In the last week or so Proposed Plan Change 235 to the Auckland City District Plan has been notified. This is a private plan change, made by the owner of the Sylvia Park mall, and is designed to allow significant further intensification of the site upon which the Sylvia Park mall is located.
From a transport perspective, this is quite an interesting plan change. Sylvia Park is reasonably well served by public transport – particularly in the form of the train station that is located right next to the mall. There’s also a bus station (apparently – I have never noticed it myself), which rather stupidly seems to be located on the other side of the mall from the train station – so much for connectivity there. I’m not sure which buses run through there – other than I think either the 008 or 009 cross-town bus. These buses usually run at pretty pathetic frequencies.
The plan change itself is relatively compact – a 17 page document – although the supporting information is extremely extensive. Interestingly, the supporting information includes both an integrated transport assessment and a “Parking Report”. But stepping back from the details of this for the moment, one of the reasons why I find this plan change rather curious is that it would seem as though a concerted effort is being made here to turn Sylvia Park from a basic mall into something of a town centre. In fact, the most recent version of Auckland City Council’s Future Planning Framework – the strategic planning work that will supposedly help inform the next District Plan – shows Sylvia Park (and not Glen Innes or Otahuhu as previously proposed) being a “Principal Centre” for development – along the same lines as Newmarket and Onehunga. Now I must say that just comes across to me as rather bizarre – as with Sylvia Park we are really only talking about one site, that rather sits in isolation surrounded by industrial areas to the east and low-density residential to the north and west. This is shown in the map below:
Yellow is the site itself, green is generally residential at the moment and red is industrial.
Of course having such a big site located in such a strategically excellent spot brings a lot of advantages that I consider worth taking up. Single-ownership of the Sylvia Park site allows an integrated approach to development within that site that generally is unlikely to be as easy elsewhere. Issues like parking and traffic access can be approached from an integrated perspective, leading to some pretty big advantages.
However, in my opinion a single site does NOT make a town centre – let alone a regional sub-centre or “principal centre” as it seems Auckland City wants to call it. Therefore, if we want Sylvia Park to truly become a growth node for Auckland – and as I have said above I would possibly support such a notion because of its good transport links (as long as we do something to improve bus/train connectivity and also do something to improve bus services) – then we must look beyond the boundaries of this single site.
And that is where things start to get a bit problematic. The mall isn’t a natural town centre, although linkages could be made with the small area at the intersection of Waipuna Road and Mt Wellington Highway to help create a broader town centre. To the east of Sylvia Park there’s the railway line which creates a significant barrier – but even beyond that we have industrial space that is hardly suitable for the kind of development one would expect in a town centre – apartments, offices, retail, community services and so forth. The same is true if we head south of Sylvia Park, or perhaps even more so as the motorway forms another giant barrier. To the west I would agree there is plenty of potential to allow intensification, and that same is probably true of the existing residential area to the north. One would think that something would have to happen to make Mt Wellington Highway a more pedestrian friendly environment though – as at the moment I wouldn’t dare to even think about crossing it on foot.
Another matter which rather confuses me is the question of “what’s wrong with Panmure?” Panmure is located about 2km north of Sylvia Park and also has a train station, is much better served by buses (most buses heading out to the Howick/Pakuranga/Botany area pass through Panmure), has an extensive existing retail area, has a number of areas suitable for intensification, has existing community facilities and so forth. The same could be said for Glen Innes, just another few kilometres to the north, although perhaps its bus services and connections to the rest of the city aren’t as good as Panmure’s. It seems strange and bizarre to try to artificially manufacture a thriving regional centre from pretty much nothing at Sylvia Park instead of focusing on strengthening and growing two other existing centres that are relatively nearby.
Now that is not to say that I oppose the Plan Change in question here. Sylvia Park would certainly benefit from additional office developments and apartments being constructed – if for no other reason than to use up much of the space currently occupied by ugly surface level parking for the mall. One would hope that some of the “development contributions” from allowing further intensification of Sylvia Park to go ahead could be put into turning Mt Wellington Highway into a more pedestrian friendly “boulevard” (this was proposed a while back, but seems to have disappeared). Higher buildings constructed right up to this new boulevard would have enclose the space and create a far superior urban environment to the mess that’s there now.
There are also a number of positive signs in the documentation that accompanies the application. It seems like effort is going into justifying why council should reduce the number of carparks it requires from the development, rather than the “Westfield approach” which seems to push for huge carparks everywhere. The urban design report also recognises the need for any development to work in with what happens around this particular site.
However, from a wider strategic point of view, I don’t think that Sylvia Park is the right spot to create a new “town centre”, unless we look at creating something of a whole corridor that links in with Panmure to the north. A high intensity development node – sure, but it should not be in the same league as Onehunga and Newmarket as a “principal centre”. Surely Panmure would be far more appropriate, given its strategic location for bus routes, its extensive existing retail centre and the fact that it’s a proper community – rather than just one site.