Planning blight? Higher density housing proposed for six more suburbs

by Peter Sullivan
The city council’s transport and urban design committee, chaired by Cr Andy Foster, will tomorrow receive a review by policy and planning officials on the “success” of the introduction of a new residential housing phenomena which they erroneously call Medium Density Residential Area, or MDRA.

The big news here is that:

“WCC Officers are scoping a further six areas that could have residential intensification provisions applied to them. This is based on work undertaken in
2008. The areas are: Tawa, Newlands, Karori, Crofton Downs, Berhampore, Miramar.” (See the officers’ full report at )

Not to put too fine a point on it, the conclusions drawn by the officers’ report are so disconnected from its data and from reality that I would think they want it to be rejected by the committee – if I hadn’t seen such crap pass council approval many times before.

This paper screams “Wellington’s future needs this”, yet all the data they cite (and much that they don’t) screams back “no they don’t”. Creating more MDRA areas will doom more suburbs to the planning blight (and property price stagnation) which experts have warned against and which Johnsonville is already experiencing. This is because imposing MDRA on existing suburbs can only “succeed” by destroying peoples house values, and destroying existing communities. That is the fundamental raison d’etre. Not even WCC will deny that (although they will surely explain it in slightly different terminology….)

The “problem” here is as follows:

– The city council trying to “pick winners” (or in this case, losers). Government has always been really bad at that, and especially so here ….. .

– The city council is refusing to put any “skin in the game”. Penny Hulse in Auckland stated 18 months ago that ( I paraphrase) “Council cannot achieve Medium Density housing by changing the rules and walking away: private developers won’t do it, as it’s less profitable. Home-owners won’t do it, as it’s too expensive. People don’t want to buy it because they dont want to live in it. So unless the Council spends money to help build it themselves, it just wont happen.” And how much “skin” does the WCC have in this game? NOTHING. WCC are changing the rules and walking away, and that means disaster will follow. But not disaster for them – their rates will come in, regardless: disaster is for the communities devastated by a planning blight, and for individuals who find that the value of their house – their only investment in many cases – is stagnating, or falling where other suburbs rise as they should. This is because MDRA can only work if existing housing stock decreases in value – and “MDRA re-zoning” alone is enough to reduce that value to a large extent. The WCC thereby makes private home owners pay for their gamble (on a losing horse).

- The city council is refusing to admit that the uptake of MDRA in Johnsonville and Kilbirnie has been NIL. Nothing. Nada. Read the paper – it’s all there. The only “medium density” developments in Johnsonville have been on Greenfields (Sheridan) or brownfields (Middleton) sites – ie, on bare land – which means they are not “redevelopments” at all. This WCC paper is claiming success based on one or two individual developments – yet there are thousands of houses within the MDRA zone which are badly affected from the stigma of MDRA.

– The city council admits (as we told them six years ago) that the demand for MD housing in Johnsonville is not there. Yet they still use the language ‘if someone builds it, they will come.’ But they won’t come unless housing is really cheap and “they” are really poor, which will, of course make it a slum.

The city council has ignored the basic fact that WCC policies are in direct opposition to what the market wants. Families want to live in suburban Johnsonville, and nobody wants to raise their family in a cheek-by-jowl low rise high density suburb, which is what MDRA rules seek to create. Look at the bottom graph at – it shows 2013 census data proving a massive increase in very young children in Johnsonville between 2006 and 2013. The increase in older persons in Johnsonville lately is accounted for in Malvina Major centre expansions (not in the wider community). These are real statistics, not future projections. This means that, in 2.5 years, Johnsonville primary schools (currently at “capacity plus”, with 1020 pupils) will have at least a 25% leap over last year’s roles, by 2016. Has anyone budgeted or planned for this? No!! Infrastructure “planning” for this growth just is not happening.

Both the properties that the city council rave on about in the above linked review paper are cited as “MDRA successes”. But these development sites have been removed from MDRA by the environment court. None have been built under MDRA rules, as JCAs Environment court challenge stopped them ever being under MDRA.The spin here defies belief. One of those, at 8-10 Middleton Rd (currently under construction) – was excluded from MDRA because the Environment Court agreed it was a hazardous site in terms of pedestrian access to the Johnsonville town centre and to public transport. The city council subsequently approved a high density development there regardless of the court ruling, (one grossly in excess of what the “Operative District Plan” allowed and despite universal and extreme opposition from neighbours. And who did the developers then sell this development to? The IHC. Can you imagine the intellectually handicapped negotiating the adjacent, most hazardous road crossings in all of Wellington? (the crossings on the southern end of Middleton Rd). It’s a deathtrap for the fully-abled, let alone the disabled. Yet WCC created this situation, as they ignored the Environment Court ruling and bent their own rules to suit their “vision”. (Never mind eh? – the undertakers and church are just over the road…..)

Cr Foster admitted after District Plan Change 72 Consultation had closed in 2009 that he intended to “create demand” for all MDRA from Housing New Zealand, and since then the local constabulary has had much business from the resulting 32 units on Sheridan Terrace. Yet WCC’s intention from the beginning, to pack these suburbs with state housing units, was somehow omitted from WCC’s public consultation documents.

Make no mistake – Johnsonville residents want lots more MDRA suburbs, for the simple reason that a problem shared is a problem halved (and it is a huge problem that has started to slowly kill the suburb’s future prospects). But the poor policy logic of this paper, and the insanely loose MDRA rules, seem to ensure these six suburbs – Tawa, Newlands, Karori, Crofton Downs, Berhampore, Miramar – will not be subjected to MDRA unless city councillors are prepared to suspend common sense and sign up six more suburbs to share Johnsonville planning blight. It’s a shame, as Tawa, Karori and Miramar seem ideally suited to residential intensification, if only the council could get the planning rules right….. Until then, Johnsonville (and to a much smaller extent, Kilbirnie) will likely be left to continue carrying the MDRA “can” alone…..

If the Transport & Urban Design committee pass this paper and accept its recommendations tomorrow, I would expect massive opposition to come from

Tawa (likely because they are the “best” candidates for intensification and they know it – only one fifth the density of J/ville now and with a fantastically large commercial centre space (the envy of many others), close proximity to a “real” city centre in Porirua, and three train stations with a faster train trip to the CBD than Johnsonville). Tawa is also an infinitely better organised community machine than most other suburbs, whose orchestrated bleating (and several people on the WCC) got them removed from the MDRA list early in 2008, (despite all logic to the contrary).

and from Newlands, who know better than most what Johnsonville has gone thru, and whose capacity to absorb MDRA is far less than any other suburb.

Cr. Foster – Chair of the TUD – is the original architect for MDRA at the Council table. He still thinks this is “visionary planning for the future”. Cr Foster is great at “dumping” on other wards while protecting his own patch – watch him carefully exclude Karori at the most diplomatically acceptable point.

A better solution is to withdraw MDRA entirely, and abandon this concept as the failure that it clearly is, and go back to the drawing board.

If the Wellington City Council wants to sensibly promote medium density housing without destroying a large minority of ratepayers’ communities and personal wealth, it must follow the advice of Auckland’s deputy Mayor: allocate council funds to co-develop MD housing sensibly, on both greenfields and redeveloped sites, and make them available for sale to private investors. Put your money where your mouth is, WCC, and lead from the front.

Also, allowing greenfield suburbs to proliferate while simultaneously imposing the MDRA planning blight on healthy communities is akin to ‘fighting for peace”. WCC should be consistent, and introduce new rules that require new residential subdivisions – like Lincolnshire Farm and Stebbings Valley which are, as we all know, where the “real’ building action is – to include a minimum 40% ‘medium density” component within new residential subdivisions (ideally, adjacent to new public parks and other greenspaces). That means: plan it from the start (rather than try to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear decades after communities are established.)

To WCC planners, the suburbs marked for MDRA may be housing units, but to those living in MDRA zoned suburbs, there is so much more at stake, and nothing for them to gain.

Peter Sullivan is a member of the Johnsonville Community Association



  1. Graeme Sawyer, 13. May 2014, 20:34

    Great analysis, Peter. Well said.
    The challenge is for green-leaning Councillors to get past “Denser = Better” mentality, and actually visit the Low-Rise High-Density examples (one such exists in Johnsonville now, cnr Ironside & Trafalger) that MDRA will slowly cause, and realise what the shortcomings and “practicalities” actually are.
    The crime from Sheritan Tce. and the needs of the coming new Middleton Rd residents show what a big increase in social infrastructure MDRA brings. And “planned for?” Not at all….not even slightly.
    “WCCs Vision” is not going to be carried our by well meaning urban design gurus, and sold to chic suburban sophisticates: it’s actually not going to be carried out at all.
    Those interested now are rather lower down the order, greedy profiteers looking to flog off cheap units to whoever cannot afford to live somewhere better.
    “Consultation” in 2008 showed the whole city wants Intensification, but nobody wants it in their back yard: maybe allowing it in everyone’s back yard – a more permissive “global” planning change – is a better solution?
    I actually applaud WCC for attempting to roll “medium density” out further, but MDRA is so very far from the way to achieve that; you just can’t set rules in place that will destroy well-functioning suburbs and “hope” whatever replaces them is a better place to live: the opposite is a far more likely outcome, and that is what is happening now. Let’s hope a new generation of politicians can cut through the crap, throw MDRA out & make some real progress on residential intensification across ALL of Wellington……….

  2. peter@east-welly, 14. May 2014, 11:29

    The people of Kilbirnie and surrounding environment do not want this “intensification” either. It has been imposed on the people.

  3. Peter Sullivan, 15. May 2014, 11:23

    Dear Mr East-welly,
    WCC definitely did consult with the people of Kilbirnie on this. But there is consultation, and then there is consultation. In 2009 the people of Kilbirnie were, undoubtedly, asked for feedback on what was then euphemistically called an “Area of Change’. The lack of opposition to it was largely a result of the WCC not being up-front about what the changes would most likely mean for their suburb – and they are rather complex, take a long time to become apparent, and are not easily reduced to a ‘sound bite’ – and so are easy to misrepresent!
    Exactly what MDRA will mean for a suburb depends on that suburb – and whether MDRA is in keeping with market forces applicable there, or opposed to them. In Johnsonville, they are clearly opposed. Kilbirnie is very much closer to Wellington, so their situation may be quite different, however the fact that (as per WCC’s report, linked above) not a single “MDRA” type development has occurred in 4 years, shows that to be unlikely.
    Fundamental rules of engagement for thousands of properties turned upside down – your amenity values sorely compromised and your “rights” under the RMA debased – for what? To make it easier for developers to snap up your house cheap, knock it (& your neighbour’s house) down – and build flats if they want to. But guess what? They DONT want to. Because your house is still too valuable – still too expensive for them to buy & demolish.
    Council officials have always known that. But the architects of MDRA also know that, eventually, that will change,,,,,,
    Eventually (10 years? 20 years?? 30???) it will become economical for the slum lords to redevelop here, and run these flats or sell them to whoever can’t afford to live somewhere they would rather…… that’s what WCC planners are waiting for: That’s how MDRA “works” (if you don’t believe me, read the WCC’s “Section 32″ reports for District plan Change 72 – its all in there.)
    These are new flats that the WCC seems to think Wellington will need in the future – and they may well be quite right about that – yet WCC are not prepared to change rules in more affluent suburbs to facilitate redevelopment equally across similarly “suitable” suburbs. To be “suitable” for MDRA, your suburb must have access to public transport and some shops – but without too many lawyers or architects or resource planners, as their pro-bono efforts for their community will make WCC’s introduction of MDRA too politically difficult. And no rich people either – because they can afford to hire lawyers or architects or resource planners who will similarly oppose it.
    Best to confine MDRA to poorer areas like Newlands: much poorer public transport and shopping facilities & infrastructure than, say, Khandallah, but heaps easier to railroad into MDRA.
    So while the WCC may start with a “long list” for MDRA that includes wealthy suburbs, you can guarentee the “short list” will be only those too poor to fight it. Andy Foster calls these suburbs those with “lesser identified character value”. (“They are already down, so lets kick em!”).
    Until you start asking your WCC Councillors to chuck this MDRA out & replace it it with residential intensification rules that are fairer to all Wellingtonians and treat all suburbs equally, you’re suburb is in for a long & rocky ride……and Wellington will never get the quality and widespread higher density housing that it needs for its future

    Will other suburbs join your ride?? Thats the question of the day…….


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