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How dense will Unitec housing be?

This article first appeared on and is republished with permission.

Housing and Transport Minister Phil Twyford opens up a little more about the Unitec development in this interview with Mt Albert Inc editor Bruce Morris. But lots of questions remain and it will be months before there is any real clarity

The Government is aiming to build 50 per cent more homes on its Unitec block than the target proposed under the original private scheme.

Wairaka Land Company, the Unitec subsidiary behind the initial plan to break up the land and sell it to developers, had drafted a masterplan envisaging 2675 homes on the 29 hectare part of the precinct surplus to its needs.

But that was before the Labour coalition came calling late last year to turn the project from a privately-developed estate into a Government launch of its KiwiBuild programmes, with state housing and private market sales thrown in.

HLC, the Housing NZ subsidiary used by the Government to scope the site’s potential, came up with a much more ambitious aim: 3000 to 4000 homes.

Housing minister Phil Twyford told Mt Albert Inc in an exclusive interview: “Our people doing due diligence concluded the site could comfortably carry significantly more density.

“We’re not talking about high-rise tower blocks – more like mid-rise and medium density… imagine the kind of street-scape at Hobsonville, with more three-to-four storey walk-ups in the mix.”

Mr Twyford originally said 63 per cent of the land would be built on, giving a density of 165 units per hectare on the basis of a 3000-unit development, and 220-plus units if the project is going to hit the 4000 upper level.

But now he seems to be pulling back, saying the 63 per cent was “an assumption the modelling was based on. It was not a cast-iron edict.”

At this stage, he’s not saying how far that 63 per cent might move, and perhaps it could shift to 70 or 75 per cent, intruding on potential green space. But even at 75 per cent, the density for a 4000-unit development will be 180 units per hectare (or 136 units per hectare for a 3000 unit build), and that’s getting up beyond medium density.

To those who believe it is all too much, the minister says “they’re wrong”, pinning his faith on the initial modelling work of HLC – the “single best collection of masterplanners that we have”.

He talks about a development of terraced housing, town houses and apartments but, with the tall targets, apartments seem certain to dominate much of the site across 30-40 per cent of KiwiBuild homes, 20 per cent state housing and 40 per cent at market prices.

Just how high will those apartments go? Not high at all, it seems, though there may be the odd block that takes advantage of the ability under the Unitary Plan to go to seven or eight storeys.

Rather, Mr Twyford’s vision – no doubt primed by the masterplan experts at HLC – is for three or four-storey “walk-up” apartments (no lifts trim construction costs). They are hardly unusual elsewhere in the world and becoming more common in Auckland as a new approach to urban living, though scrambling up two and three flights of stairs with a load of groceries won’t suit everyone.

He points specifically to Daisy, a new Ockham development on the border of Kingsland and Eden Terrace, where a 33-unit apartment block has been built on 320sq m. The big difference, apart from the pro-rata footprint allocation of 10sq m for each apartment: there are no carparks. Instead, Daisy has 12 scooter parks, 40 bicycle spaces and two shared cars for the use of residents, run through the Cityhop model.

Which brings us to cars and a past comment that, with Mt Albert’s “superb” transport links (and light rail to Pt Chev on the way) “developers might even take the view that you don’t need to own a car to live there”.

That was a bit of a throwaway line, but plainly cars don’t rate as all-important on the priority list of a Housing Minister who is also Minister of Transport.

“Part of our plan for Auckland is to create the opportunity for urban living that I believe people want and can afford,” he says. “We will be doing a lot of large-scale urban renewal projects, particularly around rail network.

“If you live in a community that has fantastic transport links, as Unitec will have - light rail, trains, cycle lanes and good high-frequency buses – well, with that, many people may choose not to own a car, or in a two-adult house have one car. Or you may have people for example who walk or cycle or catch a bus and who use a car-sharing service when they need a car.

“This is not about telling people how to live or telling people they shouldn’t have cars. It’s actually about giving people choices.

people don’t have the same insatiable hunger to own a car that our generation does. We are trying to build a city where, in a generation, you won’t be forced to own a car to live here, and Melbourne and Sydney are already like that.”

Mr Twyford says carparks are “incredibly expensive”, putting $50,000 or more on the cost of an apartment, and one of the innovations of the Unitary Plan was to get rid of the edict that developers needed to provide a certain number of parks.

“I think we understand that what we have now is not working. We have the most ridiculous urban land prices relative to our incomes. We have chronic gridlock even though we have spent a decade investing in more motorways. They just get filled up with cars. There has to be a different way of doing things.

“… We don’t have to reinvent the wheel – we’re talking about the kind of density Sydney has had for 40 or 50 years. When we visit our grandkids in Brisbane, Sydney, Perth or Melbourne we see cities that invest in public transport are much more liveable and also more prosperous as a result.”

The minister is a fan of Ockham, and uses his enthusiasm for their work to have a crack at critics.

“If you look at some of the finest housing work by Ockham – those sorts of apartment blocks [being built now in Hobsonville, Avondale and in another part of Mt Albert] … I think they are fantastic. If you think about townhouses and terraces and those sorts of walk-ups, I reckon that’s the sort of style you are likely to see on the site.

“It is a very urban site and can take density and has typography, with mature trees and interesting formations, and the sort of fevered ravings of people like Matthew Hooton and Mike Hosking likening it to Mumbai is just lunacy – backwards 1950s views.

“These people I think are locked in a 1950s time-warp where we are all living on quarter-acre sections in three-bedroom homes. The world has moved on and we are about to deliver the kind of urban communities that provide a mix of the kind of houses that people want at prices they can afford.”

Mr Twyford is satisfied the development will have plenty of green space: “If you are going to do more density, you have got to have more open space and green space. The wonderful thing about that site is it gives that opportunity.”

He is still working with the Tamaki Makaurau iwi collective, offering them the opportunity to be the main developers, but what form that partnership will take is yet to be settled.

“We see this as an enormous opportunity for iwi, and not just in Auckland but around the country. They are breaking my door down and saying they want to be part of the various urban develop and housing projects the Government is getting underway.

“Many of them have capital, land and lots of ambition and understand from their own people how important housing is. All those things would make them ideal development partners.”

How such an arrangement would be structured at Unitec is unclear, says the minister, and may take a couple of months to crystalise.

There were a number of options, with nothing settled, but they included:

The Hobsonville model, where Housing NZ subsidiary HLC completed the masterplan and created superlots to sell to private developers;

A Government land-for-housing programme where a developer took a commercial risk to produce a contracted outcome and didn’t pay for the land until the development was over.

One matter that remains up in the air, in the medium-term at least: the future of the Mason Clinic, which cares for mentally-ill offenders, including dangerous patients.

The clinic sits in the north-west of the precinct, adjacent to the old Oakley Hospital block, and that area may eventually be dominated by open-market houses.

The main Oakley building is heritage-listed and, with earthquake strengthening needed, will probably end up as an expensive conversion to “superior” apartments – sitting awkwardly alongside a forensic mental institution.

That may mean a new site for the Mason Clinic in the future, but Mr Twyford has other pressing issues to resolve in the meantime. “No decision has been made, “he says. “The Mason Clinic is staying right where it is at the moment.”

He is aware of strong local feeling about the whole project and real concerns at the traffic issues, but says no firm decisions have yet been made about “what community engagement will look like”.

But he expects full engagement with Mt Albert people, “who have a rightful expectation that they will be part of the conversation”.

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