Personal reflections on urbanism, urban life and sustainable urban design in Wellington, New Zealand.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Makeover or Mess?

Last night's Architecture Week event was a forum called The Shape of the City: Extreme Makeover or Extreme Mess? It aimed to discuss whether the rapid change that Wellington is undergoing is creating a better or a worse city.

The panelists were:
They were all generally positive about the changes and the quality of urban design in Wellington, although those with a cynical inclination might note that as a council planner, developer and architect, "they would say that, wouldn't they?" Davis pointed out that after 5 years, the Environment Court is yet to overturn a single council resource consent decision, with the implication that the council is not being too lenient. Again, another argument might be that either the Environment Court is also too lenient, or that appeals to the court are prohibitively expensive. On the other hand, Burrell noted that "bad developers" are starting to moan about the strictness of the council's urban design unit, which to his mind meant that the unit is doing its job.

Burrell mentioned one significant development which he believed had the potential to be a terrible mess. He said that the development of CentrePort land (including the Harbour Quays office park) lacked consultation, a design framework, a mixture of uses and any publicly-accessible uses on the ground floor. This, combined with a low-budget mentality and the lack of any way for the city to control the development, was a recipe for an aesthetic and urbanistic disaster. I've already aired similar concerns about this development, and at Urbanism Down Under Chris McDonald has described the sad saga of trying to create an integrated vision for this area.

McIndoe was upbeat about many urban design outcomes in Wellington, especially on the waterfront. However, he warned that ad hoc development in Te Aro had the potential to create an extreme mess. Developers tend to see the discretionary height limit (rather than the permitted limit) as the default, and then push for more, often successfully. This was also the concern of many in the audience, with the recent granting of consent for the "Rococo" building (terrible name) being a case in point. As the Central Area building heights map (735kB PDF) shows, the permitted height in the area (Alpha St, just behind the eastern end of Courtenay Pl) is 27 metres, which is about six stories. So no wonder the decision to allow it to go to 43 metres has been controversial!

These examples are worrying, but I raised the point that sometimes underdevelopment can be as damaging to the urban form as overdevelopment. For example, a car yard on the corner of Taranaki and Jessie streets was recently redeveloped, but limited itself to two stories over a fraction of the plot, with the rest remaining as an open air car yard. The result is a poor use of land, a lack of shelter and a poorly defined streetscape: it belongs in the Hutt Valley, not half a block from Courtenay Place!

I asked whether there was some way to set minimum limits on height and site coverage, as well as maximum. Davis answered that the council can't compel people to do things with their land, but that there might be a role for the council to be more active (rather than reactive) in the future.

I think perhaps that the answer is not compulsion, but coordination. If some agency (possibly the council) were able to note that developer A was revamping its car yard, while developer B up the road wanted consent for student apartments to go above the height limit, perhaps that agency could say "Hey, you two should get together: B's building should stick to a reasonable height, and the extra apartments could be developed in a joint venture with A on top of a ground floor showroom." The result would be a coherent streetscape with mixed uses, efficient land use and a more attractive public realm. Ah well, I can dream!


At 9:25 am, October 06, 2005, Blogger Hadyn said...

People working together?

It'll never work


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