In their ongoing efforts to tackle New Zealand’s housing crisis and reshape urban development, the government proposed a bipartisan RMA amendment late last year which, among other things, introduced the so-called Townhouse Nation standards to enable 3 3 story homes on almost any suburban site. The bill also changed several components of the NPS-UD, the other major focus of their urban planning reform.
One of the most surprising steps in the bill was to replace a provision that required “proportionate” zoning around places with good PT access or high demand, with the following:
With respect to Tier 1 Urban Environments, Regional Policy Statements and District Plans allow:… (d) within and adjacent to Neighborhood Core Areas, Local Core Areas and town center (or equivalent), building heights and density of urban form in relation to the level of commercial activity and community services.
The original layout was good and ideally should have been kept or slightly modified, but azoning near centers like this is very important: people need access to a set of basic services that these centers usually provide, such as supermarkets, barbers, bank branches, etc. Likewise, having a higher residential density within the walkable zone of these services will make them more viable and support the demand for more services to move into. This in turn makes it more desirable for people to live in the area, setting in motion the virtuous cycle of density.
Not only does this help build more livable and economically vibrant neighborhoods, but basic trips like these account for a significant share of car use in Auckland – and therefore transport emissions. Additionally, this type of “Living Local” has become more important in the age of COVID, where the willingness and impulse to travel to major centers has diminished.
Council staff noted in their last report to Planning Committee that the zoning based on existing uses there today is a bit narrow. Indeed, it is. Commercial activity can change overnight, but not buildings and zoning. Instead, we should be looking at not just current use, but potential future uses as well. The two main measures that the council officers have devised are the size and the accessibility of the centers, in relation to their levels (neighborhood, local, city).
What might that look like?
Auckland has around 400 neighborhood centers (which can be understood to be generally convenience stores or a small row of shops), but has an urban area of around 600 km², or 1.5 km² of urban area in the center of the neighborhood. That’s a huge area to cover for something that’s supposed to operate like a convenience store. And many of them are clustered, meaning large swathes of the city require a car to access only the most basic services. With MDRS enabling city life anywhere, it needs to come with more neighborhood centers.
yes, it’s a 60:10:1 ratio for housing:office:retail. what this means in practice is that if only commercial streets have apartment buildings, there aren’t enough people to support retail in every building – there must also be apartments in the next two streets. pic.twitter.com/JoLDili1oH
— Alfred Twu (@alfred_twu) July 8, 2021
One way to achieve this would be to simply allow basic services like dairies to open at corner sites. Already under the unit plan, we are making corner sites more permissive because they are less bound by recession plans and setbacks from border sites (due to having fewer border sites). We could double down on this approach by allowing the 3-story form proposed by MDRS by taking an approach I suggested earlier: let corner sites act as a “wildcard”, which allows for more site coverage and more ground floor uses such as shops. .
Likewise, over time, one would expect the size of the centers to increase. Allowing commercial use adjacent to existing commercial use will allow centers to expand over time. For a neighborhood center which might be just a handful of plots of land, while for a town center which might be a few hundred meters away, to allow for the emergence of larger scale activities like supermarkets or large areas. In practice, this could be done with a mixed-use area “buffer zone” between centers and residential areas.
It is also important to change the types of activities that can take place in these commercial areas.
Access to a supermarket is a major convenience that these types of centers can provide. The Commerce Commission’s market study of the supermarket duopoly identified zoning as a barrier to entry for new supermarkets and supermarket chains: supermarkets are difficult to accept, and the few sites large enough to a supermarket often already have a supermarket above them, a chain of supermarkets that deprive the land of productive use, or are held back by covenants prohibiting the opening of new supermarkets. Supermarkets will still require consent for things you need to manage in the public interest, like vehicle crossings, but the system could be vastly less suspicious of them.
A proposed new world on Dominion Road (with residence above), for example, had to go through the government’s fast-track consent process after local residents complained to a very sympathetic council that it could lead to additional traffic .
Housing in city centers is also often difficult. Despite the expedited process, the “panel of experts” recommended removing the upper floor for “urban design” reasons. Similarly, a developer wanting to add housing above one of the nation’s loveliest and most accessible downtown areas, Mission Bay, was recently forced back to the drawing board after a local coalition NIMBY continued with its medium-density development project, which exceeded the permitted height limit of 14 meters.
Similarly, some low-rise apartments were killed off in downtown Eden Valley just a few years ago when independent commissioners sided with residents who would rather nothing change:
Some controls within commercial areas might also need to be strengthened to include levers such as facade controls, to avoid outcomes like this:
However, this is a downgrade. What is currently a row of shops will become this strange fence… pic.twitter.com/mGVzxjZHbk
— Malcolm McCracken (@urbanistfromwhk) February 28, 2022
The only thing that can be done is to clearly state in our zoning code and urban design guidelines that these mid-rise mixed uses with good street activation are the kinds of outcomes we need to look for in and around our centers. So with all of that in mind, how did the board react to the updated NPS?
- No change in central areas
- No additional densification (beyond MDRS) for:
- All neighborhood centers
- Small and/or poorly accessible local centers
- Inaccessible city centers
- Apply the THAB zone to residential zoned sites adjacent to the edge of a core zone (up to 200m) to:
- Large and accessible local centers
- Inaccessible city centers
- Apply the THAB zone to residential zoned sites adjacent to the edge of a core zone (up to 400m) to:
- Large and accessible city centers
These might have been disappointing but small – if they had better defined “large” or “accessible” in a sensible way. However, rather than testing them against hard metrics, they are simply defined against the median of all centers. Therefore, half of all centers are defined as small and the other half as inaccessible. Definitional puns render a large number of centers that otherwise seem well suited for scaling up.
For example: Mission Bay, St Heliers, Jervois Road, Kingsland, Morningside, Market Road, Mt Eden, Mt Roskill, Mangere Bridge, Sandringham and West Lynn are all excluded from any changes. Many excluded centers have supermarkets, while many of the included ones are only large enough due to large areas of parking, rather than any real activity. Blockhouse Bay and Lynfield are particularly absurd: two town centers, almost side by side, of similar size. But Blockhouse Bay falls on exactly the wrong side of the height threshold, despite being the more accessible of the two.
A more reasonable approach would have been to use size as a means of filtering out local centers that actually function as neighborhood centers, but otherwise treat medium-sized local centers simply as future waiting town centers.
Even those who receive change get very little: a radius of 200m one-sixteenth the area of an 800m radius, or about 10 minutes walk – the metric used for metro hubs and transit stations fast elsewhere in the NPS-UD. But the value of public transit is that it takes you somewhere to work, live and play. Increasing less area in the areas you actually do makes no sense.
Also, paragraph 33 reveals the planning mentality here. We have a growing city, but local centers can never be expected to grow. (Written in our local center, ripe for growth) pic.twitter.com/Djls4KTBlO
—Tim Robinson (@tim12rob) March 3, 2022