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  • Writer's pictureDr Jenny Condie

The status quo is ~literally~ not an option

It is a common rhetorical device to say the status quo is not an option. What we usually mean by this is that the old ways of doing things will not set us up for success in the future. When it comes to Wellington city’s spatial plan this is true. However, the literal meaning of this phrase is also true in this case, as the new National Policy Statement on Urban Development (NPS-UD) has made a number of elements of our current district plan unlawful. (The NPS-UD is issued by central government and is legally binding on councils.)

There has been a lot of debate since the draft spatial plan was released for consultation, much of it focused on the tension between existing character protections in our inner suburbs and a desire to allow more housing development within walking distance of the city. With consultation open for another month I thought it might be useful to draw a distinction between where the status quo is literally no longer an option and where councillors will still have flexibility to make choices. I hope this will help people to focus their submissions on the things we can change rather than the things we legally can’t.

What choice does Council have available to us about character protections under the new NPS-UD?

The short version is that suburb-wide character protections are no longer permitted under the new NPS-UD. In other words, the status quo is no longer legally an option. Under the new NPS-UD, we can (probably) still maintain some protections of character areas in our inner suburbs, but how we do that will have to change.

The NPS-UD says that we must allow buildings of at least 6 storeys within walking distance of the edge of the city centre. Note this doesn’t say we must “require” 6 storey buildings, just that we can’t prevent up to 6 stories in certain areas. This would include most of the suburbs that currently have pre-1930s character protection.

The NPS-UD does allow for some exceptions to the “at least 6 storeys” rule, known as ‘qualifying matters’. Heritage is mentioned as a specific qualifying matter, but character is not. It is not clear if character would be accepted under a generic “any other matter” exception provided in section 3.32.1.h.

The draft spatial plan has been prepared on the assumption that character would be a valid exception under the NPS-UD. However, character protections would need to be justified on a site-specific basis.

WCC staff and consultants have conducted a street-by-street analysis which will allow us to meet this requirement. We will also have to demonstrate an “appropriate range of options to achieve the greatest heights and densities” while maintaining character. This would include things such as allowing up to 4 storeys near character areas.

Within this targeted approach proposed by staff there is some flexibility.

  • Are the criteria for identifying character that deserves protection too loose or too strict?

  • Is four storeys in these areas a good compromise between the 6 storeys required by the NPS-UD and the two storeys which most character houses occupy?

  • Is the walking catchment the right size? Should we be increasing it to a 20 minute walking catchment or reducing it to 5 minutes?

In our previous consultation, 56% of people agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I support higher buildings near the central city even if it means removing the protection of the character of Newtown, Mt Cook, Mt Vic, Thorndon, The Terrace, Holloway Road, Aro Valley and Berhampore.” If that included you, then let us know if you like the proposal in the draft spatial plan or if you think we should remove character protections altogether. In that case, individual heritage buildings would still have protections, and we could continue to require compliance with strict design guides in these suburbs.

One of the key criteria for allowing exceptions like character protections to the “at least 6 storeys” rule is that we have to show that the city can meet its housing development needs even with these exceptions. Which means that if we allow less development in the inner suburbs in order to protect character areas there will need to be more development elsewhere. This would either mean even taller buildings within the CBD (potentially risky because of earthquakes) or greater development in the outer suburbs (longer travel times and less economically attractive for density).

The northern suburbs would likely see the greatest share of any development that can’t be accommodated in the inner suburbs, as the north is served by train stations where the “at least 6 storeys” rule also applies within walking distance. The more character protections we keep in the inner suburbs, the more housing development will need to happen in Ngaio, Khandallah, Johnsonville, and Tawa. (Kilbirnie and Miramar will likely also see increased development, but multiple natural hazards in these areas makes development more risky and expensive.)

This is another area where I expect we will get plenty of feedback. Let us know if you think the walking catchments in these areas should be larger or smaller than currently proposed.

Find out more and provide your feedback here:

Consultation is open until Monday 5 October at 5pm

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