My post earlier today about the real reasons behind the Puhoi-Wellsford “holiday highway” generated some interesting discussion about urban sprawl, intensification and typical “how should Auckland grow” questions. A really big problem in all these discussions is the fact that most of the time Auckland has done intensification, it hasn’t done it very well. Case in point, Symonds Street apartments:Or Newmarket (this one’s not quite so bad except the giant blank walls facing the intersection of Remuera Rd & Broadway):

Quite often we have equated intensification with apartments, and while apartments will inevitably be part of the intensification, I tend to think that we have ignored other ways of implementing urban intensification – particularly housing types like terraced houses, townhouses, row houses and so forth.

On this note, the excellent “Old Urbanist” blog has a very interesting post comparing the densities of traditional rowhouses with those of apartments in Hoboken, New Jersey (just across the Hudson River from New York City).

In Hoboken, New Jersey, the fourth densest incorporated place in the United States, there is a two-block stretch between 6th and 7th Streets where the “hypertrophic” fabric of the great majority of the city, consisting of walk-up apartments and large brownstones on wide streets, abruptly gives way to a series of smaller rowhouses on narrow streets cut through a single larger block.

The five-story brick apartments lining the block to the right are the so-called tenements of the type which Jacob Riis wrote about and which menaced the Little House in the animated Disney film of the same name. They are emblematic of New York’s urban growth in the 19th century and are still abundant throughout the city. Occasionally mixed among them, up large and ornate stairways, are brownstone townhouses with garden apartments.

Here’s what the area looks like from an aerial photograph:

 The situation is described in the blog post:

To the left, the standard Hoboken city block has been subdivided into three smaller blocks by use of two narrow streets along which, with no setback, are built a series of modest two- and three-story rowhouses more typical of Philadelphia or Baltimore than the New York area. The apartments across the street tower over these small houses, certainly giving the visual impression of much greater population density.

Indeed looking at the area on Google Streetview reinforces this perception, once again with the apartments on the right and the smaller houses on the left:

 However, the Old Urbanist blog post has looked at the actual number of units and then, most importantly perhaps, the number of bedrooms within the respective areas. This gives some interesting results:

The stark juxtaposition of these characteristic urban forms virtually begs a comparison of the densities in play here. Since population figures aren’t available, I use the objective substitute of bedrooms instead, counting northwards from where the rowhouses begin:

Rowhouses: 2.5 blocks of 32 rowhouses each = 80 total units
80 x 3 bedrooms apiece = 240 bedrooms

Apartments: 17 apartments (10 and 8 unit) + 13 brownstones (2 unit) = 182 units
182 units x (169 1br + 13 4 br) = 221 bedrooms

So, despite the height advantage of the apartments, the rowhouses actually contain a slightly greater number of bedrooms, due mainly to 1) the spatial efficiencies of having multiple bedrooms per unit, compared to one bedroom units, and 2) the narrow streets, which by subdividing the block more than double the number of street-fronting rowhouses which can be accommodated in the same space. Adding street frontage has the potential to add both value and density to the land, but is dependent on the use of narrow streets lest the benefits be canceled out by the loss of space to new rights-of-way.

And what kind of densities does this sort of building typology add up to? Well pretty damn high actually:

 As for overall population density, a neighborhood built of such rowhouses could potentially exceed 50,000 people per square mile, assuming one person per bedroom. This is a density comparable to Paris and higher than Brooklyn or the Bronx. If higher densities are possible, they may not necessarily be desirable for various reasons relating to infrastructure, transportation and overall crowding.

The potential for this kind of approach in parts of Auckland seems quite attractive. While I hate to try and second-guess the ‘psyche’ of potential tenants in different building typologies (and I get really annoyed when people make all sweeping assumptions like “Aucklanders won’t live in apartments”), some level of private outdoor space tends to be quite attractive: something that the rowhouse/terraced house typology can provide at high densities in a way that’s just not possible in either apartments or standalone houses.

So what stops this kind of development? The blocks in Hoboken look like they were probably built in the 19th century, the closest Auckland probably has to anything like this are the older parts of Freemans Bay and Ponsonby (but even then the houses tend to be standalone). Why aren’t we seeing much more of this way to achieve the higher densities that help support a more sustainable urban form?

I largely put the blame in the hands of our poor planning rules. Minimum setbacks, minimum lot sizes, units per lot restrictions, building to boundary controls, minimum parking requirements and a vast myriad of other rules make the type of development in those blocks of Hoboken pretty much impossible to get consent for. Even though they’re high density without being ugly, even though they’re probably extremely sustainable and energy efficient, even though they have the kind of character that would probably end up being protected. For some reason our planning rules deem this sort of development to be completely unacceptable – while actively promoting McMansion based urban sprawl.

I wonder if the Unitary Plan will sort out this contradiction so we can actually start to properly intensify in Auckland and therefore avoid having to sprawl to North Rodney and beyond.

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  1. One place I know of that has is at least a little better than most in this regard is near me, the town houses are setback from the street a little bit but not that far compared to most areas around the city. Also this happens to be right next to a train station and each U shaped roof you can see is two town houses,174.618233&spn=0.001914,0.004128&sll=-36.874265,174.618695&sspn=0.015225,0.033023&t=h&z=19

    1. That’s quite an interesting development actually. They’ve got quite a few things right there (duplexes etc.). Just a shame it looks like they’ve been built out of Weet-Bix.

      1. Unfortunately building standards across all houses in NZ was pretty poor for a while there, although at least I haven’t heard about any leaky issues with these ones. If they had of been finished off with a bit nicer cladding they could have been much better but with the exception of that they aren’t to bad. I see one is for sale on Trademe and at less than 300k they are definitely good for a couple looking for a first home etc. (this is one of the main reasons why I get pissed off that people my age complain about housing in Auckland being unaffordable, it isn’t if you just stop looking in expensive city fringe areas).
        Another thing is while it is a bit further out from the city now, the train makes it really easy to get to work in Henderson, New Lynn or town and once the CRL is build, the centre of the CBD will only be about away 30mins by train which is pretty good.
        The trademe listing

        1. The train makes it easy to get to work, but getting home after 12am is a big problem. This is one of the main reasons I get pissed off when I am told to buy in an outer suburb. Outer suburbs may be ok if you have a family. I don’t so I choose apartment living. I’m fully prepared to trade a backyard for inner suburb life.

      2. Is a duplex the same thing as a British “semi-detached”? If so, I’ve never seen the point. I understand terraced housing. I understand detached houses. I understand apartments. But I don’t understand having all the disadvantages of a terrace (potentially noisy neighbours and the need to coordinate exterior decoration and future development) with none of the advantages of compactness.

    2. Setbacks drive me mad. Imagine the size of the backyard the houses in the satelite map could have if the house didn’t have to be plonked in the middle!

      1. Setbacks are a complete waste of space. Got down any suburban street and check out what the area between the street and the house is being used for. 99% of the time it is an unused lawn, a garage or a parking area.

        With tall fences, gates and garages these days the street front is just a continues wall anyway so the setback doesn’t improve the look of the street at all.

  2. You criticise the blank walls of devolpments for there ugly looks in an post promoting density, normally I agree with admin but in this case this is hyprotical. By building blank walls facing other lots devolopers can maximise floor space within the building/site. Placing windows or balconyies on those blank walls would require steps to prevent “being built out”, such as: a. buying air rights over an adjesent site, b. increasing set back to allow tollerable gap between buildings, c. crossing fingers that the next door site won’t be devoloped.

    In reality those blank walls are required for high density devolopment, where different multistory buildings share common walls. Look at say lower Anzac ave (west side) and consider the effect on density if many of those buildings had not been build with blank walls either side.

    I understand the AUT building is very appropriate for its purpose of student accomidation where much higher numbers of bedrooms per dewelling are desirable. I don’t mind its appreance (i think it looks better with the AUT logo’s on it) and i spent a year living in a room looking directly at it.

    The forte building looks much nicer now its completed.

    I think one of the key things holding back more high density devolopment in NZ is noise. Nobody likes to hear the people upstairs walking around or other peoples music. Flase fire alarms are also a problem in some buildings. I read an artical about the design of korean apartments and how it made them much quieter than the ones in NZ.

  3. I’ve been living for a month in “the jail” in Newmarket, the one on top of the station, and that is really not the way to build apartments. Cheap, horrible looking, huge single glazed windows, very low ceiling, no open air. I’m actually sure the new jail in Mt Eden is more comfortable than that, don’t want to try though.
    I wonder how they could build something like that, in an european city that would be the place where I’d go to buy dope or firearms.
    The location is good, anyway.

    1. That development was built before mixed use zoning could be implemented. It was basically a Business zoning and anticipated commercial buildings, like the rest of Newmarket, but because residential wasn’t prohibited in the zoning at the time the developer pretty much was able to build to commercial standards when residential was proposed. Hence:

      – No residential amenity like light wells, outlook space
      – No building design standards.

  4. @Gianfranco – hah! I was looking up at the apartments next to the Newmarket station just yesterday, and thinking what an absolute indictment they are of Auckland’s planning process.

    The wider problem with Auckland apartments is they are, to my mind, yet another display of our deep anti-urbanism. They are another manifestation of the widespread baby-boomer mind set that urban living – public transport, apartments – is an option of last resort. They are all built to minimum specification for people who largely wouldn’t dream of actually living in them. Rather than a manifestation of urban living, they are products of a speculation bubble – investment vehicles for people who regard apartments as somewhere they can shoe-horn in the maximum number of renters to help pay for their retirement, not as a new style of living. As a result, apartments are almost all to small, to shoddily built and to ugly for anyone to want to live really long term in, let alone raise a family in.

  5. Yep. That’s about right. There are a few quality apartments out there, however they are so expensive you may as well buy a McMansion.

  6. Just want to raise 3 points:

    – We may need to understand the details of the densities required, associated with the parking requirement in order to support a good public transport system rather than simply assuming by having some apartments along a main arterial, the so called ‘critical mass’ would be formed and everyone will take PT.

    – Instead of just looking at American/European examples, there are heaps of many East Asian cities which are of extremely high density (by the Kiwi/European standards, to an unacceptable levels) but their quality are not really that bad. By having a density that high, this enables a very excellent/efficient public transport system everyone in the Western countries dream of. For Asians, just 5-6 stories town houses/apartments are basically nothing but of very low density indeed. With a high density like them, it would certainly makes PT service very viable. But the problem is, how many Kiwis here would be willing to accept this level of high density in return for a sure more sustainable urban form?

    – The planning rules quoted by the blogger is to ensure the so called ‘living amenity’ cherished by the Western world not to be compromised. I doubt how easy it would be to scrap these traditional planning rules, especially if you are the residents who would be ‘adversely affected” by such development.

    1. I am living in Singapore, and while highly urbanized, they have had strict planning requirements for their housing developments. There is a minimum size for bedrooms, and each floor of a development must contain units of mixed sizes, so there are family sized as well as, 2 and 1 bedroom apartments on the same floor. The idea is that retired Grandparents can live near their families. Public transport is well integrated with major housing developments, and blocks of apartments are clustered around shopping centres with fresh food markets, hawker centres, medical clinics etc.

      And yes, autocratic planning in Singapore does have its downsides, but it is a much better place to shape an intensification model on than Hong Kong.

  7. Bring back the granny flat anyday – we are going to have to look after our parents soon and not being able to plan for a granny flat in our Grey Lynn villa means a multitude of complications. Especially as we are opting for a place that requires accessibility for wheelchairs/disabilities, it makes not being able to add a “kitchen” facility to the unit utterly frustrating. Its not like granny is going to climb stairs up to our kitchen to cook dinner! We agree that maintaining the character and feel of a specific area is important, so down with the ugly apartments and eyesore additions, but provided that everything falls within visual guidelines, WHY NOT?

    Please keep us posted on the Unitary Plan – we would definitely like to make our submissions come consultation time.

    1. Are you really sure you can’t do that? You’ll need to pay a development contribution if you have a kitchen, but a self contained flat for a relative wouldn’t necessarily be ruled out by council. We have 2 legal dwellings (though the second dwelling was added in 1948 and is an extension of the house) on our 550sqm property in Grey Lynn and are currently converting a garage to an office space (of course there were issues about reducing the number of car parks on the section).

      1. As you said, this second dwelling was built in 1948 which should have the “existing use right” as it was there before the current planning/zoning regime. However, if you are going to do this NOW in a small section likes this, you will not be able to without applying for a resource consent and it will be notified. Trust me, it is also very likely that your neighbours will be jumping up and down and do whatever they can to stop Council from approving this consent. If all fails, they may resort to report to the AUCKLANDERS to complain or even appeal to the Environment Court about Council’s decision……THIS IS THE REALITY OF PLANNING IN NEW ZEALAND.

  8. Excellent post, on a subject that is so topical at the moment, nationally.

    I think Sanctuary makes a great point…that too many of our developments are carried out for no other reason than commercial gain or profit. But that is understandable, and happens everywhere. However, this is where the council should step in – that is the basic fundamental of a planning system – to intervene in the market to achieve a common good. yet for whatever reason, the local planning authorities in NZ seem either powerless, or reluctant (probably a bit of both) to step in to insist that all developments achieve at least basic levels of good urban outcomes. Its not hard, but our market driven approach is slowly and quietly killing our future (and our present).
    Until (local) government starts to recognise this is an issue, and does something about it, we will continue to see profiteering at the expense of common good outcomes. Come on council and government – step up!

    1. Sting, I guess my argument is not about the need for more or less regulation, but to examine our existing regulations and see whether they’re actually working for or against our big picture desired outcomes.

      My feeling is that most of our current planning rules inadvertently actually work against what our big picture objectives are trying to achieve.

      1. As pointed out in a couple of other comments NIMBYism is a major obstacle to higher densities, especially in the older suburbs. It is framed as a desire to preserve our “heritage” which amounts to rows and rows of damp, draughty villas that are only insulated from the environment by white picket fences. In this case “heritage” is code for don’t frack out property values and “sausage blocks” are usually cited as evidence of past sins.
        Where are the zero carbon developments, with the green roofs and the storm and grey water recycling? The Unitary plan would be greatly improved by designating areas where any new housing has to be zero carbon and must recycle its storm and wastewater. The first 1,000 houses get a five year rates holiday.

        1. I don’t think I entirely agree with that. The part of Hoboken shown above would absolutely classify as heritage, while Auckland’s heritage suburbs are probably some of its more dense and sustainable. The problem is you can’t build like them anymore due to stupid District Plan rules today.

          Furthermore, pulling down buildings to build new is a massive use of resources. For example, pulling down one two-level commercial building undoes all the good from recycling 1.5 million aluminium cans compared to throwing them in a landfill and making them new.

  9. I should add – we are close to transport, shopping, parks and a strong community. We have a large backyard, fruit trees and enjoy a sense of space even with a proposed granny flat. Why shouldn’t grandpa/grandma get to enjoy these as well instead of having to consider small apartments mostly designed to house students or transient workers. Not everyone who wants to live in a small unit wants to live battery-style!

    1. Is there yet a mandatory minimim size for new apartments built in Auckland?

      And with a handle like “Kampong Girl”, there has to be a Malaysian/Singaporean link there surely…..

  10. A family with a dog can live comfortably in a row house. They can even have a garden. No neighbors stomping overhead. It is a pleasant way to live, highly sought after in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and other places where this housing exists. People pay a lot of money to live in rowhouses because they like them. Cities should build more of them.

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