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The Adelaide Road solution

Adelaide Road in the future [1]
Click on the image for a larger version

By Gregor Thompson
Perhaps the most perennial point of contention from the rather hostile spatial plan episode was Adelaide Road. A lot of people, often heritage advocates, couldn’t accept why it was necessary to allow demolition of homes in Newtown or Berhampore while down the road and closer to town several vacant sites sat idle on the main transport route.

The idea of blocks being acquired and developed in more attractive parts of the city before the central city wilderness continues to keep folk up at night. This is a pretty reasonable concern at a time of housing crisis. Aside from all the toing and froing, the he-said she-said yarda-yarda and all that carry on, the issue of what on earth is going on in Adelaide Road persists.

Believe it or not, back in 2008, the council set out to solve this problem. In March of that year, a community design workshop was led by internationally-renowned New Zealand urban designer Kobus Mentz. The executive summary of the 39 planning document states:

“Wellington City Council has worked with the community, landowners, businesses, developers, residents and others to explore the opportunities for the future growth and development of the northern Adelaide Road area. The project has looked at how this area can be developed and enhanced to create a more attractive, people-friendly and prosperous part of the city.”

The Council’s Urban Development and Transport Portfolio Leader was current Mayor Andy Foster, who said:

“The area under the spotlight – between the Basin Reserve and John Street – is expected to come under increasing development pressure as the city’s population increases and the Council wants to manage change to ensure it is positive for the local community and the wider city.”

The document stipulates an ideal of accommodating about 1550 more residents (870 dwellings) by 2026 as well recognising the importance of Adelaide Road as an employment area and providing opportunities for a diverse range of business/commercial activities, retail, institutional activities and other services. A further $9million dollars of investment from NZTA was supposed to widen Adelaide Road as well as help contribute trees on either side of the boulevard. Two extra bus lanes were to be created and shared – carefully, no doubt – with cyclists. Doesn’t all that sound great!

By November, the Adelaide Framework, the “long-term vision for future growth and development” appeared to be set in stone.

Twelve years on, the area (Mount Cook east) houses 2,643 residents (2018 census), up a mere 500 from 2,145 in 2006. It currently has a population density of 60.63 people per hectare, 8 people less per hectare than the neighbouring Mount Cook west, a territory which includes Prince of Wales and Nairn Street Parks. In terms of becoming a commercial hub, the extent to how diverged this prophecy is from reality cannot be overstated.

All this begs the question then, what happened?

First of all, the 2008 global financial crisis didn’t help, nor did NZTA withdrawing their investment [2]. The council also quickly found out they could not mandate property owners to sell up and make space for widening.

In an October 2020 interview with Maggie Tweedie on Radio Active, Andy Foster had more to say on the matter. Tweedie asked why lower Adelaide Road had not been developed. Funnily enough, he had quite a lot to say on the subject, acknowledging the slump in progress:

“Look we did a really good community planning exercise and it was approved in 2008, so that’s quite a long time ago. And ah… there’s been very little uptake of that.”

In the interview he points to three reasons for “very little uptake”, the principal one being that the Adelaide Road Framework was predicated on transport and that public refusal of the Basin Reserve flyover threw a spanner in the works.

All the shortlisted options of Let’s Get Wellington Moving transport programme options from 2019 designate Adelaide Road as a main public transport route corridor. Programme 5 is evidently the favourite.

adelaide road map 2 [3]
Source: https://getwellymoving.co.nz/assets/Documents/Programme-Business-Case/LGWM-PBC-Report-21-June-2019-Draft.pdf

Since MRT is back on the table, one would imagine that the Adelaide Road development should be too. In fact, there have already been signs of progress; the Wellington City Mission development has been given a $10million ‘shovel ready’ grant; construction has started on the Monark six-storey Kiwibuild mixed use development and a site has been secured for a 24-unit co-housing space.

Foster’s second issue restricting growth was about the power to make acquisitions and use the land:

“The other problem is that we’ve not had the power to actually go in and do the work. We can provide for it, and we have provided for development but that doesn’t necessarily mean it happens.”

This is another complication that may have a new solution.

“I’m keen that we work with Kāinga Ora the government agency which now has the powers to do things like compulsory acquisitions and identify the areas that we think need to be renewed and redeveloped and pursue those with them and possibly private sector partners as well”

These new found powers, controversial as they are, could also have implications for bringing Cambridge Terrace into the 21st century.

The last reason the Mayor cited in his interview was pretty straight forward: development costs in Adelaide Road are not dissimilar to the cost of developing in a place like Victoria Street; however, given the location premium on Victoria Street, the financial reward for developers is always going to be higher in that locality. To the mayor, Adelaide Road seems a likely next venture.

Perhaps thinking of Adelaide Road as an inevitability is the kind of thinking that has led to it being under-prioritized. It seems proactivity has gone begging since the framework was sidelined after failing at the first hurdle.

Areas like Adelaide Road are the largest real contradiction in the council’s spatial plan. If the council wants its constituents to cooperate, it should first address the elephant in the room. This will take the wind out of the opposition’s argument and, more importantly, it will make sense. Density done well should be the ambition – so why not start with the least controversial zone.

All in all, there is some hope here – the Adelaide Road puzzle may well be getting solved behind the scenes, highlighted by the recent growth. As Andy Foster rightly and maybe accidentally pointed out, he and the council appear to be running out of excuses.

Adelaide Road 1940s [4]

Ben Schrader writes:
Thanks for a fascinating recent history of inaction on Adelaide Road, Gregor. Readers might be surprised to know that the WCC has been struggling with what to do with the street since the 1940s when the City Engineer drew up this scheme. The Basin Reserve is bottom – north end. Apartments are on the east side of Adelaide Road and light industrial factories on the west. Whether this is ‘density done well’ is a moot point.