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Threat to heritage buildings in our character areas

character areas [1]

by Felicity Wong of Historic Places Wellington
Historic Places Wellington is concerned about plans that will allow the demolition of large numbers of heritage and character buildings in Wellington City – plans that are being rushed out while people are focused on the general election.

Next week Wellington City Councillors will decide whether to release a proposal to break up the heritage and character areas of Mt. Victoria, Thorndon, Aro Valley and other heritage suburbs. Demolition and new six storey multi-unit blocks will be allowed as of right. Only small parts of the existing character areas will retain any protection.

These are the most radical planning changes in Wellington in decades. The Council needs to ask itself whether people will get a chance to really focus on these, and propose better alternatives, if consultation only happens in the six weeks leading up to the general election.

The WCC proposal [2] closely follows the Government’s new National Policy Statement (NPS) on Urban Development which comes into force on 20 August. This bans Councils in Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Wellington and Christchurch from setting height restrictions below six storeys. in any area within walking distance of the city centre

This will affect Wellington in unique and unwanted ways because it already has a distinctive, compact layout. Wellington already has a compact downtown surrounded by a ring of compact, medium density inner-city suburbs.

Areas of collective cultural and historical significance, such as Mt. Victoria and Thorndon, as well as most of Newtown, Aro Valley and Mt. Cook, will be up for major development. Areas walkable from suburban shopping centres and train stations and the cable car may also have their height limits removed.

The Urban Development NPS allows the Council to protect heritage but the WCC are ignoring this and pushing instead for high density intensification in Wellington’s character areas.

The Council claims to be doing this to promote housing but Historic Places Wellington says they are ignoring less destructive opportunities to do this.

We can house everyone and protect the places that give inner Wellington its unique character.

There are many viable sites in and around the central city that are ripe for development, including land used solely for car parking and low quality single-storey commercial buildings. Brownfield areas such as Adelaide Road have long been proposed for intensification and would go a long way to meeting critical housing needs.

Similarly there are a number of existing high-rise buildings that can be refurbished and used for housing.

It’s an outrage that Victoria University is proposing to demolish the Gordon Wilson Flats [3], a multi-unit concrete apartment block that was purpose built in the 1950s to house city workers. The Flats are an important heritage building – the only remaining duplex modernist flats in New Zealand. They feature native timber floors, are walking distance to the city, have excellent views and all day sun. Refurbished, they could be high-quality affordable housing.

It’s also relevant to ask whether the Council has considered how a post-Covid world might affect its plans. At the moment we are seeing increasing vacancies on the “Golden Mile” – new shifts towards flexible and remote working may mean slower growth in the centre, and more demand for quality housing in major suburban centres.

Population forecasts in a pre-Covid world also need to consider whether there is a need to revise growth forecasts for international students and air travelers. A new evidence-based housing and business development assessment is required that takes into account the changed post-Covid environment.

The City Council needs to rethink its stance and see our heritage and character areas as social and cultural assets for future generations. A heritage building is so much more than a built structure. The built environment and city scape conveys social and cultural ideas that extend far beyond us as individuals. When you think of Amsterdam, you think of Dutch Renaissance style apartments lining canals. When you think of Marrakech you think of medinas and riads. When you think of Wellington you think of wooden houses nestled into the hillside.

The Wellington City Council ought to focus on ways to both increase the housing stock and safeguard our heritage rather than undertaking poorly timed consultation on proposals that will do lasting damage. Wellington can do better than this.

Read also:
Two generations of support for Wellington’s character areas [4]

Felicity Wong is chair of Historic Places Wellington.