Safe as houses

Holloway Road, Aro Valley, will no longer require resource consent for demolition under Planning for Growth. Photo by Gregor Thompson.

By Gregor Thompson

Gregor is a French and Political Philosophy 3rd year “mature” student at Victoria University. He was a bit late to the party because he spent his immediate post-school years lost in Europe. He returned to Wellington in 2018.
Gregor works with but not for Historic Places Wellington, he is independently engaged in finding a development solution that accommodates Wellington’s future residents that is sensitive to preserving this city’s abundant character.
Gregor tries not to take anything too seriously except things he thinks ought to be taken seriously.

Wellington’s character is under threat, says concerned Wellingtonian Gregor Thompson. He lays out what we could lose if the Council’s “Planning for Growth” proposal goes ahead.

Wellington’s housing stock is predominantly timber buildings, due to the material’s ability to flex in earthquakes, and the density of housing in the inner city suburbs is higher than other cities, meaning the sections are generally narrower and houses closer to one another. These qualities, married with the fact that many houses are on steep sections, creates a townscape pattern that is recognisably Wellingtonian. The only other place you’ll find this combination of charming attributes is in another culturally vibrant, progressive and earthquake prone city, San Francisco.

Set against our vitalising green town belt, neighbourhoods like Berhampore, Newtown, Mt. Victoria, Mt. Cook, Aro Valley and Thorndon are perhaps the best encapsulation of this distinct character. Take for instance Holloway Road, the quirky street nestled away in the gully at the top of Aro Valley. The eastern end of Aro Valley, just up past the Polhill Reserve was initially named Mitchelltown after Henry Mitchell, a man who inherited vast amounts of land from his father. Mitchell’s original purpose for the settlement was to build and lease out cottages to entice opportunist workingmen to the city. In the years since, a number of these old workingmen’s cottages have been renovated and modestly worked on. To this day there are still a number of houses that hold stoutly to their original character. Holloway Road currently has around 15 historic buildings including an old butchery, a former grocer’s, and the Mitchelltown War Memorial erected in 1920. Among the devotees of this memorial are old students of Mitchelltown School, a primary school which previously sat right at the mouth of Holloway Road before it’s amalgamation with Te Aro School and eventual demolition.

Once considered a slum, Holloway Road has housed an immensely diverse range of residents and made some of the most eclectic contributions to our city’s history. A notable centenarian and an array of infamous and famous politicians and artists have all at one time or another had the privilege of calling Holloway Road home. Each year until 1993, former Prime Minister David Lange would come to celebrate the birthday of William “Pop” Swensson at number 108. Swensson was New Zealand’s oldest citizen at the time. A murder has taken place, as have a few fires, and near the old school site a man accused of sharing secrets with the KGB was arrested in 1970. The street also once accommodated one of Wellington’s most notorious Black Power houses. It may well be that Holloway Road is the Wellington street equivalent of Keith Richards.

Because of a collective understanding of this rich history and the social adhesive of the atypical housing the occupants seem to be very well acquainted with each other: neighbours share compost heaps, invitations, produce, and preserves. The sense of community the gully generates seems to persuade people to spend their entire lives here.

On 6 August the Wellington City Council voted overwhelmingly to pitch their rendition of Planning for Growth to the city over the next eight weeks. The proposal, or draft spatial plan, is a response to a central government mandate that population growth be accommodated over the next 30 years. The council estimate sits at 50,000 to 80,000. The plan, based primarily on an insubstantial public survey (only 1,372 Wellingtonians responded), is to extensively develop in most suburban centres. It makes space for apartments up to six storeys in Newtown, Mount Victoria, Mount Cook, Berhampore, and around the Kilbirnie town centre, along with apartments of up to 15 storeys in the central-city. 

In addition to this the council would erode the pre-1930s Character Area protections, allowing development and demolition without the current requisite of a resource consent in large parts of our immediate peripheral suburbs. If it goes ahead as is currently detailed, this will be the largest urban development scheme in Wellington’s history. Holloway Road will no longer have any character protection whatsoever. All of this while public and media attention will be distracted by the general election and global pandemic.

Aro Street, Aro Valley, will no longer require resource consent for demolition under Planning for Growth. Photo by Gregor Thompson.

It is true that houses are too expensive and have been for some time. It is also true that we should expect the city’s population to increase over the coming years. However, how we grow is salient. There is room to move in multiple directions and it seems as if the council is choosing one that administers themselves the least amount of work – delegating the lion’s share to private enterprise. On 5 August Mayor Andy Foster admitted in an interview with RadioActive that he is concerned that the proposal provides far too much room to move. By some estimates seven times more than is required to house the projected population growth. The council’s reasoning behind providing all this excess developing capacity is to give developers a larger market and thus increase the potential to build more generally. However, the consequence of this will be that developers have the ability to cherry pick their sites – working, as you would imagine, from the most profitable downwards. Given the extra value of homes in Character Areas, due partly to their proximity to the city but also, because of the desirable vibrant communities these neighbourhoods seem to stimulate, it’s likely these homes will be the first to go. The laissez-faire attitude endorsed by the Council could see areas like Newtown’s residential area and lower Mount Victoria be developed before a failed industrial locality like the northern end of Adelaide Road. It is worthwhile preventing this outcome.

… while there is an imperative to make room for people, it shouldn’t come at the expense of what makes them want to come here in the first place…

Our distinct inner-city neighborhoods offer an important visual depiction of our history; they are a medium for understanding our city’s past. The widespread admiration we have for these areas provides us with a reason to be active in our communities. In societies that are at times disenfranchising, connections to our environments can give us purpose; Holloway road is a testament to all of this. So while there is an imperative to make room for people, it shouldn’t come at the expense of what makes them want to come here in the first place. Demolishing these homes without proper scrutiny and consideration may suck the soul out of this city.

There are alternatives. The pre-1930s Character Area provisions are of vital importance if we intend on keeping the character of this city, so instead of being totally redefined they should be amended. The resource consent process on homes in these character areas should remain as is but the system behind the process must be made more fluid. If the council were to hire or regularly consult with expert developers and architects who endorse developments that are sensitive to character, sustainable, necessary and affordable we may find a solution that is beneficial to everyone. Nonetheless, if the outcome of being static for too long is opening the floodgates to private development it will be most unfortunate.

…demolishing these homes without proper scrutiny and consideration may suck the soul out of this city…

Outside of this, prioritising or creating incentive schemes for certain types of developments over others may go some way to ensuring the right homes are built first. Poor quality commercial buildings, unoccupied homes and non-historic sites like the southern end of Tory Street or behind Webb Street would be a good place to start. Everyone is entitled to a home and everyone wants to love where they live. It is crucial that we don’t compromise on either of these ideals, they are mutually dependent.

Wellington City Council is accepting submissions on this matter until 5 October.
Have your say here.

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