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

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Density done right: The Altair

It's been a while since I've written a post in this occasional series, but that's partly because there are depressingly few good recent examples to choose from. I've been looking for exemplary inner-suburban infill developments, and while this one is stretching the definition a bit, other infill developers could learn a lot from it.

The Altair Townhouses - street detailThe Altair townhouse development in Newtown's Rintoul St is, at three storeys, what I would call a low-rise medium-density development. It's in a location that's almost perfect for such a typology: close to public transport and amenities, and just close enough to walk to town if you're feeling fit, yet far enough into the suburbs that apartment living would be less appropriate. If we're to encourage more than just childless young people and empty-nesters to live at higher densities, then developments like these, with small private courtyards and shared spaces, will be an essential part of the housing mix.

The Altair Townhouses - detail from the laneOf course, there are plenty of townhouse developments around, but with a few exceptions they are mostly aesthetic disasters of the sort that provokes backlashes against infill. I think that these are an important counterexample because they illustrate one way of being contemporary without being bland or aggressive, and of being lively and friendly without giving in to pastiche. The mass is broken down into smaller units; the two halves of the development have different colours and materials; the fa├žades are deep and animated; and the overall balance between consistency and variety is remarkably well done.

Not everyone will like their rectilinear style, and they're not "in keeping with the historic character" of the neighbourhood in the narrowest sense, but I think it's clear that this is thoughtful architecture with quality detailing and solid materials. Once the development is complete and the trees have grown, this could evolve a character of its own over time.

I said before that this stretches the definition of "infill", and that's because it's a large-scale development on a brownfield site (well, literally speaking Athletic Park was a green field, but you know what I mean) rather than an incremental intensification of one or two quarter-acre sections. The comprehensive nature of this project makes it much easier to plan the site well, to produce a balance of consistency and variety, and to respect the street as urban space, all of which are tricky when you've got a single section on a narrow street frontage to work with.

The Altair Townhouses - courtyardThere are some things I'm not so keen on, such as the street-side parking on the southern half and the ambiguity between public and private spaces: creating new walkways for the general public can be a good thing, as can creating shared spaces for the residents only, but spaces that are unclear tend to work out poorly for both groups. I'm not in a position to judge things such as the quality of workmanship or the appropriateness of the interior planning, and at over half a million dollars for three bedrooms they're hardly a solution to the housing affordability crisis. But this is a much better use of land than the low-rise retirement ghetto that is spreading across the rest of the Athletic Park site, and it's proof that large medium-density townhouse developments don't have to be nasty, flimsy and unimaginative.

The Altair Townhouses - from the street


At 9:32 am, November 29, 2007, Blogger Erentz said...

Ah yes. I went by this a few weeks back and thought they were taking shape nicely. I do have a really big problem with the development of the Athletic Park site though. They haven't built any new lanes or streets between Adelaide Rd and Rintoul St. Instead the whole area there is slowly turning into a horrible private maze of little suburban cul-de-sacs and the like.

Having one or two new east/west streets between Adelaide and Rintoul St's along this section would've been totally better for the general appearance, and also pedestrian movement, especially for access to public transport on Rintoul St.

But yeah nice example of density done right (for the area).

At 9:54 am, November 29, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

I agree about the east/west streets, and was hoping that something would emerge from the full scheme (which I haven't seen plans for), but it's not looking good. The planning of the whole Athletic Park area has been poor (or more likely, non-existent), and it could have been a permeable, pedestrian friendly, mixed-use precinct, with clear distinctions between new public lanes or streets and private spaces for residents. It's a real missed opportunity.

But in that planning vacuum, this particular private development has done admirably well. My main reason for highlighting it is aesthetic rather than urbanist, as most townhouse developments (such as the Greta Point one) have been neither traditional nor modern, but a horrid mishmash of the worst of both. This one seems to stand out for being unapologetically modern yet capable of evolving character over time.

At 4:26 am, November 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, What is a " low-rise retirement ghetto"? One of these modern rest home villages or something worse? The former seem to be a good way of attracting the sort of people who will help WCC become carbon neutral - too old to drive. At least this cloud does have it's silver lining.

At 9:03 am, November 30, 2007, Blogger Tom said...

A low-rise retirement ghetto is one that sprawls out over a lot of land (compared to some three-storey retirement "villages" elsewhere), has only a couple of gated entries (leaving hundreds of metres of street with fenced-off edges), and in common with the whole ethos behind retirement homes, creates a generational ghetto. Why is there this assumption that old people only want to mix with other old people?

Even if they're "too old to drive", they're a relatively long walk from any shops, because the "village" is so spread out and there are is nothing but residential use in the redeveloped blocks. A greater sense of integrated planning between the retirement village and the townhouse development, with more accessibility and permeability, some mixing between the two, and a wider range of uses, could have delivered some of the social, environmental and aesthetic benefits of an actual neighbourhood than the evolving sense of segregated compounds.

At 11:17 pm, November 30, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Altair's developer is Stratum and the architects are Michael Bennett and Allan Wright of architecture+. Stratum and architecture+ also did the new apartments opposite Freyberg pool.

At 8:32 pm, December 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm posting on a related note (largely because I can't find another way of raising something)... I couldn't find a reference to the Brooklyn Rise development on your blog. I support urban density close to public transport routes that promotes amenity for new and existing residents (eg new facilities, mixed use). Brooklyn Rise scores pretty low on all fronts. I'm wondering if house buyers share similar concerns to me - for the last week virtually no-one has been working on the gigantic construction site. Or has the developer finally run out of cheap finance?

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