Auckland Council has nitpicked its way into rejecting two high-density apartment developments on public transport routes near the CBD. Hayden Donnell asks whether council's consents department really believes in the vision of the Unitary Plan.
The Unitary Plan was supposed to fix things. When it passed in 2016, huge swathes of Auckland were rezoned for apartments and townhouses. Developers were incentivised to stop building 400m² mansions on every tract of available land. Most importantly, the council's full weight was finally behind a vision of a compact city built around public transport nodes.
Its officers were empowered to ignore the brigades of leafy suburb-dwellers whose public meltdowns had slowed Auckland's evolution to a glacial pace for decades. Perhaps sensing defeat, many vocal anti-change campaigners didn't bother to show for the hearings. "Had the villa-owning Boomer army lost their passion for kidnapping Auckland and returning it to the 1950s?" wrote some moron at The Spinoff. "One thing's for sure: they lost. The plan is passed, and for the first time in its existence, Auckland has a sensible, coherent growth plan that covers the whole region."
Lately, there's been signs that optimism was misguided. A series of consenting decisions have made it look like NIMBYs are clawing back the ground they surrendered two years ago and raised questions over whether the council is truly committed to the vision of its Unitary Plan.
On Dominion Rd, a major arterial route which will one day soon be the route of the government’s multi-billion dollar light rail line, council officers opposed a 102-apartment development put forward by their own development arm, Panuku.
Council landscape architect Peter Kensington said the apartment would deliver adverse visual effects to nearby properties. Council reporting planner Ashwita Murphy said the development was out of character with the surrounding area. Council urban designer Chris Butler was concerned about the building's lack of "transition and setback". All three recommended resource consent be turned down.
A similar saga is playing out with the co-housing project Cohaus on Surrey Crescent in Grey Lynn. Despite the proposed development being next to major public transport routes and focused toward encouraging car-free living, council officers have recommended it be denied resource consent mainly because it only provides 10 car parks for its 19 apartments.
The decisions are potentially defendable under planning rules. Both the Surrey Crescent and Dominion Rd developments are non-complying with the Unitary Plan – breaking rules on minimum parking and maximum height respectively. But applying for a non-complying development isn't like breaking the law. Council grants a non-complying consent just about every time someone decides to add an oversized garage.
Ockham Residential developer Mark Todd said council isn't aggressive enough in fighting for the compact city principles of its Unitary Plan when it comes to developments like Dominion Rd or Cohaus. 'Council culture is definitely lagging its own progressive Unitary Plan," he said. "The Auckland Plan is a democratic document that asked for 70% of our houses to be in the existing suburban environment. That was publicly consulted. The Unitary Plan breathed life into that. And the council won't really back it."
Council is too risk-averse to take bold stands in favour of high-density housing when considering non-complying consents, Todd said.
'The Unitary Plan should have in brackets under it 'rulebook for dummies'. The Plan can't possibly anticipate all the good developments and make sure they go into this permitted funnel… So as soon as you lodge a non-complying activity it shouldn't be 'oh the sky’s going to fall down, what are we going to do with it?' they should have a really positive attitude – 'what's the outcome [we want]?'"
He believes that a large part of the issue is a fear of costly legal action – something Todd believes is misguided.
"There is an institutional bias towards legal conservatism. They're not really open to taking a positive view of how the legislation and the Resource Management Act (RMA) can be interpreted," he said. "A non-compliant consent – that doesn't mean it's bad. It just means the council's got to use its professional skill to assess those effects directly against the RMA. And they're quite within their rights to say they're going to grant the consent because the effects are less than minor. And they won't do that because their legal department needs a good kick up the arse."
But council isn’t just legally conservative – it's sensitive to the political issues that come with upsetting NIMBYs. In opposing both the Surrey Crescent and Dominion Rd developments, council officers were acting in line with loud local opposition groups. That wasn't unusual. Housing and public transport projects in Takapuna, Westgate, Mt Eden, and Mt Albert have all faced backlashes in recent months – many of them backed by local representatives. In every case, council has delayed, augmented, compromised, or rejected attempts to enact positive changes that will help a majority of Aucklanders as it seeks to appease a vocal minority.
There have been positive changes since the Unitary Plan passed. Council approved a near-record 12,843 consents last year. But Auckland needs 15,000 consents per year to keep up with its growth, and these cases make it look like the council still has its priorities skewed.
In recommending the Dominion Road apartments be turned down, it's essentially saying the negative effect of eliminating residents' views of "the sunsets across the silhouetted parapets of the Edwardian shop fronts, to the Waitakeres beyond" is more important than the negative effect of nuking a proposal to build 102 homes in the central city on a major public transport route in the middle of a housing crisis.
In turning down Cohaus, it seems to consider the negative effect of making car parking more difficult at times somehow outweighs the negative effect of fucking up a development. So in keeping with the council’s vision of a compact city, it may as well have been on the cover of the Unitary Plan.
There's still a housing crisis in Auckland. Where is council's urgency? If I was going to turn down 102 apartments in the middle of a housing crisis, it would have to be shooting lasers at passing children or dispensing neurotoxins through its heat pumps. Council has the ability to be bolder; to stop shitting its pants every time an angry person complains; to prioritise desperately needed houses over section 38b of its most nonsensical parking requirements.
Meanwhile, housing minister Phil Twyford is setting up an Urban Development Authority to take over consenting from council in 12 to 15 special housing areas including the Unitec development and along Dominion Rd. He just announced plans to build 10,000 homes in Mt Roskill. And he's got a target of building 100,000 Kiwibuild homes hanging over his head.
If council can't boldly back the principles outlined in its own Unitary Plan, it's looking like Government will.
Hayden Donnell is a staff writer for The Spinoff