If twenty-thousand buildings across the city were determined to have exactly the same kind of character, few would try to claim that each and every one is “special”. 

And yet, this is exactly what Auckland Council planners are doing.

The National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD) is a document containing international best practices for developing affordable, accessible, and low-carbon cities, which directs the major local authorities to upzone to allow up to 6 story apartments near to important transit and employment centres.

It recognises that some of these areas won’t be suitable for this, introducing “qualifying matters” to discount them from development. This is mostly intended to minimise new construction in areas which might be vulnerable to things like natural disaster, although also keeping in mind areas which have existing cultural or historical value, such as particular sites of importance to Māori.

Auckland Council evidently has a more expansive and colonial idea of cultural or historical value, and the discussion around the NPS is now primarily a fight around whether to retain existing construction bans (called Special Character Areas) within the innermost suburbs constructed as the first wave of suburbanisation in the city, filled mostly with the villas and bungalows that were mass-produced to meet the growth of the city when thousands of immigrants came from Britain to start a new life here.

Although heritage protections are explicitly allowed by the NPS, the vast majority of villas and bungalows do not meet the threshold to be considered heritage – most of these buildings have been extensively modified, are found in other cities both in NZ & abroad, and are not important sites for notable people or historic events. Their only claim to ‘heritage’ is being old and being villas.  

These areas are often quite pleasant – but this is mostly abundant mature tree canopy, lots of traffic calming measures, and the result of being built long before we started clearing massive amounts of our cityspace for the private automobile – producing a compact built form which is usually not allowed by the very rules that modern zoners seek to impose.

The Plan

Unsurprisingly, none of this is included in the new definition of Special Character. In determining Special Character to be a qualifying matter, Council has produced the following:

It’s clear from the inclusion of “period of development”, “level of physical integrity”, and “architectural style” that Special Character has been designed to stealthily lower the bar for a preservationism that can’t be justified by traditional heritage protections. 

But even more egregious is the inclusion of “scale” and “typology”. It is incoherent to say the existing scale or typologies is a reason to prevent the NPS-UD directed scale and typology, when the NPS-UD exists to change the scale and typology of places whose existing urban form is unfit to meet our climate, housing, and transport needs.

It is hard to see that what is being consulted on is legally consistent with the NPS-UD, let alone with the multitude of nationally significant crises in housing costs, climate emissions, or transport accessibility across the city. Especially as the qualifying matters are themselves qualified, as follows:

  1. Qualifying matters need to identify Specific Characteristics that makes the level of intensification required by the NPS and MDRS inappropriate in light of the national significance of urban development
  2. Heights and density more restrictive than the NPS catchment can only be imposed to the extent that it affects the characteristic in question
  3. Site-by-site evidence is required for qualifying matters, which includes justifying the extent of the area that it’s applied to, as well as the sites that it applies to

From these, it’s quite apparent that a number of their methods, some of which was discussed by Anna’s guest post last week, are wrong:

  • “Special” is not specific, and therefore not something that can itself be a qualifying matter
  • Character areas cannot have single family house zoning beneath the underlay, they need to be MHU/THAB (or equivalent in non-residential zones) with the overlay just regulating the characteristics that are identified as specific to the area
  • Sites which are not determined to have a character dwelling on them cannot have special character protections on them

How should this work?

An approach which is both consistent with the NPS and interested in protecting the existing character of urban areas would have started by defining the specific physical characteristics that particular areas currently have. For example, many areas urbanised in the 1970s are characterised by brick and tile architecture – this may be a feature we decided to preserve in these areas. Rather than all-but banning construction, new apartments should be permitted where they respect those characteristics.

The Onehunga Mall Club, mid-rise development in the town centre

The under-construction Onehunga Mall Club is an example of how this could work – 6 stories of modern apartment will sit above a newly constructed row of shops with façade built in the form and material characteristic of the older shops in the town centre. 

Under a more rational system to manage character, an overlay would define this particular style of shop frontage as being the specific characteristic which defines the Onehunga Town Centre, and new developments would be instructed to respect this, but otherwise apartment construction is permitted.

Of course for this to work well, there would need to be thought put into which characteristics we want to preserve – some architectural deisgns may look fine on a villa, but poor on an apartment. Similarly, many streets are sometimes improved by breaking up a characteristic to make the area more visually diverse.

In some exemplary cases of where all houses on a street conform to an architectural era, this approach may be indistinguishable from preservationism. For instance, McCullough Ave is a street in Mt Roskill which is entirely intact 1940s state houses, and villa streets like Cockburn in Grey Lynn have been largely untouched. Protecting a handful of streets like these would be inconsequential for housing supply, but allow them to be properly managed as an “urban museum” — spreading preservation as broadly across the city as possible means spreading thin the resources to keep these areas intact!

An approach to protecting character which enables housing is not just preferable, it’s necessary:

The National Significance of Urban Development

So maybe this produces a better outcomes – but why bother? Because qualifying matters cannot stifle the “national significance of urban development”, and the most significant change we need in Auckland’s urban form is to fill the housing donut. While only ~4% of residential land within the city sits under a special character overlay, almost the entire area that they sit over is where it makes the most sense to intensify. If we don’t open up these areas for apartments, then we’re condemning less-suitable locations to intensification, which will have less desirable effects upon climate and transport outcomes.

Thankfully, there is still time for Auckland Council to re-consider their approach. Today is the last day of Pre-Consultation on the NPS-UD plan change to be submitted in August, and the Coalition For More Homes has created a submission guide for anyone hoping to push us back in a pro-housing and pro-urban direction:

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  1. Council just trying to stay on side with the people with loud opinions as usual. They know their proposal is pointless but they can say they tried to preserve the heritage etc. And let’s face it, no one gives a toss about the heritage, this is 100% about stopping intensification in the rich areas.

    1. Sorry Jimbo, I for one give a toss about heritage. It is a not-insignificant element of our tourist industry for a start, and has employed me and hundreds of others for a long time. Please take your finger out of your eye.

      1. I care about heritage too. 20,000 old villas is not heritage though, it’s just people using heritage or character as an excuse to keep undesirables out of their neighbourhood.

        1. Nonsense.
          Where a coherent historical architectural form is present what individually is not “special” can collectively become so, and become tourist attractions, viz. New York Brown stones, Sydney’s iron latticed townhouses, or rows of Georgian terraced housing. There is nothing that says an accessible, coherent walking path through mature tree canopies and safe traffic calmed streets full of period bungalows wouldn’t or couldn’t be a tourist attraction or just a really nive walk for people from other parts of the city.

        2. It it were some collective coherent historical architectural form present, the council wouldn’t have needed to mess around like that, redrawing and chopping up those special character areas to find bits and pieces that fit the rules.

        3. Sanctuary, if council tried this:
          “There is nothing that says an accessible, coherent walking path through mature tree canopies and safe traffic calmed streets full of period bungalows wouldn’t or couldn’t be a tourist attraction or just a really nive walk for people from other parts of the city.” The locals would be up in arms and asking council tondo something about all the out of towners walking through their suburb. This is exactly what the Northcote point residents opposed when Skypath was proposed.

        4. Sanctuary, this is about keeping people out of the leafy suburbs full stop.

      2. “It is a not-insignificant element of our tourist industry for a start…”

        I for one don’t give a toss about the high carbon international tourist industry. We need to diversify our economy away from it, pronto.

        There is almost nothing more inequitable than an industry based on aviation. 80% of the world’s population have never stepped into an aeroplane; they are the also the 80% least able to adapt to climate change.

      3. Redeveloped villas in Grey Lynn a not insignificant part of our tourism industry?

        Has someone told the tourism board

        1. Can’t wait for tourism NZ to make some marketing videos about these magical bastions of pretty specific heritage!

        2. The myth of the villa street tourist trap falls down fast when you spend some time walking around there. The houses are basically weatherboard skinsuits over completely modified dwellings fortified with enormous fences and double or triple garaging. The streets are devoid of activity except for builders getting the new kitchen ready for Christmas party season, and half the people there would sooner shoot you than let you take a photo of their verandah.

      4. Since when do ‘tourists’ prioritize wandering (driving through?) suburbs with oldish bungalows? “Let’s spend a day staring at the houses” really?
        Auckland does not have that type of history where our buildings are a tourist attraction in and of themselves.

      5. Everyone who goes to San Francisco takes a photo of the same six houses. We could choose six villas in Franklin Road and demolish all the rest. You’re welcome.

        1. Disagree – Preserve 8 villas. 6 to live in , 1 for the Museum photos, 1 for the café; but that is all you need.

      6. hundreds! lol

        versus housing 10’s of thousands of people, thousands of businesses, lowering transport costs.

        Any conceivable tourism in this industry couldn’t possibly outweigh the benefits brought with intensification. Especially considering in the words of Sir Paul Callaghan, “Tourism is making us poorer”.

        Also did you not read the first paragraphs of this story? These SCA’s are NOT heritage. If the houses were then they would be on the Heritage NZ register, they would not be modified to the huge extent they are with gaping garages especially.

      7. Tourists may like modern architecture too, or a combination. I was in ponsonby in the weekend first time in ages, some of the new builds are really cool, the old stuff is repetitive.
        Maybe we could protect a street or two of old houses, not tens of thousands (which probably represent 100,000+ potential residences). Of course if you really want to see old buildings as a tourist, try Dunedin or Napier or similar. We can probably afford to protect those.

        1. We don’t protect Modern architecture either! The Council flats in Grey Street were knocked down and they were awesome!

      8. Once the heritage is gone it’s gone forever.
        Build tower blocks in areas of new development not in amongst single storey dwellings, plunging people into perpetual shade, devoid of sunlight. In the leafy inner city these apartments will be expensive and you may well get owner occupancy. In the lower socio-economic suburbs you will develop slums and ghettos. It’s been already proven worldwide are we so stupid as to follow suit.

        1. That’s why whole areas should allow higher level and mixed use developments to avoid this single story hard against apartment blocks. We need to do something like this to fit everyone in without covering the whole country in housing. But where is this zoned now (tower blocks next to single storey) in Auckland? I think the idea is to have graduated height from dense zone to lesser ones.

    2. Jimbo, do you think this is true: “They know their proposal is pointless but they can say they tried to preserve the heritage etc.”

      Aren’t they wasting public money one way or the other? Whatever way Government will respond will involve spending more public money from taxes. If the public take them to court about this, Council’s defense will involve spending more rates.

      Public money shouldn’t have to be wasted just to get responsible climate action from a Council that’s had three years since it declared a climate emergency to sort this stuff out.

      1. Councillors just want as many votes as possible, wasting public money is par for the course.

  2. It seems to be a baby-boomer thing. The generations before them had no great love of old stuff. They did their best to level whole inner city suburbs. Then the entitled generation bought up villas and evicted the working poor from vast tracts of the inner city and made the areas twee. All the while accumulating massive untaxed capital gains.

    Most of us don’t give a rat’s arse if they want to keep their own villa. But these entitled few think other people should not be allowed to develop. Their argument seems to be that people are an adverse effect that needs to be avoided. They simply don’t want more people in their area.

    1. We need to turn the boomers against each other. Tell them their central-outer suburb will be intensifying because the mid-central suburbs won’t and have stacked the deck in their favour. Frankly there should no need to build houses on reserves 15km from the CBD; it’s just because Grey Lynn wants to stop intensification on 90% of Grey Lynn.

      1. I think you will find most of these villas are owned by Generation X and younger, driving their SUVs or double cab utes that are often blocking the footpaths and parked on the verge. These are the people you need to take issue with.
        Signed a boomer against NIMBYism

      2. Except the best way is to convince everyone of the benefits of intensification. These are the people who choose to travel to dense cities to enjoy the character…

        1. If that were doable then we wouldn’t be here. Pit them against each other. The essence of progress is conflict.

        2. Yea I don’t get it. These people also rave about PT overseas, but think anything being spent in NZ on except roads is “woke gone mad” or something.

      3. Has no one noticed that these heritage suburbs tend to be fairly intensely built up, compared more recent suburbs. So the scope for intensification is less.

    2. “Their argument seems to be that people are an adverse effect that needs to be avoided” best summary ever

  3. At least three of those criteria are tautological: Period, Architectural Style, and Typology. Three ways of saying the same thing. Scale too perhaps, as here scale just means small, which is a characteristic of the type (single houses), architectural style (colonial), and period (Victorian & Edwardian) of the only special character councils planners are trying to embalm. So lets then reduce all these to one criteria, say: Period.

    Relationship to Street; another way of saying small (scale)? Or does that include how fenced off it is, or dominated by carparking?

    That leaves Level of Physical Integrity. Presumably that means how original each building is, which is likely assessable, but given almost all of these old houses now have vast garages rammed into them or other modernisations, surely this supports narrowing down the qualifying properties considerably. Or perhaps this refers to how consistently Period a street or area remains? More tautology then.

    This clearly is not a rigorous process and likely will be struck down by govt or the courts.

    Agree with post author; focus on processes to incentivise great design in new buildings that supply more housing and amenity in these areas while preserving a smaller amount of the very best examples of colonial development.

  4. Thanks, Scott. Although improving our land use and urban form scales up the effectiveness of every other action to reduce emissions, Council has been resisting making the responsible changes they’ve needed to take. In December 2020, a year and a half after Council declared a climate emergency, I realised this was due to the planners’ lack of understanding on the topic.

    I asked several questions about why they were prioritising work on Integrated Residential Development instead of doing more important work to enable intensification and to make the city more walkable and liveable. One question was: “Does Plans and Places consider the transport emissions related to the housing development type when prioritising the work they do?”

    The answer showed how little the silo understands the impact of their planning:

    “Vehicle emissions while a major sources of air pollutants in Auckland, are not directly regulated under the Unitary Plan but by other regulations. Some air quality effects may be indirectly addressed by the objectives and policies for a compact urban form and a centres-based urban development strategy. It is not appropriate to consider only one matter when setting up a department’s overall work programme.”

    The rest of the answers were just as irresponsible. The level of sprawl still occurring, and the restrictions on intensification that are still plaguing this city are due to Plans and Places’ regressive work. While they always try to blame Government, the Council’s response to the NPS-UD and MDRS shows that this is just an excuse. Government just wants housing. Council could be making sure that housing happens in the right place.

  5. I personally bought a house with land in an area that should get intensification. Looks like it will, I simply cannot wait till some developers come along and pay me too much money for my piece of land so they can build an apartment block.

    What I don’t get, is do people not like money anymore? Intensification actually increases land value, and if you hold out you can definitely profit.

    There are also people who will gladly live in a villa in a dense neighbourhood, as you get those quaint Manhattan single storey houses surrounded by tall buildings.

    1. Yeah, and it’s complex. If everywhere in the existing built area was upzoned, the land value is unlikely to go up much. The scarcity of properties coming onto the market out of the pool of inner city suburb developable properties is what drives the prices up.

      And, as I put in my submission:

      By restricting development potential, the rateable value of properties in the special character areas will be lower than elsewhere. This means the property owners will pay lower rates. This is regressive, because these areas are typically the more wealthy areas. So, if any special character overlay areas are retained, they should be rated using property values based on being able to develop to at least 6 storeys. If Council determines to keep the special character overlay areas and doesn’t adjust the rates calculations in this way, the rest of the city will be required to subsidise these wealthy areas.

      1. Unfortunately though Heidi not all of those people want their place to be special character, in fact the NIMBYs could be the minority. Why should the YIMBYs pay more rates if they are not allowed to develop?

        1. True, but for an individual leafy suburb property owner the rates are nothing compared to the capital gains they’ve had recently. And if they feel strongly about it, they could join the advocacy bandwagon, or at least talk to their neighbours…

          The important point about rates is more that in a city that needs to catch up on its infrastructure upgrades after decades of the “keeping rates low” mantra, we need rates to be fair. Higher across the board, as well, but fairness is needed to make sure the increases don’t impact those unable to pay.

          The lower rates in these special character areas is an extra way they reduce equity.

  6. If these planners actually gave a shit about special character, they would be introducing rules to prevent any modification at all on buildings with high heritage value. No undercroft garages, not front extensions, no chimney demolition, no sealed car parks between the building and the street. They don’t want to protect special character, they want to prevent development.

    I completely agree with the approach that quite a few people have proposed. Find a few streets with some really good condition, unmodified villas (prefereably with some sort of historical significance) and give them formal heritage protection, then remove all of the special character areas.

  7. Heritage should be just that – controlling what is done to individual properties (or a street of them) for a real value, not SCA. If it’s “What must I do to look after my heritage property” rather than “How can I control what my neighbours do?” then there might be less seeking SCA.
    How does SCA match with the liberal democracy “I am rich enough, I should be allowed to do whatever I like” of certain politcal parties.

  8. It’s really interesting (lame) to see all the concerned angst ridden comments that are based on bias and prejudice. Replace the word Boomer with Maori and it doesn’t sound so flash huh?

    Inter-generational blame is so petty and cliched and ignore the reality that individuals from every generation can be Selfish, ignorant NIMBY’s.

    Who is buying most EV’s? – Boomers. Who are buying and living in the apartments? – Boomers. Who are buying up large in the leafy burbs? – professionals in their 30’s. Not any boomers in their SUV’s dropping the kids at the school gates.

    All the above are generalisations; but no more so that the tired old cliches that go unchallenged here.

    every generation has contempt for those that go before but none more so than the current virtuous ones. As I said at the outset – it’s lame and achieves nothing.

    1. ‘every generation has contempt for those that go before but none more so than the current virtuous ones.’

      ‘Inter-generational blame is so petty and cliched’ – have to agree with you, good to see you’re getting involved in the petty and cliched game though.

    2. “every generation has contempt for those that go before” – and the ones after don’t you think? I certainly remember hearing about “young people these days” and how younger generations have poor work ethic, values etc. Try listening to talk back radio…

  9. Some of the council’s survey ratings are rather questionable. One of our clients had a property scored at 5/6 yet the building is not of the style, period or typology and has a mediocre relationship to the street!
    The distinction between heritage and special character has always been misunderstood and poorly differentiated. The special characteristics of areas are often poorly distinguished in SCA assessments. It often feels like one SCA is the same as another, it was just a different colonial-era subdivision that created it. Other than Hill Park, why are there no other SCAs that aren’t colonial and early 20th Century in age? Have we only been able to produce characterless areas since then? Are all of south, west and north Auckland “characterless”? The unitary plan says so.
    Agree that fewer areas SCAs of colonial era would elevate the ones left to actually being ‘special’ rather than the thousands we have now. And they should more rightly be called heritage conservation or preservation areas with an express objective of preserving the existing neighbourhood because of its collective value (that’s good and bad for land values). Otherwise go check out Huntly or any other small town if you like colonial buildings.

  10. A work colleague who lived in these areas did not like special status either. She had to go through local government bureaucracy to improve her house . People may want to add a 2nd house but probably could be stopped by rules to make keep it “special”.

    1. The irony is that everyone who has a historical villa only wants to preserve the street front. No one wants dirty, dusty scrim walls. But most of all absolutely no one wants a tiny kitchen at the back of the house with a separate dining room and no indoor outdoor flow.
      I wonder if people will treasure their historical home as much, when due to climate change, we have ever more frequent adverse weather events, and possibly access to fresh water is at risk, all because most people didn’t want to do anything that would inconvenience themselves to reduce carbon emissions.

  11. Lol. You can demo every villa and bungalow and replace them all with apartments if you want, I couldn’t give a rats arse.
    But it won’t make a lick o’ difference to climate change.

      1. Of course not because we are trained to believe that growth is good and bigger is better.
        Climate change is simply the side effect of growth. It’s inevitable.

  12. Only this morning a tour group walked past my house, in an area that is due to have much of its special character status reconsidered. Please do not underestimate the value many place on either living in or visiting areas with homes – not at all grand, in our case – that have housed generations and are of beautiful materials and workmanship. Why else do we tend to visit Sydney rather than Canberra, or Kyoto rather than Yokohama? I hate the idea of the large-scale demolition that lies ahead.

    Unfortunately, Auckland’s inner city is now expensive. This is less to do with old houses than the desire to cut out interminable commutes. Intensification in these areas won’t help people acquire a first home.

    For the record, I don’t think any Aucklander, no matter where they live, should have a 12 metre high dwelling next to their single-storeyed house. In these days when cities are trying to stay cooler, I think Auckland needs to keep every established tree it can. Surely we can plan better. I acknowledge the wish to make public transport more viable and limit development of arable land, but these recent developments are premised on unrestrained growth in Auckland’s population. This is at the expense of all other regions which, if Statistics New Zealand is to be believed, are projected to remain fairly static or even decline.

    1. I can’t say I ever went to Sydney for its old houses, nor will have 99% of all other tourists. We all went for the harbour, opera House, beaches etc.

      Let’s be frank here, Australasia has very few true character dwellings. Most are less the 100 years old and apart from certain buildings like the stone store in Keri Keri, add nothing to our history. If you want a period building, visit Hamilton Gardens where they have built a beautiful late 19th/early 20th century building as part of the Mansfield gardens.

      Keep one or two ORIGINAL villas/bungalows if you can find them unmodified (I bet you can’t), the rest are really just new homes in old facades and are used as a sign of New Zealand’s class system which we pretend does not exist even though it is ever-present in these areas.

  13. “Intensification in these areas won’t help people acquire a first home.”

    It will however sharply increase supply in central suburbs, making those in far-flung-but-still-unaffordable houses a little more affordable.

    1. There are only about 7,000 properties likely to lose character status. Many are too small to be subdivided into 3 properties. Nor will everyone sell up to developers. I don’t think it will cause a sharp increase in supply in the inner suburbs.

      1. This is an argument in favour of more properties losing their character status in order to increase affordability.
        People in Devonport are gloating over how they have managed to avoid just about all intensification in their suburb due to heritage protection, ensuring that the ferry doesn’t count as mass transit, and by emphasising perceived infrastructure short falls. Even the limited upzoning suggested is being bitterly opposed.

  14. Great article and overview. I have put my submission in. Lets hope Auckland Council listens, but my expectation is that they will not and fall back on the “4%” argument.

    Another perspective I have is that those drafting the NPS-UD should have seen this issue coming. Its nothing new, the same issue/debates occurred through the Auckland Plan (2012) and the Unitary Plan (2014-2016). Knowing that this was still going to be a contentious and political issue the government should have put much much stronger policy/rules/standards on the ‘qualifying matters’ in the NPS-UD. They should have included a policy that specifically procludes ‘character’ being used as a ‘qualifying matter’. For the reasons outlined in this article and the one last week, I cannot foresee any circumstance where ‘character’ is a valid reason to stop intensification.

  15. When I read posts like this I am torn, part of me admires the rhetorical skills behind convincing people to champion the erosion of their own rights. Part of me is annoyed by the same thing. But climate change is too important to allow claims that planning deregulation serves the climate to go unchallenged.

    Focussing new housing investment on the destruction of urban character in already dense areas is much worse for emissions than focussing on increasing density and associated collective transport options in low-density areas. The evidence for this is overwhelming.

    The alternatives are not sprawl or deregulation, they are planned intensification driven by evidence and great design or anti-democratic libertarian inspired deregulation.

    By all means champion individual property rights over communities and democracy if you like. But please don’t pretend to care about the climate. The greed, selfishness and hyper-individualism you champion is a big part of what created the climate crisis.

    1. As someone who doesn’t own a house in a character area what “rights” am I standing to lose by getting rid of character rules in the unitary plan?

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