Yesterday Bernard Orsman had an in-depth article in the NZ Herald about new apartment developments on Great North Road. Orsman, to his credit, considers the issue from several different angles and speaks to people with a range of views. He also rightly observes that the developments are a key part of the “vision of Great North Rd being turned into one of the city’s great boulevards with bus lanes, cycleways and well-designed apartments”.

Unfortunately, the article’s positive contribution to Auckland’s discussion about intensification comes to a screeching halt right there in the sub-heading:

Developers and council planners have sidelined the community over building heights for some new projects, say worried residents.

In one sentence, the article frames the issue as a conflict between ordinary people – the “worried residents” – and two spooky bogeymen – the “developers” and “planners”. Readers of a left-wing persuasion will read “developers” and think “greedy capitalists!”, while right-wing readers will read “planners” and think “Soviet Union!”

This framing misleads readers rather than enabling a better discussion about new apartments in the inner suburbs. From an economic perspective, the bogeymen invoked by the sub-heading are nothing of the kind:

  • Developers are out to make a buck, obviously, but they can profit off a development if and only if other people want to buy the places they’re building. Developers generally respond to demand in the market rather than creating it.
  • Urban planners, who are themselves Auckland residents, are trying to balance out amenity for current residents with the housing needs of a growing city. If no new dwellings were being constructed on Great North Road, it would probably mean that they were failing to do their job.

Which brings me on to one last point: It’s pretty bizarre to imply that relaxing the rules to enable buildings to go to six storeys rather than four is a case of regulations gone mad. From the sound of things, it wouldn’t be financially viable to construct a four storey building, as that would require an elevator and other expensive internal features that couldn’t be recouped without adding additional floors. It’s a good thing that Auckland Council planners are willing to consider applications on a case-by-case basis rather than just mindlessly applying the rules!

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  1. It struck me as an article critical of intensification. That area along Gt North Rd is practically a commercial area. It’s not surprising it’s being intensified, whether it’s commercial or residential. One guy worried one of the new developments may block the sun to his labourer’s hut in the winter. I think perhaps residents aren’t happy that the scenario where they have residential houses, wedged in with commercial and where they have enjoyed steadily rising prices, won’t continue forever. It’s going to be developed.

    1. The guy complaining about the sun in winter lives on a street over 100 metres away from the apartment building which will be about 20 metres high. The other guy complaining lives to the north of the building so will suffer from no shading whatsoever.

    2. If all of that ridge was built up to 23m, lots of the houses in Arch Hill will be shaded whereas they are ot now. This may be justified, but to simply say that it is a bunch of nimbys complaining about intensification is really missing the point.

      1. Well yes, but the whole article is missing the point. The tradeoff is what negative effects we’re willing to subject existing residents to, in order to allow their neighbours build homes for new people. The last people you want to talk to are the neighbours and the developer: the very two groups guaranteed to not be able to judge it fairly!

        The “community is being sidelined” angle in the story itself assumes the answer to that tradeoff. The council already knows what the neighbours want, so the question is just which side to take. The best approach is to settle that tradeoff in a consistent way across the city, with a single set of rules in the District Plan, and then apply the rules as objectively and fairly as possible. Not to have a system where every decision is unpredictable, costly, time-consuming, and depends on how well-lawyered-up and politically influential the neighbours are. A system where everything needs to be consulted on with the neighbours loads vast costs on developments, making more of them infeasible, and so the very rules of the game decide the outcome from the start.

        1. Sure, and that is what planning rules for and what everyone thought the arguments in the Unitary PLan were about. Build up to the elvel specified in the plan, no problem. You want to exceed that, it becomes a case-by-case thing. The develoments here intend to exceed the specified levels, so fair enough for the neighbours to have a say, no?

        2. > Sure, and that is what planning rules for and what everyone thought the arguments in the Unitary PLan were about. Build up to the elvel specified in the plan, no problem. You want to exceed that, it becomes a case-by-case thing. The develoments here intend to exceed the specified levels, so fair enough for the neighbours to have a say, no?

          Well, no. The rules in the plan are more complex than a fixed number of stories. There’s an assumption that four stories are always OK, but higher buildings get judged using a more complex process that considers the effects in that particular situation. That’s “case-by-case”, sure, but it doesn’t in itself justify giving the neighbours an angle to expensively draw the whole thing out. The RMA, for better or worse, is designed to have a large area which is somewhat subjective on the part of the council – but not on the part of the neighbours.

          It’s up to the council planners to decide whether there’s something unusual about the situation that requires the neighbours to have some input. But 99% of the time, there’s no need: the neighbours just want the things neighbours always want: sunlight, quiet, ample on-street parking, and not having to live next door to the sort of people who live in apartments, and so on, and we’ve already decided how to value those things in the district plan.

          I’d be in favour of making the process even less subjective, but only if there were more nuanced rules about effects, and it was accompanied with a big increase in what’s allowed as-of-right. At the moment, being able to apply for non-complying consents is pretty much the only safety valve in the system at all.

  2. Another illustration of the discussion are a couple of sentences in today’s Herald article “Auckland’s $10 billion do-up”.

    “In one of its biggest transformations, a series of infrastructure, education, roading, commercial, retail, housing and prison projects are rising or planned.”
    roading should be transport, especially when the CRL is mentioned a few paragraphs later.

    “But economic growth, Auckland’s fast expansion, a critical shortage of residential accommodation, desperate need for big new housing estates, the development of entire new town centres to meet demands, expansion of the workforce, rising population, requirements for better university and school buildings, consumer demand for bigger and better supermarkets, and extending our roading network are just some of the drivers.”
    1. Auckland doesn’t necessarily have to expand quickly. 2. Big new housing estates is presented as the answer to a shortage of residential accommodation. No. 3. Do we need entire new town centres like Westgate? 4. bigger and better supermarkets? What about New World and Countdown in the city? 5. Roading.

  3. The real question is if Great North Road ticks so many boxes for intensification (which it does) then why are we limiting heights to four storeys? Imagine the fantastic views from a 10th floor apartment there. With a million buses going past your door.

  4. I think the left-wing, right-wing garbage in the article is rather unhelpful.

    The real problem that we face in Auckland is the NIMBY’s. Generally Aucklanders seem to be supportive of some level of intensification as they understand the city can’t expand forever. However those same Aucklanders don’t support development in their own suburb due to “character” of the suburb being “irreversibly changed” and “heritage destruction”.

    I also believe the early stages of intensification in New Lynn have sent a shudder up the spine of many Aucklanders. The roading system is an unmitigated disaster, a primary school student could have done a better job and the big apartment building looks ugly and has pillars going through some rooms.

    It’s such a shame as a positive development in New Lynn could have set the seen for citywide development but somehow it got stuffed up.

    1. I’m betting most NIMBY’s are rich, white and old. And they are mostly right wing. I doubt you would get complaints from anyone out in poorer south auckland unless you are bashing down houses to put in a motorway or a prison. Of course no one really wants to build on poor areas so it is a moot point.

      1. Indeed, the rich white NIMBYs are complaining because they think the new developments will lower property values. In poor areas, developments can be opposed for exactly the opposite reason: they signal gentrification and rising property values.

    2. Some of the traffic lights are to be removed, according to a recent Western Leader article.

      I quite like the look of the new apartment building (and I’m oldish and whitish and richish).

      Isn’t one of the issues about height on Gt North Rd due to it being on the ridge line, and needing to protect view shafts to the volcanoes (or some such)?

    3. So if you support buildings to 15m but not 20m you don’t support intensification? The point made by Dan Salmon in the article is important — thre has just been a long process in which height restrictions were argued over. There was a basic restriction that, if you wanted to exceed it, you needed a good reason. These places are seeking to exceed it, so doesn;t it make sense that they shiuld get the community on side?

  5. To make a win-win situation, some incentives must be given to neighbors.

    For example nearby land could be rezoned to higher land value, and a subsidy deal is made between tenants and developers.

  6. Lots of deveolpers really are shit-faces. How many involved in developments on that ridge have been inolved in earlier companies that hae gone bankrupt, leaving creditors (workers) unpaid, taxes unpaid and substandard buildings in their wake?

    Why is Luke C of Gen Zero quoted as commiserating with that developers had a hard time making money off 4 storeys. Poor developers….Maybe they should try cutting back on all the carparking they insist on building into these blocks.

    1. annnd here’s your ‘greedy capitalists’ comment. Not all developer make alot of money, even though they are risking more than most people. Luke C is right here, there is just not enough money to make when buying land at the prices these guys are! It’s either buy and build bigger, or get out bidded from a foreign land banker.

      1. Really, it is impossible to make money from a 15m high building along here? What about the developments that are already there at that height? To talk as though developers somehow have the best interests of intensifiers at heart is naive in the extreme — many will build whatever building will make them the most money as quick as possible. Currently, they insist that all these apartments need at least 2 carparks each, which pushes the bulding another storey higher but does nothing positive for the built environment.

        1. Correct, and if it doesn’t make money they won’t do it at all because they are not in the business of spending their savings to hand out housing for less than it costs to build.

          Ignore the developer side, consider if the government was doing all these developments instead without any profit. They would still need economically sound buildings, they would still need to pay for the land, the planning and compliance, all the materials, supplies and staff, etc.

        2. I’m skeptical — developers will push and push to get as much as they can. There are a lot of buildings around that are 4 or 5 storeys and I assume many have made money. If developers really can;t make it work for that, open their books and show us. If land price is the issue, doesn;t the ecomonic theory says that the land price should reduce to the point where the type of building allowed on a site can afford to be built there if there is no expectation that the ceiling on building height will change?

        3. Actually the council requires that, but yes they are there to make money. You expect that when flogging down millions of dollars on land, otherwise it’s not worth it. What I’m saying is, at the moment with the current land prices, the budgets are being stretched as is. Foreign investment is real and they got more capital than local developers. Unfortunately they are also willing to sit on land and wait it out, rather than developing quickly.

          Land is worth what the highest bidder is willing to pay, atm with foreign investment, that is quite high.

    2. Well without someone prepared to bet their money then there’s no development. Exactly how those wooden houses all got built; by Victorian and Edwardian developers. And if they can’t make a profit then they go bust and there’s no new dwellings. And as the state and the city funding these things is well out of fashion so there is no other mechanism for development than the private sector. Whether they are likeable or not.

      In this context the best way to get a quality built environment is a profitable development sector competing to build ever better buildings that we the people encourage by paying a little more for better design.

      Regulation has a role to play in this too. But currently a number of the regulations are counterproductive, low height limits for a place like GNR make the cost per dwelling high, as do minimum parking regulations. So having a planning system that is flexible enough to make tradeoffs for better outcomes s a good solution to this problem, in my view.

    3. It’s all well and good to take the nasty greedy developers line, but the reality is in our country this is how things get built. If developers can’t turn a profit on a four story building they won’t build four story buildings and won’t be able to sell homes to people who want to live there. Or they might do it and only be able to sell each for a million and a half, so the select few can afford to buy in. They can always make a living selling suburban sprawl however, so if apartments don’t make economic sense then we get to keep the car yards in Arch Hill and all commute from Kumeu instead. Part of the driver for substandard buildings is the fact they couldn’t make a profit any other way but to cut corners, probably because of arbitrary planning constraints.

      When you sell off an apartment development, you make your profit on the last ten percent sold. Simply fact is four stories just doesn’t make sense. You need structural design, lifts, fire safety and all the rest of a tall building, but end up with few dwellings to pay for it all. Its not until about six stories that the economics let you build reasonably priced apartments.

      Yes they aren’t in the charity game working for free, but neither are any of us. Property developers don’t make nearly as much money as people seem to think, in fact they often lose their shirt. Bankruptcy isn’t profitable for anyone, some execs might sneak out without having to sell their own home and livelyhoods but that’s certainly not always the case.

      The carparking would be another of those rules that should be done away with on a case by case basis. Recently I’ve heard with new developments they resent being forced to build parking and have trouble selling it at even a break-even price. Who wants to pay a hundred grand for one carparking space? On a new build a basement carpark can cost that to construct. Those daft rules are driving up the price of apartments for no reason.

      1. Nick, the developments proposed along here are seeking to put in 2 carparks, where 1 is suggesed. They are aiming at the high end and insist that rich people want 2 carparks as one is not enough.

        1. They’re aiming at the high end for a very good reason – the planning rules are so restrictive, and the costs of building so high, that aiming at the high end is the only way to turn a buck. That’s the problem with Orsman’s logic, as well: these apartments are expensive. It doesn’t mean all apartments are.

          But Brady Nixon has a point. You’ll always get more house for your money in a house, and not in a share of an apartment building. Apartments are never going to be affordable in an absolute sense, but they still make living in high-value areas possible for middle-income people – and if you’ve got the money for a high-end apartment, that’s great. Truly affordable housing, on the other hand, isn’t going to have elevators – just as truly affordable housing isn’t going to have 20-metre-wide residential streets, 500sqm-plus sections, and off-street parking for half a dozen cars.

          The real crime against affordability in our planning restrictions isn’t that you can’t build ten stories on Great North Road. The crime is that you can’t build infill townhouses in the inner suburbs, or build a row of terraced houses next to a traditional town centre, and that new greenfield subdivisions have to be totally gold-plated, and even those get drip-fed to keep prices high.

        2. Quite, those apartments are expensive, but still about half to a third the price of a house in Grey Lynn. Affordable is a relative term, they are very affordable for grey Lynn. Build them a little different in Manurewa and they will be half the cost, and affordable there too..

        3. > Quite, those apartments are expensive, but still about half to a third the price of a house in Grey Lynn. Affordable is a relative term, they are very affordable for grey Lynn. Build them a little different in Manurewa and they will be half the cost, and affordable there too..

          Well yes, but that’s rather the point. Apartment buildings are only viable where the land price is so high, that using less land per unit outweighs the higher construction costs. No-one builds apartment buildings unless they’re going to be affordable relative to standalone houses in the same area, but in order to reach that point, prices for those standalone houses need to be astronomical – which is the case in Grey Lynn, but not Manurewa.

          That said, building and selling enough expensive apartments in Grey Lynn can still help affordability across the board, as other properties in other suburbs filter down.

        4. Nick, you are making that up. The three bed apartments in the block will sell for close to the price of a 3 bed house in grey lynn (about $1.2m). New apartments tend to be over-priced relative to older houses and apartments.

        5. That’s true but you missed my point, and I’m not making anything up because I’m not talking about three bedroom apartments. The one bedrooms are about $500k if I’m not mistaken, so exactly like I said: a half to a third of the cost of a house in the same neighborhood.

          Note that I didn’t say it was necessarily better value, or cheaper per square metre, I said it was more affordable. An apartment in Grey Lynn for $500k is an affordable home, relatively speaking, when the alternative house starts at a million dollars for existing stock. If you wanted to build a new house in Grey Lynn you’d probably need more like two million.

          This is the same scenario as comparing a base model Toyota hatchback to a Mercedes SUV. You get a lot features and comfort more with the Mercedes, bigger engine, leather seats etc you might think it much better value for money, but the hatchback is still more affordable. Saying that Toyota also make a luxury SUV with leather seats that costs the same as the Mercedes doesn’t change that!

        6. SOme examples of apartment prices for these new places on Great North Road, all 2 beds, 2 baths: $895,000 , Enquiries over $780,000, $1,030,000.

          So yes they are cheaper places than typical in Grey Lynn, but certainly not cheaper on a per bedroom basis. And micuh more than half the average house there (particularly that area close to GNR.

        7. Nick, you are mistaken. $700k might buy you a one bed.

          But you miss my point too: I’ve no problem with building up along that ridge, and myself submitted to the plan that heights up to 25m should be allowed. But I can also understand that people in the neighbourhood are annoyed by the fact that a 15m limit has been set and now is routinely ignored. YOu lot making arguments that it is completely ok to ignore these rules because economic realities blah blah sound like a bunch of free marketeers who don’t give a shit about people who already live in these suburbs. There are nimbys and bananas but then there are people whose qualitiy of life is adversely affected by new building that is outside the local planning regulations and they wonder why they never got asked about it. I think you need to make a better argument to convince those people.

        8. “(you lot) sound like a bunch of free marketeers”. How refreshing. Usually its “socialists/communists trying to force their will onto the people”.

          On a serious note, I think you need to read Steve D’s comment at 4:56pm again. Its addresses very clearly what the residents need to be asked about and what they don’t – and for very good reasons.

        9. Scoff as you like, KLK. But the fact is the intensifiers are not winning the argument, as was noted by someone else above. I wish they were but with the tin-ear people have here for this sort of argument, it doesn’t surprise me that it is being lost. Compare the nuanced arguments made here about transport (expansive, studied proposals like the CFN) to the “developers and freemarkets will sort it out” type arguments around intensification and you’ll see what I mean.

          I agree that there should be much greater intensification and that I should be able to subdivide my 500m2 section or legally build a flat downstairs if I like. But I’d be pretty upset if someine wanted to build a large apartment to the north of me that blocked my sun when the council rules say they are not allowed (unless the effects would only be minor). So I find it difficult to argue against those who take a similar stance. YOu and I need better arguments to get intensification happening.

        10. Except that the council rules don’t say that they aren’t allowed to. It says that they absolutely can build a 4 story building and no one has any legal right to object to the height, and that they can build anything else that they want as long as the effects are not significant.

        11. +1

          The crux of the argument, Dan.

          And should a neighbour decide what is minimal or significant impact? Of course not. They’ll only ever have one response.

  7. Also:

    Mr Milne says since he lived in Harcourt St, the zoning has changed three times to reduce the height and bulk of buildings. Under the Unitary Plan the maximum height is proposed to be lower again, at between 13.5m and 14.5m. But the opposite is happening. The proposed seven-storey apartment building overlooking his villa in Harcourt St exceeds the height restriction by 8.5m and the density provisions by nearly 100 per cent. It’s not just the extra height and bulk that worry Mr Milne. It’s the extra vehicles, washing and rubbish that come with an additional 15 apartments on a site no bigger than two residential sections.

    It’s worth pointing out that those who are scaremongering about intensification are winning, handsomely. Each successive plan gets more restrictive than the last, and comes with more requirements for consultation.

    Also, I have to laugh whenever anyone uses a “residential section” as a measurement of area. As though it’s ever been even vaguely standard. Double points if someone thinks that “quarter acre” sections were ever common.

    1. Or increased homelessness, overcrowding, and living with family or extended family for longer periods of time, which is what actually ends up happening. It’s worth hammering home again: you can’t actually ban density. Those people are still there.

      The other rather nasty option is forcibly relocating people to the provinces, which seems to get brought up here a lot.

  8. If you think developers just respond to the market you are not quite right. Developers make developments like the last successful development they did. They don’t explore the whole market and are often quite loath to develop something outside their experience, even if it can be shown there is a demand for a different building style. This is based on personal experience of explaining small lot development/terrace housing to several developers, who all said “New Zealanders won’t buy terrace housing.” When asked how they knew, they all answered “We haven’t sold any terrace houses to New Zealanders”. When asked if they had built any terrace hoses they all said “No, we haven’t”. When asked why they hadn’t built any terrace houses they all said “We don’t build terrace houses because New Zealanders don’t buy them.” Go figure.

    1. Good point. Not all developers are bad, but they sure have made a pretty shit job of Auckland over the last 60 years and only some of the blame lies with the planning rules.

      1. I think Dan had a really good comment further up the thread: “But the fact is the intensifiers are not winning the argument, as was noted by someone else above. I wish they were but with the tin-ear people have here for this sort of argument, it doesn’t surprise me that it is being lost. Compare the nuanced arguments made here about transport (expansive, studied proposals like the CFN) to the “developers and freemarkets will sort it out” type arguments around intensification and you’ll see what I mean.”

        I’d say three things in response.
        1. When Transportblog started up, a lot of the arguments it was making about investing more in public transport (and less in new roads) sounded ridiculous. They just didn’t fit with the received wisdom about Auckland’s transport system. Half a decade on, they’ve come to sound quite sensible – not because the arguments changed, but because we changed the debate. I hope that Auckland’s debate about housing choices can mature in a similar fashion.

        2. …but there’s obviously work to be done. My point in writing this post was to point out that the media often frames the issues in ways that prompt a swift knee-jerk reaction from readers. I think that’s harmful to the debate. But I also think that there are other ways to frame the argument badly. Take the “NIMBY” word – it’s accurate in some cases, unfair in others, and generally unsuited to understanding the complexities of an issue. I’ve tried (hopefully successfully) to avoid using it in my posts on Transportblog, because I think it often shuts down conversations rather than starts them.

        3. As I wrote in my post – only to be ignored by pretty much all the commentors – there is a role for both market forces (in the form of developers) and regulations (in the form of planners). Urban planners “are trying to balance out amenity for current residents with the housing needs of a growing city”. There *are* very real tradeoffs that must be made in the housing sector. If we don’t build apartments on Great North Rd, housing affordability will get incrementally worse due to limited supply in central locations. But if we do, some residents will get less afternoon sun.

        Different people might resolve that tradeoff in different ways, but it’s foolish to believe that there is no tradeoff, or that the tradeoff is between the interests of residents and the unfathomable interests of planners/developers/Cthulhu/etc.

        1. I think part of the difficulty in intensification is that there really are losers. This is not like transport — if the CFN got implemented, I’d say nearly everyone who travels in Auckland would be better off, even if we get nudged into slightly different choices. But if an area intensifies, I could lose the sun that warms my house or the views that make it pleasant. So for those living in Arch Hill now watching these buildings going up, they are probably going to gain very little if anything from this intensification and may well lose considerably. If the future inhabitants of the new buildings were instead put out on the edge of the city, that is probably a much better outcome for the current residetns of Arch Hill.

          Sure, those pictures that Patrick posted of Las Vegas new suburbs are ugly and we can find very ugly suburbs in Auckland, but if I live in Arch Hil and never visit flat bush or whereever is the latest ugly place, why do I care? It is balancing a very visceral personal loss against a vague public greater good. And maybe that’s an argument that can;t be won in favour of the public good without simply imposing it. But I think it is inceredibly important, from a political point of view, to try to make these arguments as well as possible and to recognise that some people are going to worse off in the future due to these changes.

  9. Plenty of people complain about intensification in state housing areas. Not just a rich white problem.
    For the properties to the south, are these apartments going to breach the typical residential recession planes from those properties?
    If not, no problem.

  10. Vernon Tava from the “Local” Board makes a good point- there’s a social contract between the community and the council of four stories.

    These non-notified consents and “independent” commissioners ignore all that, in effect privatizng profit and socialising cost.

    It’s the lies that hurt the most…

      1. The bit about the Council Planners? They should definitely NOT be the decides- we have seen far too many dodgy deals that way.

        Perhaps as another commenter said- its the RMA that’s the problem.

        What If? Gutting the RMA will lead to better outcomes?

        1. > They should definitely NOT be the decides- we have seen far too many dodgy deals that way.

          Whether or not they should be, that’s the way the system works now. So even if you want to frame our city’s arbitrary and frequently-changing district plan rules as a “social contract”, that contract isn’t four stories. It’s at least four stories plus however many more stories you can build while having only minor effects on the neighbours.

        2. Steve- if you’d read the article, or my earlier comment you’d know that I’m not trying to frame this as a social contract.

          I was quoting Vernon Tava from the Waitemata Local Board who says the heights are a concern to the Board. When a Board so keen on intensification is concerned, you know something is wrong…

          “We have a contract with the community (for four stories), says Mr Tava, “and if (an apartment building) is outside of that it should be notified”.

          The system “working” depends on whether you are a developer being given a license to make more money or a resident losing amenity.

          After all- these developments stacked up financially at four stories- another two or three on top are just fat cat gravy no?

  11. Part of the problem for all parties is the lack of any certainty under the RMA. The Council considers applications on a case by case basis is code for “developers always apply for a discretionary activity or non-complying activity”. It doesnt matter how many floors the rules say you can have as a permitted activity, that just becomes the baseline and the developer will then apply for more. The Council has no choice but to assess the application and turning it down means they have to show both the effects are more than minor and it is inconsistent with the policies and objectives of the plan. Since policies and objectives are always vague that is a difficult position to justify. The RMA was intended to move away from a rules based approach to an effects based approach. But in my view that is the very problem. People on all sides understand rules and if they dont like them can mount a case to change them to something most accept. But in the RMA the rules as I say are really just the start point. That means residents, developers and the Council dont have any certainty of the outcome. By contrast the old Town and Country Planning Act allowed specified departures but they required a very strong case. A non-complying activity under the RMA doesnt in my view. Everybody understands the concept of firm rules, I think it was a mistake to get rid of them. Just one more of those late 80’s early 90’s BS decisions.

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