanding the walking catchments around train stations from five minutes to ten minutes, hugely increasing the areas where apartments can be built.

No setback requirements for townhouses

This was a last-minute amendment by Rebecca Matthews and was probably one of the riskier decisions, but again Bishop sided in favour of housing density. Removing setbacks means townhouses can be built right up to the property line, rather than having to leave gaps for a front yard and a side alleyway, allowing larger homes or more homes on each section.

“There is not sufficient evidence to support reinstating setback requirements,” Bishop said. “They will also provide for a more efficient use of land and allow for more development capacity”

Hay Street, Hania Street and Moir Streets will be zoned for high density 

These streets were all minor exceptions where the IHP had allowed weird density exceptions because the residents were rich and good at arguing and gave lots of reasons why their street was different to all the streets. The council rejected these exemptions, and Bishop agreed.

Decisions where Bishop sided with the independent hearings panel:

Kilbirnie will be zoned for high density

This is actually kind of a weird one, because it’s the only decision where the IHP recommended more housing density than the council. So again, Bishop has chosen the pro-housing side. 

For complicated reasons, there was a bit of back-and-forth about whether Kilbirnie should be counted as a “metropolitan centre” and would have to allow six-storey buildings within a 10 minute walking catchment by default. The independent hearings panel put one in, then the council agreed to remove it while it did some consultation with the community, but promised to put the zone back in again within a year. Bishop clearly can’t be arsed waiting around, so he sided with the panel and decided Kilbirnie will be upzoned immediately. 

Every heritage removal is rejected

Councillors voted for an amendment by Ben McNulty to remove ten buildings from the heritage schedule. In every case, the owner of the building has asked for the heritage protections to be removed. Bishop has rejected all these requests on technical grounds, but he does suggest there will be a path forward for the council to sort out its heritage problems. 

“The question of whether a building should be on the heritage schedule is an evidential one,” Bishop said. “The Council has not pointed to any evidence to support its reasons for rejecting the Hearing Panel’s recommendations. No expert heritage evidence was lodged by buildings owners. Given the evidence before me, and without the ability to seek further evidence, I have therefore agreed with the recommendations of the Hearings Panel in relation to the ten heritage buildings.

“That said, I understand the Council’s position regarding the ten buildings and I have received separate correspondence from the Mayor around making it easier to delist heritage buildings. I have already asked for advice on this matter and I look forward to conversations with her and other councils regarding the issue of heritage and how it impedes development.”

Those 10 buildings are:

The Gordon Wilson Flats 

Miramar Gas Tank 

Emeny House 

Kahn House

Olympus Apartments 

Wharenui Apartments 

Robert Stout building

Primitive Methodist Church 

Johnsonville Masonic Hall 

Star of the Sea Chapel

Mayor celebrates minister’s decisions

Wellington mayor Tory Whanau welcomed minister Bishop’s decision to approve most of the council amendments.

“This is a step forward for Wellington and shows commitment from both local and central government to fixing our housing crisis,” she said. “Wellington city is growing, and our housing needs to grow with it. We are expecting 50 to 80 thousand more people over the coming 30 years. At a bare minimum, everyone in this city deserves a warm, safe, and dry place to call home.”

Whanau said she was “disappointed” at Bishop’s decision to reject the heritage delistings, but said she would work with him on law changes.

“The issue is that under the current law these buildings are considered heritage. However, we have recently written to the Minister about making it easier to delist heritage buildings and he is seeking advice. We will continue to work with him on this.”

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