New urban intensification rules are causing some to worry about Auckland losing its historical character. But how much are we really losing by rezoning certain streets, and what do we stand to gain?
“I’m an architectural historian and I care about the built environment, but I care even more about equity, and housing people.”
Bill McKay is a senior lecturer of architecture and planning at the University of Auckland, and he’s working on a book about Auckland’s design history. McKay is speaking on the proposed zoning changes to the streets of Tāmaki Makaurau in response to the new medium density residential standards (MDRS), which were passed as part of the Resource Management Amendment Act in December of last year.
The changes mean that in existing residential areas, three separate dwellings of up to three storeys will be allowed per site without requiring additional resource consent. The move is part of a much-needed bid to increase housing supply and affordability. Currently, most residential areas have two-storey height restrictions and single dwelling sections, which McKay says is unsustainable. “If you want your kids running around a big backyard with lots of sun – that’s what the suburbs are for. It’s not a sustainable way of doing a city fringe.” He draws comparisons to Melbourne and Sydney, pointing out that many people happily live in medium density housing – for example terraced housing or small apartment buildings – in other cities in contrast to New Zealand’s seemingly national aversion to the lifestyle.
Currently, Auckland Council is seeking feedback on draft plans for changes to the Auckland Unitary Plan, which can be accessed on its website. The new regulations mean that MDRS will be the norm, and the council will have to apply to central government for exceptions to the rule. Exceptions to the new standards will be made on “qualifying matters”, which may include infrastructure and natural hazard concerns that prevent practical implementation of MDRS, as well as “special character” provisions for areas of historic value.
Under the council’s current draft plan to bring Tāmaki Makaurau in line with the new MDRS, most of Auckland’s 21,000 “special character” residences will still be protected by two-storey, single dwelling restrictions. However, some areas of city fringe suburbs will no longer qualify for “special character” protections. At a media briefing on April 19, John Duguid, general manager of plans and places for Auckland Council, noted that around 4,000 to 5,000 historic homes could be rezoned to the new MDRS.
Some are angry about the proposed changes, claiming the move will “[destroy] the character of this city”.
But McKay disagrees. “You hear people railing against losing streets and villas. That’s not going to happen. Streets with real character and consistency… they’re OK.” He points out that most of the areas lined with historic villas will likely stay the same, like the area of Murdoch Road in Grey Lynn, which is currently within the protected “special character” area in the draft plans. McKay doesn’t believe we’ll lose our heritage, but he does believe that Auckland stands to gain from the new legislation.
McKay says “our streets are actually quite motley. A lot of older buildings, particularly villas – which were cheap housing when they were built – they’re pretty miserable.” And anyone who’s lived in and around these central fringe suburbs might agree. I lived in Arch Hill, right around the proposed protected zone, and in my observation, the only thing special about many of these “special character” villas was how much mould they could fit in them. Similarly, McKay says he lives on “quite a flash street” around Ponsonby and Herne Bay. However, he’s still “got some pretty shitty houses” in his area. “We do have a mix of villa areas that are pretty poor, and they should be replaced,” says McKay.
Sonya Milford, who lived in the “special character” area of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn from 2018-2019, agrees with McKay’s sentiment. She describes living in a sleep-out in the backyard of a villa that was so poorly maintained it would flood during winter rains. Milford said she was drawn to the location as it was within walking distance to her work, and she couldn’t take the bus as she had “really bad motion sickness”. Milford notes that her accommodation was unaffordable and of poor quality, but she still rented in the area due to necessity. Her story highlights the issues of equity and accessibility that arise around the current zoning regulations of the in-demand central fringe suburbs. Milford’s first-hand experience with the quality of our “special character” houses means she’s not sad to see some of them go.
“When you say ‘heritage’, I think ‘heritage for who?’ It’s obviously gentrified and all the Islander families were pushed out. What are we preserving, and how come it has to be every house?… It doesn’t mean enough to me to preserve [heritage] at the cost of us not having affordable housing and clean homes for everyone living in the city.”
Milford now lives in Northcote on the North Shore, as it’s cheaper but still close to her workplace. She says the area she’s in is an example of how higher density housing can work. “It can be done with pretty small amounts of land area… the only inconvenience is maybe parking, but that’s worth it to me,” says Milford
McKay believes the council has done quite a good job of balancing the heritage considerations of the new zoning regulations with the need for higher density housing. He says he’s “pretty happy” with the MDRS rules, and notes that there’s “a lot more five, six-storey apartment buildings around the place now than you’d suspect… and I think they work well”. He cites the apartments springing up along Great North Road as an example.
“A lot of media commentary is dominated by people like me,” laughs McKay. “Older, white, middle-class people, males as well… fighting for the rights of the people in the leafy suburbs. But you don’t hear a lot from the quiet majority who just want somewhere decent to live.”
McKay’s only worries are that in the current climate there’s a shortage of labour and materials to build the promised medium-density housing, and that quality of the new builds isn’t legislated.
“Everyone wants good, fast and cheap. But you can only ever get two of those… the political gain is in how much housing has been built and how many dwellings. No one is saying ‘of what quality?’”
McKay thinks urban design panels would be the best way to ensure quality housing, and he’d like to see them implemented in future Tāmaki developments. In the meantime, he’s OK with the prospect that one in four heritage houses could go.
“I think that’s necessary to have a city that we can share with everyone.”