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Opinion: Auckland intensification opponents should learn to read the Unitary Plan

The Unitary Plan is a complicated beast of a document that has flummoxed many taking part in the debate. Simple misunderstandings are massively exacerbating Auckland’s housing crisis, says architect Henri Sayes.

I’m an architect, I like buildings. And as an architect, I deal with planning regulation on a daily basis and know that the planning changes recently withdrawn by Auckland Council are misunderstood by the vast majority of the public.

Planning rules are abstract. Taken in isolation they can be remarkably misleading and open to interpretation – especially for those with too much time on their hands. It’s not until you overlay all the applicable controls that you can actually define a building envelope and start to realise the significant limitations dictating development.

An example of housing in a mixed housing urban zone. Credit: ourauckland.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz

Did anyone at Auckland Council check if this example used to illustrate the Mixed Housing Urban Zone actually complies with the zoning controls? Credit: ourauckland.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz

An example: Under the Proposed Unitary Plan, on mixed-housing urban sites, a permitted three-storey structure will need to be 5-6m from the boundary (for sites with a density of one unit per 250m2 or greater, alternative controls may be applied but are subject to council’s discretion). Add in a limit of 40% building coverage and you’ll find the bulk of the proposed building is already far less than you might expect. Then add in rights of way, turning circles, side yards, front yards, minimum landscaping controls, maximum impermeable area, outdoor living space (the list goes on) and you have a complex game of three-dimensional Tetris. With all these compounding controls, it’s debatable that many apartments would be commercially viable under the Plan. (An exception might be high value sites or sites with sea views – similar to what is already happening along Tamaki Drive).

Mention three storeys and people think apartments. The word apartment has been bandied around as a synonym for denser living throughout the Unitary Plan debate, even though the proposed mixed housing urban/suburban controls may be more sympathetic to smaller standalone or terraced housing developments. And it’s not just the choice of words. The images groups like Auckland 2040 use to illustrate densification have tended to be of multi-storey apartments, visually reinforcing a central misunderstanding of what might be built. Talking about “apartments right on one’s boundary” is both incorrect and misleading.

What has been described as unzoning is not a significant change from the current plan that was enacted in the early ’90s. The height in relation to boundary controls are more sympathetic to a well located building, but still limit over-shadowing and provide space between buildings. It’s more likely that one of the large leafy trees in these suburbs will block your sun than a neighbouring building built within the planning controls.

Housing in Orakei, in Auckland's Eastern Suburbs.

Housing in Orakei, in Auckland’s Eastern Suburbs.

The vast majority of the Eastern Suburbs has not been developed with consistent, overarching controls. While you can identify stylistic themes (’60s brick and tile or ’90s plaster homes, for instance) that are consistent with the social constructs and controls of the time, when the suburb is viewed as a whole it is utterly inconstant. When people talk about the character of the Eastern Suburbs, then, they are acknowledging the success of this varied development. Start to analyse the fabric of the area and you soon realise that – despite nostalgic rhetoric implying a large house on a quarter acre section – these suburbs already have a surprising number of units, terrace houses and apartments. You also quickly realise that already a significant number of houses don’t comply with the current planning controls – but as they already exist, no one seems to mind. The unseen threat is scarier than the visible reality.

Planning controls are guidelines: what you can do by right. Council still has discretion on developments outside the prescriptive rules; complying with the objectives of a zone is mandatory, complying with the rules is not. Which is why we, and the Council in particular, should be discussing the objectives of the plan, rather than getting hung up on the rules themselves.

The debate so far has centred on abstract planning rules, and not the economically feasible buildings they would create.

Economically feasibility is key because money is as significant as any rule in impelling (or dispelling) development. In the polarised, fearful rhetoric around the Unitary Plan there’s an erroneous assumption that any planning change will immediately alter the fabric of the suburb once enacted. In fact most development would be years away. And, unfortunately for a city that desperately needs more houses, huge swathes of land that could technically be subdivided in these suburbs might never be.

Mixed housing urban zoning is a good progression from the current situation. It balances density and bulk, and addresses shifts both in household types (smaller families, more singles, an aging population) and how people want to live (less yard maintenance, proximity to cafes, close to the city). It allows for more people and only marginally increases building mass. The leafy suburbs will stay leafy, just with better cafes.

Over the course of the Unitary Plan debate, I’ve been struck by how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Analysing district plans without a background in the field seems to have galvanised a lot of factually incorrect opinions which were regardless given significant influence in the consultation process. Architect Julie Stout has deep expertise in wringing good buildings from convoluted district plans and a profound belief in the importance of liveable, appropriately scaled buildings. She spoke on behalf of the NZ Institute of Architects and was given as much consideration (or indeed less, if the council’s decision is anything to go on) as representatives of a handful of homeowners who were riled up by media and action group scaremongering. Though passionate, the homeowners revealed themselves as significantly misinformed about the effects of zoning past, present and future. They expressed mistaken incredulity that other suburbs hadn’t been rezoned (those that can be, already have) and seemed to add little of value to the debate on Auckland’s future, other than that they liked things the way they are.

The largest failure of the last few weeks is that by scrapping the Council’s intensification plans, the baby has been thrown out with the bath water. The revised planning maps were well reasoned, data driven and consistent with the principals applied elsewhere in Auckland. The world has changed a lot since 2013, when the Unitary Plan was first drafted, and maybe there should have been provision for the council maps to change with it. The debate has suffered from blinkered thinking and cherry picking of facts; those engaging in the process desperately need a holistic understanding of both the controls and their purpose. It’s time that the voices of the informed, specifically those who regularly deal with the built environment, are heard and valued.

This post was written in conjunction with architectural writer Nicole Stock.

More from The Spinoff on Auckland’s Unitary Plan:

Alex Johnston’s account of last month’s extraordinary council meeting and Hayden Donnell’s video review of the “the worst Auckland Council meeting of all time”.

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