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Open the pod bay doors: Mayor Andy Foster.
Open the pod bay doors: Mayor Andy Foster.

PoliticsJune 25, 2021

2021: A spatial odyssey with the Wellington City Council

Open the pod bay doors: Mayor Andy Foster.
Open the pod bay doors: Mayor Andy Foster.

The crucial, controversial plan to determine how Wellington will build and house its future was up for debate yesterday. The Spinoff’s political editor Justin Giovannetti was there.

The sun was spilling through broad windows into the Wellington City Council boardroom on one of those rare winter days in the capital. On the agenda was the city’s future, a draft spatial plan that sets out where Wellington should grow over the next three decades.

The 12 people in the public gallery, a motley of alert level two compliant socially-distanced chairs at one end of the room, didn’t quite reflect the gravity of the moment. Neither did the council. When proceedings kicked off at 9:30am the mayor was still down the street at parliament calling for a congestion charge in the capital. Another councillor was joining in from home via Zoom.

Soon after the metaphorical gavel the public were given the floor and 20 minutes to talk about the plan that has divided the city in recent years. The time was split, more or less, between camps in favour and opposed.

The suburbs speak

Two men from Johnsonville began the discussion. The suburb is a hub of the proposed plan for Wellington’s future. Nearly half of the capital’s future population would be added to the areas on either side of the state highway between Khandallah and Tawa.

“The spatial plan is just not right,” one of the men said, after getting his Powerpoint presentation working. He had the cadence and tone of a university lecturer needing another cup of coffee.

The areas highlighted by city staff for construction just aren’t right, he said. One is only accessible by 150 gravel steps, another is up a narrow and winding street. “It can’t be reasonable for a family to be able to walk on that road to get to facilities.”

On the wall, the red digits on a large digital clock were ticking down.

A woman from Mount Victoria in a business suit strode to the lectern. She was not happy. The city was “looking for leadership, rather than mocking and vilifying” from the council.

Councillor Iona Pannett, the meeting’s chair, asked her to remain respectful of councillors. 

“We are good people,” said the Mount Victoria resident. Pointing to recent stories in the media that had portrayed measures to shield 127.3 hectares of older homes in the inner suburbs from increased density as a watering down of the plan, she insisted: “The plan is not a backdown, it’s an improvement based on citizens who care about the city.”

A vote against the revised plan would take them “down the path of division” and “sow further hate and nastiness”, she said. 

She took her seat and stared at the council.

A couple from Newtown was next. They called on the council to build a new city centre in their neighbourhood. However, they wanted most of the area limited to three storeys and not the six storeys proposed in the plan.

A map they wanted to project on a large screen above the council table wasn’t loading properly. The time was ticking down. The woman pleaded with councillors to give them more time to deal with the technical issues. They got it.

“We all agree, a city is for people and we want more housing,” she said. However, they were “appalled by the blanket rezoning” proposed by the city.

The pair handed around a print out of the Newtown residents’ association position on the plan. They are in favour of densification and dry, warm homes, but density should be focused along large corridors and not throughout the suburb. So the plan got a thumbs down.

Next came the fans of density.

Two representatives from the umbrella group City for People beamed in via Zoom. Where the earlier presenters were older and were armed with maps, this group was younger and came with stories.

Mould and vomit stains

Suzie and Luke told councillors about the challenges of being young renters in the city and the ongoing housing crisis. Luke told the council he’d moved to Wellington for the music scene in dimly lit bars, the compactness that makes it a walkable city, along with its reputation for progressiveness and openness.

He moved to Wellington and found a room in an “eccentric looking villa” in Newtown. The kind of character home, he said, that the council is looking to protect. But the inside didn’t reflect the charm outside.

“My room contained a vomit stain on the floor, carpet whose original colour scheme was impossible to discern, an enormous mould patch that enveloped one entire side of the wall, and a smell that not even an entire can of air freshener could erase,” he said.

Both called on the city to focus on the positive and be more ambitious with its plan. Another pair of younger people, Yvette and Geordie from Renters United, delivered similar messages. “Make a courageous but to me obvious choice,” said Yvette.

Throughout the presentations the audience remained quiet. There was no scoffing or murmuring. I would later learn that the dozen people I saw in the gallery was an overcount of civic participation. A few of them were council staff waiting to present later. With the presentations over, most of the public audience left. It was just after 10am.

Desperately seeking Mayor Andy

With the mayor still missing, the council instead turned to other business. First came a petition to limit the number of tip trucks in the city, then a submission about the city’s transport emissions. It was during the latter submission, that dealt with motoring, that councillors began to wake up. Councillors Sean Rush and Tamatha Paul exchanged barbs. Two words kept coming up from the councillors as they interrupted each other. “Politics” is code for a difficult decision and the conversation stops. “Misrepresentation” is what a councillor yells if they disagree with what someone has said.

At this point, eyes increasingly were turning to mayor Andy Foster’s empty chair. He’d been texted and was coming. Council took a 20 minute break for morning tea, to wait for the mayor. When they returned, they began debating another submission on the climate. The mayor was on the same floor, but would come later, the chair said.

Then they turned to a submission on speed limits and who sets them. At this point it was nearly 11:20 am and the mayor still hadn’t shown up. He’d been texted several times and councillors were squirming in their seats. They needed him to finish off these submissions and get to the spatial plan.  He was nearby. He’d been texted. But the chair didn’t know where he was.

Just before 11:30am, mayor Foster walked into the room. He sat down. His phone immediately rang and he walked out again. He came back a few minutes later. It was time to talk about the spatial plan.

‘Is this the most radical change in Wellington’s history?’

The next half hour saw the council ask questions of staff about the plan. Staff were across the hall in a different boardroom, beamed in on Zoom. They tried to answer questions based on numbers, shorn of opinions. Councillors began asking questions to frame the coming debate.

Councillor Rush pointed out to staff that only 6.8% of Wellington’s housing stock would be set aside in proposed character precincts. “So 93.2% is available and unprotected. Are they saying it’s not ambitious enough?” said Rush. “It depends on your definition of ambitious,” the staff replied.

A number of questions centred on the meaning of character and how it is linked to heritage. Only 72 out of 3,074 of the houses designated for character protection are heritage-listed, the staff said.

Councillor Rebecca Matthews was next. “Is this the most radical change in Wellington’s history?” she asked.

“I think the spatial plan as proposed to you now is transformation. Some of the debate over character areas has lost the discussion about what we’re trying to achieve across the whole of the city,” replied one staff member. As an example, there’s been little discussion about a move to remove all height limits in the central city, they added.

Can we pick and choose between the earlier draft plan and the final plan, asked deputy mayor Sarah Free. The answer: “You need to make a strong, evidence-based decision.”

Along with Pannett, councillor Nicola Young raised concerns about unlimited building heights in the central city. She asked if the proposal had been well considered. “We have particularly idiosyncratic weather here and how terrifying some street corners are here already and we want to be a walking, cycling city,” she told staff. Yes, they responded, they had considered that.

At 12:30, councillors adjourned for a half-hour lunch break. There had been numerous questions and discussions about the spatial plan, but no real debate yet.

Angled parking

Over lunch, some councillors rushed off to put the finishing touches on amendments they’d be proposing to the spatial plan over the afternoon. Some would extend the character areas significantly, while others would look to dump them completely. There would be dozens and dozens of amendments. The plan as proposed by staff would not be waved through. What wasn’t clear yet was what way it would go.

Back from lunch at 1pm, there was one last speed bump before getting back to business.

Councillors listened to a presentation on the large Let’s Get Wellington Moving transportation programme. After a staff member in the room spoke with them and answered their questions about the programme, a councillor said she wanted to make changes to the programme only hours before it would be discussed by the national transportation agency.

The staffer who had given them updated information on the programme sat impassively with his arms crossed as they debated. Councillors spoke of the importance of driving to the airport, while others said there was a need for mass transit. The amendment failed. One of the councillors had hit the wrong button on their hand-held voting remotes. “You have to be careful with the important votes,” said Pannett.

The agenda then turned to the spatial plan on the room’s screens. Except, it didn’t. Council instead chose to look at a proposed move to change some angled parking on Thorndon Quay to parallel. The change had been recommended by Waka Kotahi / NZTA to protect cyclists on the road, one of the main routes into the city. This is the fourth time council has debated making the change to the parking spaces.

Councillors asked city staff presenting the plan whether council would be legally liable if they chose not to make the change and a cyclist was killed. Staff said they weren’t lawyers. Councillor Rush said he was a lawyer and they’d be legally fine. He’d taken off his blazer as the parking space debate heated up.

After an hour that debate finished. Councillor Simon Woolf, who was at home and joining by Zoom, had trouble casting a ballot. So he started voting with his thumb. The big screen over the council table was filled with his downward pointing thumb. Council voted 10-5 to make the change. 

After five hours, it was finally time. But not before the council took a two-minute break “to stretch” before getting started on the spatial plan. 

The break lasted 23 minutes.

‘She put her hand up first!’

Just after 3:00pm, with the sun falling in the winter sky, the debate began. Little did they know that they were less than halfway through their day.

As chair, Pannett began with her thoughts on “the supposedly leafy suburbs” and spoke about the poverty that exists in the inner suburbs. But more construction wouldn’t help, she added. “I have some deep scepticism about the affordability issues, there are some parts of the city where it just isn’t affordable to build,” said Pannett. “I want to be very solution-focused.”

She put forward the first basket of a dozen amendments. The most significant of these called for the establishment of “inclusionary zones” in the inner city where council would try to create affordable housing. Asked where, Pannett said it could be on underused land. “There are a lot of car yards in our city,” she said.

Staff explained that the zones could be determined through requiring a certain number of affordable units in buildings or by getting developers to set aside money for nearby affordable units. These zones were not proposed in the plan drawn up by officials. 

What’s the experience with inclusionary zoning, asked the mayor. “I’m thinking that if you make something cheaper but it costs the same amount to build, someone somewhere is paying for it,” he said.

There have been successes and failures around the world, they said.

“OK, we’ve got to be out of here by six,” said the chair, trying to nudge debate along onto the next set of amendments. Frustration was starting to creep into the chamber. A councillor started talking but was cut off by the chair. “She put her hand up first,” she said. No, said a councillor. “Yes she did!” No she didn’t. “Yes she did, cause I saw it. OK.” I didn’t see it. “I saw her put her hand up first! It matters.” This goes on for minutes.

This is going to go till midnight, said one councillor.

The first divisions began to show as Young made her pitch to change the plan. She called on removing the proposed unlimited height limits across the CBD and Te Aro area, along with adding new character precincts in Mount Victoria, Thorndon, Kelburn, Mount Cook, the Aro Valley, the Terrace and Newtown. The new areas would add hundreds of homes to regulations that forbid demolition or any building above three storeys, despite them being close to transit and the central city.

“Unlimited height could lead to irresponsible building developments often by mistake,” said Young. “This would change the face of our city forever.”

Tall buildings cause wind effects and glare, she added. London’s Shard skyscraper, which, she said, causes light issues, is a cautionary tale for Wellington. 

She also said staff hadn’t selected enough character areas for protection. Some of the areas she nominated for protection were brought to her by other councillors, like Pannett.

Mount Victoria was once a “disreputable slum”, she said. “People once aspired to live in suburbs like Khandallah. Especially my mother,” said Young, stretching out the last word. “Mount Victoria is now fashionable, partly due to the investments of dedicated owners … Why would we destroy our inner city character areas now?”

Young said that the inner suburbs deserve to be preserved as they are. “They aren’t epicentres of wealth. I haven’t seen any swimming pools, stables, triple garages or SUVs and Utes. Instead, these charming areas with their quirky houses are densely populated with a cross-section of people and ethnicities. Mount Victoria has always been a place for the Greeks and quite a few Chinese,” she said.

“They are one of Wellington’s charms,” she said of the homes. “Just think of San Francisco, to which Wellington is often compared.”

Young was one of the first in the debate to raise the point that the entire discussion about the character homes was unhelpful and too emotive. “It’s become an unnecessary debate, a battle between boomer nimbys and Generation Zero yimbys. We all want affordable, warm, dry housing. It’s just how we achieve it. Some of you sneer at anything colonial, but let me tell you, I’m very proud of our history.”

Instead of rushing to build homes, the city should focus on fixing its leaky infrastructure first, she said. “After that we’ll have a better understanding of what we’ll need.”

She dismissed projections that the city will add up to 80,000 new residents over the coming decades. “Population projections are just that. Projections. It would be a tragedy if we blighted areas now, when we don’t know how much housing will be required in recent years.” The alternative, she said, “is a dark wind tunnel.” 

The next councillor due to speak called her speech “Churchillian” and said he had nothing to add.

‘Scrapping over feral housing’

Councillor Tamatha Paul did. “This actually infuriates me,” she began. She turned not to the few in the room, but to the hundreds watching on the council livestream.

“That was a lovely monologue, but for people who don’t understand what’s going on here, this is a huge list to add to the already innumerable barriers to build in Wellington,” said Paul. How had the areas to be protected been chosen? “This is to me, a list of houses that you think look nice,” she said.

“That’s just nuts to me, that we’re even putting forward to propose more … You guys just don’t understand the issue here. It’s not that people don’t want to live in leaky, mouldy houses, it’s that there isn’t enough stock in the rental market that we are scrapping over this disgusting, feral housing stock and you want to protect more of it. That just blows my mind,” she said.

Mayor Foster chipped in. He doesn’t support unlimited height downtown and doesn’t want the city to “sacrifice” its character on the way to growth. “I’m disappointed in this whole debate and how divisive it’s become and I think unnecessarily so,” he said.

The mayor said that the conversation shouldn’t be around character houses and people attacking the protections should “step back and hear the other side”.  He supported adding the new list of homes to be protected. “They value them, they want to protect these parts of the city and we should respect that. They aren’t all mouldy old dungers,” he said.

The mayor spoke about how people should learn more about the old houses and the stories about who have lived in them. 

Councillor Jill Day said he was missing the point. 

“We can take photos, put things in museums and tell stories in the right place. This city is not a museum, we don’t need a nostalgic city that holds us back. This debate has become divisive because we are in a crisis and that’s the fundamental reason people find this so hard, people have a lot of skin in this game because they have nowhere to live,” she said.

“It’s lovely having pretty buildings, but if they can’t house people, that’s not good enough.”

Councillor Jenny Condie, sitting across from Young, suggested she and the mayor should watch their own words. “It’s divisive language on both sides. Councillor Young you spoke about us destroying Mount Victoria, that it would be blighted and it needs to be saved. That’s pretty hyperbolic language. There’s plenty on both sides,” she said.

The parts of council who want more density said that they value the people over the buildings. Pannett said that the buildings are also important. “It’s about people, yes, but buildings do shape us in our identity. Cuba Street is a good place to be because of its buildings.”

She compared the current discussion to the 1960s debate over building tower blocks that demolished parts of the city. She said she opposes new construction in the inner suburbs because “people should rent rather than buy”.

“We need to move away from the market approach, the market has caused huge poverty in this country, the neoliberal reform caused it. Single-storey wood buildings are resilient buildings, they are good in an earthquake,” she said.

Rebecca Matthews said that the city’s lack of housing is a human rights issue. “I’m on the same page as councillor Pannett on climate change but then you can’t say, go live in the burbs. That’s the most inconsistent thing you can say,” she said. “We don’t become a city, we become a gated community. Honestly, from this amendment, that sounds like what you want.”

I lost count of the number of times councillors cut each other off.

Malcolm Sparrow, who had some of the least speaking time all day, had a closing thought. “I was hoping, the vain hope, that we could find some type of common ground but the wedge has been driven further.”

The amendment to add new height limits to the central city failed by a single vote, 7-8. The move to expand character precincts failed.

Council adjourned for another 25 minute break. It was now pitch black outside.

‘If you want a house, you must save. You must work’

During the break, Pannett, the chair, realised that her name was in red on the big voting board instead of green. On her return she said she meant to vote for returning height limits because she didn’t want the construction of tall buildings. Hours earlier she’d warned councillors to pay attention to how they vote. Now the Green-aligned councillor called for a revote. The motion passed 8-7. The proposal from staff to remove height limits was rejected.

Eight hours into the meeting, amendments now came forward to increase density. Councillor Matthews called on removing 1930s character protections from the city and increasing density around transit hubs and near the central city. She also called on renaming “character precincts” to “colonial streetscape precincts”.

A councillor walked around with some confectionery. “I might need a snake,” said one councillor, extending her hand.

Councillor Paul then spoke. “Character is something that is created by the people that live in a neighbourhood or precinct. It’s the way they are able to interact with each other and care for each other, it’s not what the houses look like,” she said.

Then the floor was turned over to Rush, a former oil and gas lawyer. He spoke about the public, most of whom were long gone after speaking nearly nine hours earlier.

“I am very sensitive and very grateful to the people we have heard today,” he said of the first submitters. “It shows me how much they care. They are our ratepayers, our mums and dads. They are foundations of the city and should be respected as such.”

He had different thoughts for the “young people” who had come. He looked to his notes and responded to Luke, who that morning had said he’d come to Wellington for the music, the compactness and the reputation. All good reasons, said the councillor. “But what was omitted was the reasons I’ve lived in a city: a job,” he said to the man, who was not there.

He said it was unrealistic for young people to want to own a house in Mount Victoria. “If you want a house, you must save. You must work. You must ensure that you make good decisions and life choices, it just doesn’t come to you overnight”. 

That didn’t sit well with some councillors. “I understand that 10 years ago if you saved and were thrifty you could buy a house. That is no longer a path,” said Condie.

Then mayor Foster started talking. Councillor Matthews said she was disappointed in his lack of leadership. The two started speaking over each other. “Point of order! Point of order! The mayor keeps interrupting Councillor Matthews,” said one councillor. Four councillors were now speaking at once, one councillor was at home, another was headed home and a third was going to leave momentarily.

“San Francisco and all these places are a model for what happens if you don’t make a place affordable for people to live,” said one.

The amendment to end character areas failed. Despite his earlier remarks, Rush voted for it.

It was next suggested that the meeting adjourn and councillors take up the debate next Wednesday. “Adjourn to the bar,” said one councillor. But first they decided they should ask a senior staff member joining in by Zoom if they could adjourn. “Can we press on please,” a clearly exasperated voice returned through the speakers. They voted to keep working.

Dozens more amendments came. After nearly 12 hours, a heavily edited spatial plan was approved. Height limits were back in the central city, the size of heritage precincts in the inner suburbs were shrunk from 127 hectares to about 88 hectares, and the size of areas around transit hubs and near the central city that are automatically zoned for up to six-storey developments was approved.

While the final votes were nearly unanimous, stamping council’s approval on the plan, the room that adjourned just before 9pm remained bitterly divided. The spatial plan now needs to be implemented through district plans that will guide local areas over the next generation. Each will be an opportunity to resume debate.

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