Bringing both…&…&…(&…&…) into Wellington’s Spatial Plan

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A tiny Mount VIctoria hillside community, viewed from above (photo: @SeanDG)

It’s gold, listening to in-person submissions to the Wellington City Council. I love seeing and hearing people whose submissions are based on lived experience in a particular place, caring about a particular community. I can then place their experiences alongside mine, in a tiny Mount Victoria hillside community overlooking Oriental Bay, where gardening residents encourage and support bees and other insects and small creatures on the roadside reserve that adjoins their dwellings.

Late last year I joined other Wellingtonians at the Council hearings on its Draft Spatial Plan (the Plan) when we gave oral submissions to complement our written submissions. The whole morning was run with grace, like clockwork, and I loved the super-simple and effective remote for the Powerpoint. But my 5-minute presentation was a miserable experience for all, because I thought the room would be much smaller, wore my reading glasses and couldn’t see my own Powerpoint. And with the seconds ticking away didn’t feel able to say ‘Hang on a mo, I’ll just rummage in my bag for my other specs’.

But I learned so much from the others who submitted. Anna Kemble Welch for instance, a City Council award-winning Newtown resident for 40 years, an architect who specialises in designing environmentally sensitive and accessible homes, part of the legendary Newtown Festival team and a long-time member of the Newtown Residents Association.

Like all those I heard and like me, Anna longs for more affordable, healthy and accessible housing in Wellington. But, and it was a big BUT, she did not believe that the (draft) Plan offers the right solution. And, in the few minutes she had available, she made a strong argument for a more sophisticated, more nuanced approach to spatial planning, based on her lived experience of Newtown.

Many of Anna’s arguments apply equally to Mount Victoria, where I’ve lived for 40 years or so. Others don’t. But they all emphasise the reality that, to create affordable, healthy and accessible housing, the Council needs to consider more factors than it does in the Plan. It’s also important for the Council to work closely with existing communities and use local knowledge to find the best solutions, for now and future generations.

The Plan we were responding to is largely based on a simple either/or. One- or two-storey dwellings that include pre-1930s homes in central suburbs — roughly the status quo but with a few extras, or market-forces-driven density, with highrise buildings everywhere possible, encouraged by removal of the Pre-1930s Demolition Rule that restricts demolition of pre-1930s homes.

Believing, as I do, that the second option will create more problems than it will resolve, Anna advocated for solutions that transform the either/or of the Plan. She believes it is possible to have both, in elegant ways that take account of other important factors, in what I call the Both…&… &… (&… &…) approach. She makes a compelling argument for density done well and offers positive, well-researched and well-argued suggestions.

The Problem: The Plan’s Single Focus Approach
The Plan offers a market forces approach to Newtown residences, allowing highrise buildings of more than 6 storeys in ¾ of the residential area, scattered amongst 1- and 2-storey homes. According to Anna, this ‘is not good planning and will not lead to good place making. It is a recipe for gentrification, not for quality, affordable housing’.

‘Mixing building heights and types to this extreme in residential areas is not good anywhere in Wellington,’ she added. ‘Not all old houses need saving but increased housing density must be done well, at a scale and height that fits into the urban and social fabric of our existing streets without negative impacts’.

The Solution: Doing Density Well, Without Displacement
‘Newtown and Berhampore are communities where all the people matter — home to a very diverse, inclusive, creative, connected community, a mixture of renters and home owners, and a festival that celebrates this!’ said Anna. Residents want to welcome more people to live in the area without displacing those already there.

The &… &… &… (etc)
So Anna and her partner Martin Hanley have formulated a proof-of-concept alternative plan that shows where and how more than 2000 more homes can be provided in Newtown, 3 or 4 times the planning-for-growth number of 450 to 700 new homes required in Newtown over the next 30 years.

Their plan relies on concentrated development in Newtown’s Suburban Centre, already zoned for 4 storeys, by zoning this area for up to 6 storeys. It also embodies the recommendation by Newtown Residents Association to densify along the transport spine, after their own community engagement exercise for the Planning for Growth consultation in 2019.

The Suburban Centre already has buildings right up next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, without the side yards and set backs required in residential areas, and the road is wider than the residential streets. Many of these buildings need earthquake strengthening so they’re ripe for upgrading. Local commercial property owners are ready and keen to start building. They just need the Council to make this possible.

In their research, the couple examined the potential of every site in the Suburban Centre zone and included a few more on the periphery where there are underutilised properties, where increased density would not have a negative impact.

They used a mix of three different apartment building types as templates in their plan.

The advantages are —

1. A mix of comfortable sized apartments where each apartment has light and sun.

2. Iconic historic buildings have been preserved untouched, while others have their historic shop frontages left intact, but allow for apartments in behind.

3. Infrastructure easier to upgrade in a concentrated strip along the commercial centre: new homes are right on the bus route; sheltered by verandahs; right amongst Newtown’s shops, cafes, supermarkets, community services, library; within close walking distance of our schools, medical centres, hospitals, hospice, churches, parks and sports fields.

4. A win-win that plays important roles in reducing car dependency and fostering social connectivity.

5. Allows for community co-design — working collaboratively for the best outcomes.

6. Does not take away existing housing to make more.

Anna and Martin welcome the opportunity to work with others in the community to expand on their concept in the future, to identify more places where increased density would sit well in the landscape and neighbourhoods, to design the very best outcomes for the future. I’d love them to do a similar exercise in Mount Victoria, where there’s been strong opposition to the plan, although the Mount Victoria Planning Group is also working on an alternative plan, not yet available.

Where it came from
My own written submission related to the part of Mount Victoria around where I live, on the much-loved and much-used Oriental Terrace zigzag (1), within the St Gerard’s precinct and the only human-inhabited off-road stretch of the Mount Victoria Lookout Walkway.

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It’s the busy bridge between Mount Victoria and Oriental Bay.

You’ve already seen what it looks like from above (usually with people on the path).

And this is what it looks like from below.

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photo: @SeanDG

All the wooden houses are pre-1930. And, as I mentioned earlier, zigzag residents care for the road reserve (the zigzag started as an extension of Hawker Street).

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The Oriental Terrace Zigzag as an extension of Hawker Street (top right quadrant)

We grow bee-loved plants in among our native plantings, in return for no-city-council-spraying. Some of us are also experimenting with a no-watering regimen.

On this bit of pathway, for instance, among the natives there’s an ever-changing variety of flowering annuals and perennials .

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photo: @SeanDG

Like these.

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photo: @SeanDG
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photo: @SeanDG
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The zigzag reminds one non-resident of the Filbert Gardens in San Francisco, she wrote on our FB page the other day.

After I read the article at the link she gave, I could see what she meant.

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And just the other evening, as I was weeding on the steep bit near the plums, a couple went by and one of them said something like ‘Imagine, if they worked at this it could be like Lombard Street!’ So I looked that up and Lombard Street too is in San Francisco (and then I wished that the Council helped with the gardening, to take it all up a notch).

But our birds are very different than those in San Francisco. Tūī, kārearea, korimako, kōtare, riroriro, tauhau, even a kererū this year, which I thought was scoping out the plums. (But it didn’t return as they ripened.) As well as all the exotics like thrushes, blackbirds, sparrows.

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tauhau (photo: @SeanDG)
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riroriro on the ngaio (photo: @SeanDG)
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kārearea (photo: @SeanDG)
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tūī on the ubiquitous zigzag power lines in the rain (photo: @SeanDG)

And it’s not just beautiful flowers and trees and birds and bees here, in some wild spaces and others more groomed, all subject to fluctuating resident time and energies. There are many kinds of insects like stick insects and preying mantises and and centipedes and slaters, steadily increasing in number. Thanks, I believe, to the diversity of planting and the no-spray programme. And I’ve learned so much. For instance: I planted a group of manuka trees for the bees but have never seen a bee on a manuka flower here; I now know that bees aren’t attracted to manuka flowers if other flowers they like are available.

My written submission
My written submission is mostly irrelevant now, because I discovered that the highrise designation that I thought was given to the houses at the top of Hawker Street and opposed, was in fact a designation given to St Gerard’s.

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According to the Planning Office ‘…we believe this may have been a mistake. Thank you for raising it with us, we will look at this again and make changes as necessary as part of the updates for the Final Spatial Plan’. (2)

I was also concerned because there was no reference to the upper Oriental Terrace, including the zigzag, because it falls within the Mount Victoria North Character Area Design Guide. Had the area been quietly excluded from the Design Guide, in an action that paralleled its removal from areas included in the pre-1930 Demolition Rule, back in 2008, without any consultation process and following a report that was riddled with inaccuracies? (3)

Again I was reassured: ‘Our intention is that [the Design Guides] will remain in in a similar form in the new District Plan.’ (4) Note, ‘similar’, but not ‘the same’, so I will keep an eye out.

So, now *almost* reassured, why did I still care?
Mount Victoria’s urban and social fabric used to be a little like Newtown, very diverse. I remember all the Greeks, for instance, who’d arrived via chain migration, many of whom later moved to other suburbs. And Samoans. And lots and lots of cultural workers (most who still live there are now quite old). And children with their paper runs, and collecting recyclable bottles to sell. It had vitality and lots of social connections.

But over the last decades that’s changed. The Mount Victoria Housing Trust (5) was set up in 1981 to curb gentrification, and gentrification has accelerated since then, alongside the retention/land-banking of a high proportion of sometimes run-down rental properties, often in dwellings subject to the pre-1930s Demolition Rule. And now, although the Mount Vic Hub, Clyde Quay School and various community organisations work hard to build and maintain it, social connection has reduced.

Most recently, Mount Vic’s had a special kind of gentrification, into Air BNBs. Before Covid, most early mornings there’d be the sound of rattling suitcase wheels before light, as visitors left for early international check-ins at the airport. Investing in that kind of gentrification has been an obvious choice for developers and home owners, given the suburb’s quaint housing stock (think San Fransisco again) and proximity to Courtenay Place, Te Papa, the Town Belt and its treasures like Innermost Gardens, to iconic St Gerard’s and its precinct, and to Oriental Bay and the waterfront.

Because of this history and geography, my submission didn’t have a lot of crossover with Anna’s submission. Once I was *almost* reassured, I changed focus, with some broader ‘Who Benefits?’ questions.

The first was ‘Will the elements of the Draft District Plan help de-gentrify and enliven Mount Victoria and provide housing for those now excluded, especially social housing?’

I don’t think so, because the Plan encourages Mount Victoria development that’s all about market forces. As Anna said about the Plan’s potential effects on Newtown, it is a ‘recipe for (accelerated) gentrification, not for quality, affordable housing’; and not about the overall well-being of people and community.

In Mount Victoria it will mean more new, big, expensive, single family houses, sometimes on sites where several households were accommodated in a house divided into flats. There will be more and expensive apartments, too. Where does the Plan refer to housing that’s accessible to low-income students, artists, refugees, essential workers and single parents in this beautiful suburb? Nowhere.

So the answer to ‘Will the elements of the Draft District Plan help de-gentrify and enliven Mount Victoria and provide housing for those now excluded, especially social housing?’ has to be NO.

I also agree with Anna that ‘Mixing building heights and types to this extreme in residential areas is not good anywhere in Wellington…Not all old houses need saving but increased housing density must be done well, at a scale and height that fits into the urban and social fabric of our existing streets without negative impacts’. Will this Plan generate negative effects in Mount Victoria?

Those negative effects are to some extent dependent on chance, on which landlords/owners sell off their housing stock and when. But, overall, the Plan’s proposals seem more than likely to cause —

  1. More wind tunnels in an already windy suburb that is becoming more windy because of climate change;
  2. Random and ugly scales and heights;
  3. Random losses of sun and views;
  4. Loss of the remnant of community diversity that remains, and reduced community spirit;
  5. A homogenous population of comparatively wealthy people, whether homeowners or transients;
  6. Lots of dwellings without direct access to green spaces.

My final question was ‘Will the Plan make Mount Victoria even more of an attraction, for New Zealanders and international tourists?’

At the moment, those who aren’t lucky enough to live in Mount Victoria pour through it for recreational purposes: walking, jogging, on bikes, visiting the Town Belt, Oriental Bay and the waterfront and the top of Mount Vic. The scale of the suburb makes for a pleasant visit. But those negative effects would change that.

So, largely freed from my original concerns and with my questions answered, I looked closely at the Council’s map of Mount Victoria, to see where there might be options for housing that could include social housing without the negative effects of the current Plan.

My oral submission
Anna’s submission advocated for development in central Newtown and I believe there’s also a good argument for high density development along Kent Terrace, close to Courtenay Place. There’s also a good argument for ensuring that a sigificant area of the nearby land be replanted as kūmara beds, as I understand it used to be, though these aren’t mentioned in a recent article about local Māori history.

But further up Mount Victoria, I think an &…&…&…(etc) approach calls for a little bit of sacrifice, of around 80 pre-1930s homes, as they become available, along the entire boundary between Mount Victoria and the Town Belt. Along that red line below. Unlike say Hawker Street, this is not a well-used visitor corridor, so arguably it doesn’t need the same protection. And as the land incrementally became available it could provide for 300–500 dwellings in high-rise buildings.

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As a result, although the density transition over a couple of decades might be difficult for those already living along the boundary —

  1. All those housed in 4–6 storey dwellings along the boundary would have light, sun, views and immediate access to green spaces;
  2. In spite of the density, no-one below them would lose views; and would lose (perhaps) only a little morning light;
  3. Development along this border wouldn’t affect public enjoyment of the Town Belt, because the boundary is on its downward slope;
  4. Any necessary intensive upgrading of services would largely be confined to a single swathe of development and potential development;
  5. The extent of the development would mean that social housing could be mandated within it, so the suburb is more accessible to a greater diversity of the population, who in turn would enrich it;
  6. Protects the rest of Mount Victoria so it can be developed in a more holistic way, to allow for high-aesthetic-and-heritage-value visitor corridors that includes retention of historic scale and fabric, including — of course! — the Oriental Terrace zigzag in its current form.
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Bumble bee on maku lotus on the zigzag: leaf cutter bees enjoy the nectar, pollen and leaves of the maku lotus and bumble bees like it, too (photo: @SeanDG)

In my oral submission I also drew attention to the potential for additional ways to address the housing problem. While making larger plans, could the Council also develop, support and incentivise smaller ones?

Home Share Movement
For instance, there’s the Home Share movement, now active in the Eastern Bay of Plenty and in Hastings, where older people share their homes with someone else in return for ten hours a week of company and support. That enhances social connection for older people who want or need that, and provides housing for individuals who want that.

Tiny Homes/Sleepouts
There are also changes to the Building Act that make it easier to build small sleepouts. But these require consents if someone wants to include sanitation/potable water/cooking facilities. Why not streamline small, self-contained and safe small sleepout consents, so more people will be encouraged to build them? Especially if they plan to include off-the-grid components such as composting toilets, because these dwellings would then also contribute to resilience in a city that—

  1. Is vulnerable to earthquakes;
  2. Is vulnerable to climate change ‘events’;
  3. Is vulnerable to problems with old pipes; and
  4. Has a landfill problem.

Tucson, Arizona, is considering regulation of Accessory Dwelling Units. There’s been an increase of interest in them because of Covid: ‘“Right now with COVID-19, we’ve been hearing from a lot of families who want an elderly relative — or a relative that just needs more caregiving close by rather than at a nursing facility,” said Manning. But also issues around their use as student dwellings and Air BNBs.

The Queenstown model
In Queenstown, the Queenstown Lakes District Council initiated the formation of the Queenstown Lakes Community Housing Trust, in 2007.

An independent, not for profit, community owned organisation, the trust’s housing programmes are designed to assist eligible low to moderate income households, who contribute to the district’s social, economic and environmental wellbeing and are genuinely struggling to commit to the area because housing is unaffordable.

Most recently it is offering — with conditions — 25 apartments for $200,000 each, the price they cost to build.

The trust receives funding through grants from Housing New Zealand and also through ongoing contributions of land, buildings and/or funds from private local developers who have committed support for community housing as part of the upzoning process of their land.

It must be possible for the Wellington City Council to initiate and support a similar trust in central Wellington?

Always more…
And I bet there are some other suggestions out there, too. One I’ve been thinking about lately is the development of land and buildings owned by various faith-based properties in our area. Could some of them be offered incentives to build some social housing units?

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Bumble bee on zigzag white borage (photo: @SeanDG)

Notes

(1) A detailed history here.

(2) email communication November 27 2020.

(3) More detail here, from “The upper zigzag houses”.

(4) Also: ‘There are two different character areas, one specified in Part 2 of the current District Plan as appendices (the Mt Victoria North Character Area) [and] one we have been discussing in the Draft Spatial Plan, is linked to the pre-1930s demolition rule in the residential chapter. These are two separate character areas in the existing District Plan. I appreciate we have not made this distinction clear in the Draft Spatial Plan and we will be clarifying this in the final version.

In the draft spatial plan we are proposing to amend where the pre-1930s demolition rule applies, so that it only applies within identified sub-areas. We are also proposing a ‘general character overlay’ which applies to areas outside of the sub-areas to control new development (but not demolition). This general character overlay generally follows the same boundaries as the existing pre-1930s character areas in the District Plan (with some areas such as The Terrace and in parts of Thorndon being removed entirely from this area). This is in addition to the Mt Victoria North Character Area which has not been a focus in the Draft Spatial Plan as it is not tied to the pre-1930s demolition rule. Moving forward, these two parts will be reconciled and there will be a chance to provide feedback on the design guides as part of the draft District Plan engagement next year.’ email communication December 1 2020

(5) Its history is here (1981–2006) and here (2007–2012). It became integrated into the Wellington Housing Trust, now integrated into Dwell. As well as dwellings bought by the trust benefactors sometimes lent houses to the trust on a longterm basis.

Warm thanks to @SeanDG; Anna Kemble Welch; Martin Hanley; my fellow zigzag gardeners; and the staff and councillors of the Wellington City Council, who all work so hard for the public good.

Marian Evans. Stories by & about women artists, writers and filmmakers. Global outlook, from Aotearoa New Zealand.

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