It could become the template for how to create a low emission, eco-friendly neighbourhood, but first developers will have to convince politicians such a project is even possible.
Imagine a car-less, solar-powered neighbourhood, where your kids can walk to school, your parents’ retirement village is just a short bike ride away and to do your shopping, you just hop on a little electric “sunbus” that silently zips around your streets. The community also includes a hospital, more than a hundred retail outlets, employment hubs providing upwards of 11,000 jobs, as well as 22 hectares of parks and wetlands to explore.
It might sound like a dream come true for any eco-minded family wanting to escape soul-destroying traffic and the increasing intensification slowly choking the joy out of living in Auckland.
But whether such a dream could be a short-term reality hinges on a meeting next Monday between housing minister Megan Woods and Winton property group chief executive Chris Meehan. The pair, along with their associated staff, will be discussing whether the minister will overturn a decision made by her officials at Kāinga Ora to deny the property developer’s request to get a fast-tracked consent for their proposed 5000-house Sunfield project in Papakura, South Auckland, under the government’s new Urban Development Act (UDA). The UDA aims to reduce barriers for urban development which include providing a streamlined approval process for special types of projects called specified development projects (SDPs).
The Sunfield development, which also includes three aged-care facilities, five retail centres and 250,000 square metres of healthcare, educational and employment buildings, promises to be a “15 minute” neighbourhood by ensuring amenities, homes, employment and shopping needs can all be accessed by walking, e-bike, scooter or Sunbus.
Meehan says it came as a complete surprise to hear Kāinga Ora had turned down their application.
“It’s fair to say we were astonished,” he says. “But more so, we were astonished by the reasons which really amounted to that we didn’t need their money, so we shouldn’t get access to their fast-track.
“But we will meet with the minister on the 13th and we’ll be hopeful she overturns Kāinga Ora’s decision, because we don’t believe their decision has any merit. “
Kāinga Ora spokesperson Katja Lietz says says the decision was made for a number of reasons, including concerns the proposal didn’t align with the intention of the UDA, the significant flood risks in the area and that there would be less consultation if Sunfield was approved to be a SDP.
“Proposed infrastructure to address the risk of flooding would only be feasible in willing partnership with Auckland Council. We proposed discussions with council to explore this and the proposer declined,” says Lietz, Kāinga Ora’s general manager for urban planning and design.
“The need to consult widely and to obtain local council support remains. Progressing this development through the usual RMA process provides a framework for the zone changes and consents they seek, so this is by no means the end of the road for it.”
Kāinga Ora’s caution is also shared by two experienced local politicians who have seen the devastation floods have caused in the region over the last few years.
Auckland councillor for the Manurewa-Papakura ward Angela Dalton says that while she’s supportive of the development’s environmentally conscious intentions, she’s concerned about the impact another concentration of houses will have on the area.
When there’s heavy rainfall, she says, “basically the water has nowhere to go. There’s a lot of peat around there because thousands of years ago it was a kauri forest and now it’s a kauri swamp.”
She believes that further investment from Watercare will be needed before any further intensification of the area.
“There’s a lot of developments out there that probably shouldn’t have been consented. So It’s clear to me that Kāinga Ora is probably not going to touch it with a barge-pole because it’s going to require heavy, heavy investment. And if they are going to do something about it, it probably needs to be a much wider, broader approach beyond what will just serve this particular community.”
Franklin Local Board chair Andy Baker says on top of the flooding risks, having a development right next to the Ardmore airport is also a concern.
“I do query the location,” he says. “Building on peat and what that means regarding displacing water plus its proximity to the airport really worries me. The airport plays a big role as a training airfield, so it requires a lot of touchdowns, with young pilots coming in and out, in and out and that already causes dramas with people who live in the vicinity now.”
But Meehan says the flooding risks have been overblown. “Council has already spent tens of millions of dollars building stormwater infrastructure to accommodate this site,” he says.
“And we went off and had a big engineering firm, engineer a stormwater solution and then we had a further two big engineering firms peer review it, and all three of them concurred that the problem was very easily solved within the existing infrastructure.”
To lessen the impact of being close to an airport, the development will be designed in such a way that the commercial and light industrial parts of the area will be built closest to the airport so noise pollution doesn’t become an issue for residents.
Meehan says going through the Resource Management Act process could push a start date out by almost a decade. He notes that his company isn’t asking for any government or council funding.
“What we’re saying to the minister is that Auckland needs this project, so you can consent it on a pathway that could take as little as a year and or we could go through a traditional route that would take as long as eight or nine years,” he says.
“We’re not asking for a handout of even $1. We’ve already spent millions on engineering for this and where the infrastructure needs to be extended, we’ll pay for it.”
Woods says once she’s met with Winton, she expects to make a decision in the new year, following advice from officials.
“I expect to get advice on the Sunfield development from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development in the new year, and in the meantime will be meeting with Winton’s representatives.”
Given the site already has consent for 1500 houses, Meehan says another option could be to progress only with a smaller, more traditional car-based development. But for Meehan such an approach would be a disappointing concession given the potential its current plans have to re-imagine how new neighbourhoods can be created.
“To me this development fulfills everything the government asks for. It lowers emissions, it fixes the transport problem and it fixes a housing problem. As developers we’re keen to solve those problems, and we also think it’s the way forward.”
But whatever gets decided, it seems likely these types of disputes will only increase as businesses and governments grapple with how to prepare for a low carbon future while balancing their present needs and challenges.