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

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Reviewing the review

Map of Wellington's Central AreaI've been wondering what happened to the Central Area Review since submissions closed on it last November. It turns out that after receiving 90 formal submissions, the council is now asking for more feedback: in effect, submissions on the submissions. You have until the 12th of March to make your views known, then a formal hearing of submissions will be held before the middle of the year, followed by a commissioners' decision which has to be ratified by the full Council. The same applies to some other district plan changes, such as the Urban Development Area & Structure Plans and the Heritage Provisions. The timeframe seems painfully drawn out, and although it's apparently standard practice for district plan changes, the more cynical among us might wonder whether it's designed to allow developers to get in now and build things that wouldn't be allowed under the new plans.

Trawling through reams of policies, rules, guidelines and submissions can seem like a daunting task, but if you read them carefully the submissions can be quite revealing. Sure, much of it is quite predictable: the heritage mavens want every piece of timber that's survived a few decades to be preserved in aspic, while the developers scream "how dare you infringe my private property rights by not letting me tear down historic buildings and shade the public spaces?!" However, some of the submissions (363kB PDF) might be a first hint as to what people have in mind for their properties, so let's look at a few of the more interesting ones.

It's easy to assume that any property owner objecting to heritage provisions must be a rapacious developer, but objections also came from Wellington Wesley Parish (#88), the St James Theatre Charitable Trust (#20) and Downstage Theatre (#23). The church might want to modify their hall or built on their vacant land, while "the site behind the St James Theatre is an asset held in trust for the future viability and development of the St James Theatre and the Opera House". I take this as meaning that whether or not the trust has any concrete plans to develop that site, the development potential of a site is an asset in itself and might be used as collateral to keep the trust going. That's possibly a sign to be cautious and not read too much into any of these submissions: an objection to development limits may not indicate any actual intent to develop.

Changes to Willis/Ghuznee intersection after the bypassMany residents of St Peters Apartments at 192 Willis St (see submission #25) object to the post-bypass rezoning of the motorway tunnel entrance and Ghuznee St intersection as Central Area with a height limit of 27 metres, and want the land developed as park space instead. It looks like the space will be neither, though, since Transit insists that the land will still be needed for roading and emergency access, with a bit of token landscaping around the edges ("parsley around the pig"). I'd like to think that Transit could still get their emergency access and yet create a useful public area there: a paved plaza could provide space for an open air weekend market once the one further up Willis St succumbs to the inevitable development. The recent removal of planting along Ghuznee St is presumably just to allow for insertion of a turning lane there, so we shouldn't read too much into that.

Two submitters take quite different positions on the vacant land adjacent to other parts of the bypass. Roland Sapsford (#80) asks for "land adjacent to the bypass be zoned to encourage lowscale development in keeping with the heritage character of the area", while Steve Dunn (#70) wants "all edges of the bypass from Arthur Street to the tunnel that are not currently built on" to be zoned Open Space". I have to side with Roland on this one: one of the things I hate about Karo Drive is its bleak, open, suburban feeling, and I agree with a commenter that "it still looks like a fresh scar". Defining the edges with low- to mid-rise (2-4 storey) buildings would do much more to integrate it into the urban fabric than creating more parks, which in any case would be too small to be of much real use.

Burnt-out remains of Footscray Ave cottageDr Marko Kljakovic (#26) was concerned about "the financial implications of reducing building heights" and wanted the removal of "the Footscray Ave cottages located on 65-69 Abel Smith St, Te Aro from the proposed Cuba Street Heritage Area." You may remember that Dr Kljakovic was recently seriously injured in an explosion and fire that destroyed one of those very cottages, after using a candle to see his way through a house full of paint thinners at 10pm on a Sunday night.

The Warehouse Ltd (#75) wants twice as much parking as the plan allows, and seems worried by the restrictions on signage. That's worth bearing in mind now that they're looking for a new central city location.

Some submitters (#73, #50, #30) don't like sunlight protection and heritage status for Courtenay Place because that will limit what they can do with their buildings, including those that house Molly Malone's, Espressoholic and Chow. Three submissions (#58-60) all wanted 264-266, 244-250, 236-242, 257-259, 267-273, 275-283 Cuba St and 45 Abel Smith St, in other words pretty much everything south of Fidels, all removed from the Cuba St heritage area. Another objector (#21) wanted the existing maximum heights retained on a range of Te Aro properties, including the homes of Fidels, Illicit and Miss Demeanour (who is already worried about rent rises). While none of these submissions may indicate any specific intention to redevelop, they sound rather suspicious and will give most Wellingtonians another reason to support the new plan!

On submitter (#70) wanted noise limits for "electronic sound systems" in public spaces reduced from 75dBA to 10dBA! For comparison, a typewriter or normal conversation is 70dB, a fridge is 50dB and a mosquito buzzes at 40dB. The man obviously has some kind of super powers if 10dB is going to keep him awake.

Most property owners and developers objected to any loss of buildable volume, but Museum Hotel Properties (#43) in particular wanted to retain a building mass factor of 100%, and also wanted to "define Public Environment to exclude loss of amenity to adjacent building owners or strata title owners." Can we assume that they have plans to build right up to the property edge somewhere and block another building's windows?

The Ministry for Culture & Heritage (#39) says that the plan "should recognise that a National War Memorial Park is proposed for the land in Buckle St between Taranaki St and Tory/Tasman Sts and that the above provisions need to accommodate the creation of the proposed park." That certainly confirms what I wrote earlier about the site.

Progressive Enterprises Ltd (#67, owners of Foodtown, Woolworths and Countdown) wanted the rules "amended to better accommodate and recognise the appropriate provision of large format retail within the Central Area and the relevant operational and other characteristics of large format retail." None of those businesses currently operate in the Central Area, so could this be a hint? Their rivals Foodstuffs Ltd (#19, owners of New World) specifically asked for "the flexible implementation of the display window/active building edge standards when existing buildings that do not have display windows are being adapted for new uses". This seems like a clear reference to their intended conversion of the old A-mart building into a Duffy & Finns liquor superstore. They earlier announced that they were working with the council to "produce the very best design concept", but since blank walls along a central city street is not exactly "the very best design concept", this seems just a tiny bit of a contradiction.


At 3:45 pm, February 14, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think the 'heritage mavens' as you call them are asking for undiscriminating, blanket protection in the way you briefly suggested. After briefly scanning the submissions it seems to me that hard-core heritage advocates are significantly out-numbered by the buildng owners who want their properties removed from the plan. I know your comment about mavens isn't the main thrust of your post but I wanted to make my point.

At 10:48 am, February 15, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

Ok, so I exaggerated slightly for effect, but there are some statements in there (and in the submissions on the heritage provisions in PC43) that exasperate me. Such as:

- owners of heritage items should be notified of any development within 50m of their building (50m? That's a whole block in parts of the CBD!)

- ensuring that owners of heritage properties paint them "appropriately"

- "That views to and from each of the heritage buildings should
also be controlled." There are a lot of listed heritage buildings: surely not every one is such a gem that it deserves a preserved view?

- blanket protection for every building over 60 years old. The number 60 seems peculiar here - is it specifically designed to exclude anything post war, with the implication that Modernist buildings aren't worthy of protection, whereas anything older than that is automatically "heritage"?

But more than the heritage side, it's the "big buildings are always bad" people who irritate me. Sure, we need to ensure that development is appropriate, that streetscapes are well-structured, that important public spaces are protected and that there's a distinction between the high and low cities. But some submitters just want to reduce building wherever and whenever they can.

For example, while I agree with the 75% mass rule, I think that the discretionary allowance for up to 35% extra height in the case of exceptional design is a vital complement to it. Some of the submitters react in horror to that, saying that the height limits are already high enough. I don't think so, though: if my reading of the rules is correct, the maximum height anywhere in the central area is 95m, so at an absolute maximum, given 35% dispensation for exceptional architecture, the limit is 128m, which is not much taller than the Majestic Centre. What chance do we have to get any decent skyscrapers?

At 1:09 pm, February 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Tom, I'm very impressed with your analysis of submissions. Thank you.

At 3:40 pm, February 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, didn't you put in a submission yourself? There is no record of it in the list of submissions....

Also, i think that the only submissions that can be made now are from submitters, commenting on the basis of other submissions lodged, ie no fresh material.

At 3:46 pm, February 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you think the 'big building are bad' people in part hold this perception because of more general problems with the overall quality of new architecture in this city? We see many tall apartment blocks erected, for example, but very few can be said to add architectural value to our city. Ok, so they provide important compact living space for a certain number of people and add to the vibrancy of the inner city, but it's a hard ask to admire their impact beyond these factors. Maybe if we saw a better class of new buildings in our city concerns over height would be mitigated accordingly? I don't know, just a thought.

At 4:02 pm, February 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pretty strong stuff about poor old Dr Kljakovic...!! :-)

At 4:22 pm, February 15, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, arson IS a pretty effective way of ridding yourself of an unwanted heritage building.... developers do it all the time.... cough cough, blame it on kids playing with cigarettes... we've all watched Outrageous Fortune, and have a good idea of why buildings REALLY burn down... but it sounds as thoi the "poor old doctor" might have overdone it with the kerosine....

At 4:31 pm, February 15, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Tom, didn't you put in a submission yourself? There is no record of it in the list of submissions...."

No, I didn't: I ran out of time to make a thorough enough analysis, and as I wrote at the time, I think the Arch Centre's comments were pretty similar to my views

"Also, i think that the only submissions that can be made now are from submitters, commenting on the basis of other submissions lodged, ie no fresh material."

From reading the news item, I think that the latter part is true, but not the former: anyone can make a submission in this round, but only in response to the previous submissions.

At 4:38 pm, February 15, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Pretty strong stuff about poor old Dr Kljakovic"

Yes, I don't want to jump to any conclusions, though I've had other people suggesting things to me. I do think it's worth putting together these separate bits of public information and letting people see s bit more of the full story.

At 5:05 pm, February 15, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

"Do you think the 'big building are bad' people in part hold this perception because of more general problems with the overall quality of new architecture in this city?"

Possibly, but I think it's more than that on some people's part: you can see that in their objection to height dispensations for buildings of exceptional quality. I can understand some cynicism on their part, given that planners can really stretch the definition of "exceptional" or "iconic" design when it suits them, but the overall tone seems to be that tall is never acceptable, no matter how good the architecture.

"We see many tall apartment blocks erected, for example, but very few can be said to add architectural value to our city."

I'd actually dispute the first part: very few of the apartment blocks in Wellington look "tall" for me. Some of them are too big for their context, but hardly any of them are over ten storeys and most of them look squat and heavy rather than tall. That's one of the reasons why I support the 75% mass restriction, since most of them would benefit from some slimming down, articulation or varied shape, rather than being lower. I do want to ensure that the low city remains that way, and that six storeys is about right for Te Aro; but many of the objectors want to restrict the high city as well.

As for "very few can be said to add architectural value to our city", while that's sadly true, there is a handful that I can indeed admire to some extent. The Summit on Molesworth is one, and the Sanctum and recently finished Portal apartments are quite nicely detailed. The Watermark looks like it will benefit greatly from being able to go over the height limits in part while being lower in others, producing a welcome break from the "envelope-filling" lumps elsewhere. Even the worst ones (Lodge in the City on Knigges Ave, Stratford on Willis St, some of the student ones in south Te Aro) suffer primarily from cheap nasty materials and poor detailing rather than from excess height, and could actually have been pretty decent buildings with a bit more care and investment.

Moving beyond apartment blocks, two of the most recent tall(ish) buildings (Maritime Tower and the Holiday Inn) are, I think, really rather good. It's hard to argue that they're great architecture, but there are some very interesting touches, some nice detailing and materials, plus slight but welcome departures from the rectilinear, so they do in my opinion "add architectural value to our city". If anything, the Maritime Tower sould have benefitted from a few more floors.

"Maybe if we saw a better class of new buildings in our city concerns over height would be mitigated accordingly?"

I certainly hope so! Shall we get Fender Katsalidis in to build us a proper residential skyscraper rather than the half-hearted lumps we're getting at the moment?

At 5:41 pm, February 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

New York City, in spite of its initial ecological footprint, is paradoxically rated the greenest city in America by various organisations. That's because of the ultra-high population density, high rates of public transit, and the fact that people don't have to walk very far to do almost everything they need or want.

I find it ironic that many of the anti-height preservationists themselves live in suburban-ish areas, which seems at odds with their laudable aim of increased public transit. It's like having a Greenpeace sticker on the back of a Ford Explorer.

At 9:58 pm, February 16, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice comments tom, its great to read your analysis plus your above replies. I certainly hope Wellington gets more high quality tall buildings also!


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