In their ongoing efforts to tackle the housing crisis in New Zealand and reshape urban development, the government put forward a bipartisan RMA amendment at the end of last year, which most notably introduced the so-called Townhouse Nation standards to allow 3 homes of 3 stories on almost any suburban site. The bill also changed several components of the NPS-UD, the other major plank in their planning reform.
One of the more surprising steps of the bill was to replace a provision that demanded “commensurate” zoning around places with good PT access or high demand, with the following:
In relation to tier 1 urban environments, regional policy statements and district plans enable:…(d) within and adjacent to neighbourhood centre zones, local centre zones, and town centre zones (or equivalent), building heights and density of urban form commensurate with the level of commercial activity and community services.
The original provision was good and ideally should have been retained or lightly modified, but upzoning near to centres like this is very important: people require access to a set of basic services which these centres typically provide such as supermarkets, barbers, bank branches, etc. Likewise, having more residential density within the walkable catchment of these services will make them more viable, and support demand for more services to move in. In turn, this makes it more desirable for people to live in the area, kicking off the Virtuous Cycle of Density.
Not only does this help build more liveable and economically vibrant neighbourhoods, but basic trips like these make up a significant proportion of Auckland’s car use – and consequently transport emissions. Moreover, this kind of “Living Local” has become more important in the COVID-era, where the willingness and impetus to travel to the major centres has dwindled.
Council staff noted in their latest report to the Planning Committee that upzoning based on the existing uses there today is a bit narrow. Indeed it is. Commercial activity can change overnight, but buildings and zoning do not. Instead, we should be looking at not just the current use, but the future potential uses. The two main metrics that council officers have devised are size and accessibility of centres, relative to their tiers (neighbourhood, local, town).
What could this look like?
Auckland has approximately 400 neighbourhood centres (which can be understood to be generally corner stores, or a small row of shops), but has an urban area about 600 sqkm, or 1.5 sqkm of urban area to neighbourhood centre. This is a massive area to cover for something which is meant to function as a corner store. And many of these are clustered close together, meaning large swathes of the city require a car to access only the most basic of services. With MDRS allowing urban living anywhere, it must come with more neighbourhood centres.
yes, it's a 60:10:1 ratio for housing:office:retail. what it means in practice is that if only the commercial streets have apartment buildings, there aren't enough people to support retail in every building- there need to be apartments on the next couple streets over as well. pic.twitter.com/JoLDili1oH
— Alfred Twu (@alfred_twu) July 8, 2021
One way to accomplish this would be to simply allow basic services like dairies to open on corner sites. Already under the Unitary Plan we make corner sites more permissive as they are less bound by recession planes and setbacks to bordering sites (by virtue of having fewer bordering sites). We could double down on this approach by allowing the 3 storey form proposed by the MDRS by adopting an approach I’ve suggested previously: letting corner sites act as a “wildcard”, which allows for greater site coverage and more ground floor uses like shops.
Likewise, over time you’d expect the size of centres to expand. Allowing commercial use adjacent to existing commercial use will allow centres to expand over time. For a neighbourhood centre that might be just a handful of land parcels, whereas for a town centre that might be within a few hundred metres, to allow larger scale activities like supermarkets or big box retail to emerge. In practice, this could be done with a “buffer” of Mixed Use Zone between the centres and residential zones.
It’s also important to change what kinds of activities can occur within these commercial zones.
Access to a supermarket is a major amenity that these kinds of centres can provide. The Commerce Commission’s market study looking at the Supermarket duopoly identified zoning as a barrier to entry for new supermarkets and supermarket chains: supermarkets are hard to consent, and the few sites big enough for a supermarket often already have a supermarket on top of them, a supermarket chain holding the land out of productive use, or are held up in covenants barring new supermarkets. Supermarkets will always require consent for things you need to manage for public interest, such as vehicle crossings, but the system could be broadly less suspicious of them.
A proposal for a new New World on Dominion Road (with residential above), for instance, has had to go through the government’s Fast Track Consenting process after local residents complained to a very sympathetic council that it could cause additional traffic.
Housing within Town Centres is also often fraught. Despite the fast track process, the “expert panel” recommended to lop off the top story for “urban design” reasons. Similarly, a developer wanting to add housing above one of the most pleasant and accessible town centres in the country, Mission Bay, has recently been forced to go back to the drawing board after a local NIMBY coalition sued their proposed medium density development, which exceeded the allowable height limit of 14 metres.
Likewise, some low-rise apartments were killed in the Eden Valley town centre just a few years ago, when independent commissioners took the side of the locals who would prefer nothing ever changes:
Some controls within commercial zones might also need to be strengthened to include levers like frontage controls, to avert outcomes like this:
This is a downgrade though. What is currently a row of shops will become this strange mesh screen… pic.twitter.com/mGVzxjZHbk
— Malcolm McCracken (@urbanistfromwhk) February 28, 2022
The only thing that can be done is to make it clear in our zoning code and urban design guidelines that these mid-rise, mixed use with good street activation are the kinds of outcomes we need to be seeking in and around our centres. So with all this in mind, how council responded to the updated NPS?
- No change within centre zones
- No additional intensification (beyond the MDRS) for:
- All neighbourhood centres
- Local centres that are small in size and/or have low accessibility
- Town centres that have low accessibility
- Apply the THAB zone to residential zoned sites adjacent to the edge of a centre zone (up to 200m) for:
- Local centres that are large and accessible
- Town centres that have low accessibility
- Apply the THAB zone to residential zoned sites adjacent to the edge of a centre zone (up to 400m) for:
- Town centres that are large and accessible
These could have been disappointing but small fry – if they had better defined “large” or “accessible” in a sensible manner. However, rather than test these against concrete metrics, they are simply defined relative to the median of all centres. Consequently, half of all centres are defined as small, and half as inaccessible. The definitional word games render a large number of centres which otherwise seem well-suited for intensification.
For instance: Mission Bay, St Heliers, Jervois Road, Kingsland, Morningside, Market Road, Mt Eden, Mt Roskill, Mangere Bridge, Sandringham, and West Lynn are all excluded from any change. Many the excluded centres have supermarkets, while many of the included ones are only large enough due to swathes of car parking, rather than any real activity. Particularly absurd is Blockhouse Bay and Lynfield: a pair of town centres, almost right next to one another, similar size. But Blockhouse Bay falls on exactly the wrong side of the size threshold, despite being the more accessible of the two.
A more reasonable approach would have been to use size as a way of filtering local centres that function effectively as neighbourhood centres, but otherwise treat the medium-sized local centres simply as future town centres in-waiting.
Even those that do receive change get very little: a 200m radius has one sixteenth of the area as a 800m radius, which is roughly a 10 minute walk — the metric used for metro centres and rapid transit stations elsewhere in the NPS-UD. But the value of transit is that it takes you to somewhere to work, live, and play. To upzone less in the areas you actually do that makes no sense.
Also – para 33 gives away the planning mentality here. We have a growing city, but local centres can never be expected to grow. (Penned at our local centre, ripe for growth) pic.twitter.com/Djls4KTBlO
— Tim Robinson (@tim12rob) March 3, 2022