How will the Government’s plans to develop the Unitec site at Mt Albert look once the build is over? Urban designer Matthew Prasad casts a critical eye over the project. [This article first appeared on the The Spinoff website and is published here with the permission of the author.]
OPINION: It’s been only a couple of weeks since the Government’s first KiwiBuild development announcement, and there has been a lot of talk and hypothesising about what form the development may take at Unitec’s Carrington site, and how it will impact the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Some of it has been good, some not so, and some comments have been just plain ugly, like political commentator Matthew Hooton’s Mumbai slur, or broadcaster Mike Hosking’s usual “slum” tag.
Several years ago, I co-authored Unitec’s structure plan document for its Carrington site. That plan made the bold recommendation for Unitec to consolidate its education facilities to approximately 15 hectares within the southern half of its site, and release the remaining surplus land for development – commercial, residential or a mix of the two – to help Unitec’s balance sheet and help it compete in the global education market.
More recently, the company I work for, Woods, has been working with Ngāti Whātua Orākei on the development of its sites along the western boundary adjacent to Oakley Creek, so I have a good knowledge of Unitec’s Carrington site.
Now I want to make it clear – I am absolutely in favour of this development occurring as announced. It’s not going to be easy, as urban developments take a lot more effort than traditional greenfield developments. But that aside, there are parts of the announcement which need to be addressed.
Why did the Government even buy this site?
There are parts to this question. The first is around certainty of tenure.
Unitec has been trying to open up its Carrington site for development for several years now, even before the 2009 structure plan document was adopted. IBM and various other companies were courted to locate their businesses on this site, but none did so, for various reasons – high on the list being that the entire site is either Crown-owned land, or land purchased with public funds for education purposes.
So, for any non-educational development to occur on this site, the land must either be retained by Unitec, creating either a leasehold scenario – which banks, purchasers and developers generally hate (especially if it’s a residential development) because leasehold in New Zealand is terrible – or alternatively, and vastly more attractive to everyone, be sold as freehold.
Creating freehold titles triggers a process that must be adhered to under law. This process includes the land being offered back to the Crown, or the original land owner, or to iwi of the Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau collective as part of their Treaty of Waitangi settlement agreements.
This all takes time to do properly, something that the previous Government appears to not have grasped with some of its ill-fated announcements a few years ago. The Government stepping in to purchase the site and presumably removing the educational notice on the land essentially removes this process, and with Housing and Urban Development Minister Phil Twyford quite clearly stating that he would like to see local iwi as partners in the development, there may be no requirement for the first-right-of-refusal treaty settlement clause to be invoked.
With this major issue around tenure and delivery neatly packaged up, the attractiveness of this site to development partners is vastly improved, removing a factor that likely hampered development at Carrington until now. So even with Opposition Leader Simon Bridges’ assertion that the Government is repackaging a National initiative that his party signed off while in power, it is quite a significant and critical repackage.
The second part to this question is around urban vs greenfield development.
Greenfield development is easy. Land, if already zoned appropriately, is generally blitzed and turned into sections for house builders to build their homes on. However, to get a new greenfield development off the ground and to a point where houses can be built takes time – three to four years on average, longer if a plan change is required. This is one of the reasons a lot of the special housing areas under the previous Government have had mixed results to date.
Urban sites such as the Unitec one are quite different. A lot of the key pieces of infrastructure are already there. Unitec is well serviced by Carrington Rd and already has several internal roads which may not even require modification, especially if the Government is keen on seeing a pedestrian-friendly development.
Yes, there will be infrastructure upgrades (sewerage, stormwater, water etc) like every other development, and new connections will need to be made such as a bridge connection across Oakley Creek which was identified in the 2009 structure plan (and briefly discussed by Greater Auckland here), but on the whole, there is far less required to kick a development of this scale into gear than a greenfield equivalent.
Are 4000 homes even possible on 29 hectares?
Yes, and you need to get over it regardless of what Act Party leader David Seymour says.
The reason everyone gets concerned about a number like 4000 homes (remember, this is the upper number of the range quoted) is that we have no local experience in delivering such a target across 29 hectares, which is largely down to our relative infancy in city building.
To date, we have been doing only mixed low rise suburban type developments, achieving gross development yields of around 25 dwellings a hectare, with the highest I can think of being Kensington Park at Orewa, at 50 dwellings per hectare. The projected density of 105 to 140 dwelling units per hectare proposed for Unitec is typical of many other urban developments around the world.
If a similar development were announced in Sydney, Melbourne or Vancouver, no one would bat an eyelid. That is what you do when confronted with an urban site located between two growing local urban centres, with access to adjacent public transport and fringed with a high-quality protected ecological area. In urban regeneration terms we are barely out of the toddler stage, yet we think of ourselves as adults.
[Editor’s note: The Housing Minister has said that 63 per cent of the 29 hectares will be devoted to residential housing. That’s around 18 hectares – giving a density rate of about 165 units per hectare for a 3000-unit development and a rate of 220 for a 4000-unit site.}
This development will be a challenge for Auckland, forcing us to confront apartment design and buildings of all types, reflecting a true urban development that is focused around people and not the private car. Think Hobsonville meets Daisy by Ockham meets O’Connell St. It is something that the private market is not averse to; rather, it needs only a simple nudge, which this development ought to do.
Already the private market is stepping up to the mark. Daisy, in Akepiro St, Mt Eden, has demonstrated that not only is there a market for car-less apartments, but it is a profitable one. Pt Chevalier is becoming more dense as well; there are already a couple of apartment developments proposed within the town centre which will only increase with this announcement.
All this debunks the myth that density is neither good nor desired; this is spread by those who advocate for personal choice but are happy to tell you how to live, and use scare tactics to paint a picture of terrible poverty that only occurs with density. Well, they’re wrong, and there is a good dismantling of that argument on Twitter by Francis McRae, which I cannot better.
Why will only 30-40 per cent of the dwellings be affordable homes?
[Editor’s note: 30-40 per cent of the homes will be constructed under KiwiBuild, but a further 20 per cent will be social/state housing.]
Several buildings on the land that the Government has purchased are historically listed – like Building 1, the former mental asylum. They are not only expensive to maintain (Building 1 accounted for almost a quarter of Unitec’s maintenance budget) but incredibly difficult to convert. These buildings could never be affordable, so the only logical way to ensure a half-decent return on investment is to convert them into premium luxury apartments, or a boutique hotel.
Additionally, anyone who has been to the Carrington site will know it is not exactly flat. Dealing with this kind of topography is costly and that cost will be transferred to the sale price. Otherwise the Government will be making a loss, and do we really want it to do that? I’m sure the media would have a field day if it did.
So, by focusing the market-rate homes to areas where cost can be absorbed or transferred to the selling price, other areas can be made available to build affordable homes where construction is easier and less costly, which matches my broad assessment that half the site is easier to develop than the rest.
The development of the Unitec site will surely be a challenge for the Government and all the parties involved. However, it is a challenge that is neither outside the capabilities of the current private-development market nor radically different from anything already successfully built in many other Western countries.
Auckland is simply growing up, and this development is part of it.