Podcast: Two Cents' Worth

Two Cents’ Worth: The Park Mews effect

Architect Roger Walker built Park Mews - a complex with 31 homes - in just six months.

With a dozen Park Mews, we would be well on the way to solving our housing crisis.

But we’d never be able to build it today - right when we need it and hundreds more like it.

The now-iconic apartments were built in Wellington in 1973, back when everyone was building houses in the suburbs. There was a housing shortage at the time because a new generation - the early baby boomers - were just starting to buy their own homes, and there’d been a migration surge. Sound familiar?

It is this haphazard building with nooks and crannies and staircases all over the place. It doesn’t have lifts. People on the top floor have to walk up three flights of stairs, and sometimes more to get to their bedrooms.

It sticks out like a sore thumb from the neighbouring villas and bungalows - 31 apartments on a large section that used to have just one house on it.

Walker revels in its strangeness, laughingly telling of the time a taxi driver quipped that it was built under a Labour Government and their policy was that everyone had to have their own roof over their heads.

“It was a kind of experimental building in a way,” he said. “I grew up in suburbia and I always thought of suburbia as a joyless sort of place, without community. I had a vision of building a community.”

He says the trick was injecting joy into the design and utilising the land to maximise privacy while encouraging overlapping spaces so people could get together.

“People can look up and say ‘well that little quirky corner up there - that’s my place’. Whereas in an apartment block they’ll say my place is the third window from the left, two floors down from the roof. It’s not enough. It’s not individual enough for the New Zealand character,” said Walker.

Laura lives at at number 27, which illogically is next door to number 22.

She said all of the balconies are really well sheltered and quite private.

“So you don’t have anyone overlooking you. It’s like a house inside a castle.”

Construction starts on the Kiwibuild project  Photo: RNZ/ Sophia Duckor-Jones

Another resident Nick says the use of space is amazing.

“Well it’s almost not like an apartment because we’ve got a garden on two sides and we’ve got quirky windows that open and it’s airy and it’s reasonably light.”

These days, more than two thirds of the apartments are occupied by their owners and that share is growing. A sure sign that people like to live at Park Mews.

But Park Mews is a tragedy in concrete.

It recently won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Enduring Architecture Award, but Walker says it would never make it through the consent process today.

“It wouldn’t be approved. I can tell you that. It would not be approved because the planners would say it doesn’t fit the neighbourhood. It would inevitably revert to public notification because of the differentness of the building,” he said.

While the Resource Management Act (RMA) was meant to be more flexible than the older Town and Country Planning Act, Walker said it hasn’t worked out that way.

He said the problem is in how planners interpret the RMA.

“It’s like a document, like the bible, you can create 9 different religions from the same document.”

Walker said some people were not happy about Park Mews when it was first built.

One neighbour sued the developer for devaluing his property. So the developer sued him for the same thing.

“The judge in the court had a grin from ear to ear and said ‘clearly you two neighbours can’t stand the sight of one another’s buildings so my decision is that you build a 20 metre high wall on your common boundary so you can’t see each other’s horrible buildings and you share the costs 50/50’. And of course the wall was never built.”

Roger said people struggle with buildings that are really different.

He said many people hated the Eiffel Tower, with one famous writer saying he had set up his office underneath the building as it was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to see it. But now it’s an important landmark.

“We call that the Eiffel Tower Syndrome. In other words, people who initially resist something will later on come to say oh no no, it’s valuable, leave it, don’t touch it.”

Walker said the award-winning Park Mews would probably not pass muster today.

“The problem with building a building like that now is that all these busybodies, they would look at that and say, ‘that’s stupid, that’s silly, it doesn’t fit the neighbourhood, it’ll be an embarrassment to us when it’s built, we’re not going to let it happen.”

Over the years, planners have told me they are stuck between the rock of the RMA and the hard place of NIMBY’s. They say they don’t have much choice but to be very conservative.

Walker thought he had discovered the solution while working in England, after a town planner told him there are four architects who are exempt from all the London city building regulations because everything they do is really good.

“And so when I got back to Wellington I said to the planners ‘We need this James Bond 007 license, me and a couple of others’. We were lucky not to be slapped into a straight-jacket,” he jokes.

But Walker believes thinking outside the square, encouraging new thinking around architecture and planning flexibility is definitely part of the solution the current housing crisis.

About Two Cents' Worth

Two Cents' Worth has been launched by Newsroom in a co-production with RNZ. It is the country's first weekly business podcast and will be broadcast just after the midday news on Sundays on RNZ National, will be available on both RNZ and Newsroom's websites and can also be found on iTunes and other podcast apps.

Each week we will examine one issue in depth and then convene a panel discussion. Here is this week's version on RNZ as well.

Two Cents' Worth - the business week and the business outlook. Previous episodes are below.

Episode 1: Sunday November 4: The rise of double cab utes, the TAB's big profit and a threat to small electricity retailers.

Episode 2: Sunday November 11: Why your first job is crucial, why interest rates are so low and why wholesale power prices are so high

Episode 3: Sunday November 18: Inside a zombie town as its mill faces a closure decision, how a New Zealand company won big in Singles day and the future of Vector after the departure of chairman Michael Stiassny.

Episode 4: Sunday November 26: The rule of 8s and Trade Me’s big buyer

Episode 5: Sunday December 2: Why we don't buy cheap petrol

Episode 6: Sunday December 9:  Inside open banking

Episode 7: Sunday December 16: A ride sharing revolution

Episode 8: Friday January 25:  Salmon set to surpass dairy, save the planet

Episode 9: Friday, February 1: The wedding economy: a love story  

Episode 10: Friday, February 8: Our place in the space race

Episode 11: Friday, February 15: How NZ changed world economies  

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