Wellington Scoop

Medium density residential areas – an ‘all or nothing’ vote

by Peter Sullivan
Controversially, the Wellington City Council will vote on Wednesday on excluding three most suitable suburbs from MDRA zoning from this year’s District Plan Change – the three suburbs also “happen to be” the wealthiest suburbs, and that’s no coincidence.

If the council does so, the last remnants of respectability for MDRA (that’s “Medium Density Residential Area”) zoning will disappear, and along with it the last vestiges of credibility of a targeted intensification scheme that has been 9 years in the making, and can now be said to have been a complete disaster.

MDRA zoning was introduced after more than two years of consultation with the entire city in 2010. Acceptance was universal – except where it affected people directly, and immediately. The same District Plan Change 72 imposed these new residential zones rules on Kilbirnie (expected impact about 400 new houses – none consented, none built since 2010) and Johnsonville (expected impact about 1200 new houses – 2 consents allowed, 13 units currently under construction). These dismal numbers can only categorise MDRA as an abject failure.

In a paper with the deliberately nondescript title; ‘Update on Housing Choice and Supply Project and Next Actions’, the WCC is preparing to abandon any semblance of the fairness they promised for the rollout of MDRA. By “suspending” plans to introduce MDRA to Karori, Khandallah and Island Bay, the WCC will preserve the leafy enclaves of the privileged, while allowing developers to proceed with unfitted “profit maximisation” wherever they can in in Tawa and Newlands MDRA zones; unfair does not begin to describe this.

Remember, all of Wellington accepted the concept of MDRA in 2010, so the concept is well known by all, or should be. But over the last 2 years the specifics of MDRA have been discussed with five new MDRA candidates – Island Bay, Karori, Khandallah, Newlands and Tawa – over and over. Yet now, the city council is “suddenly” set to remove the richest three of these suburbs from the list – Island Bay (coincidentally the stronghold of the recently beleaguered Mayor) and Khandallah & Karori (both electoral home of Urban Development portfolio leader Cr. Andy Foster). It must be election year!

The people of Johnsonville fought MDRA hard, not because of opposition to intensification per se, but because of the massive scale of the zone in their suburb and the infrastructural burden it would bring – a far, far bigger infrastructural burden than what is proposed for any of Karori, Khandallah or Island Bay. Johnsonville protested long and hard about their infrastructural deficit (the legacy of decades of neglect from WCC) in 2010, pleading that their suburb’s infrastructure was under-prepared for MDRA. But Andy Foster repeatedly reassured them that MDRA redevelopment “wouldn’t happen overnight”

As it turns out, he was quite right: It has barely happened at all in the MDRA zone.

He also reassured us that by the time it was required, all the necessary infrastructure would be provided by the WCC. Time will tell – we have some overdue infrastructure now and more promised – but we have lost an awful lot of public greenspace, parkland and playing defiled space since then…

Yet, the reason cited for tomorrow’s vote to suspend MDRA in Karori is that “Karori faces Infrastructure Constraints that require further investigation”. What?? It is now more than seven years since the WCC started looking at Karori for MDRA – plenty of time for that “further investigation”, one would have thought. This is the exact opposite of the response Johnsonville received from WCC 6 years ago. So, let’s examine what the WCC means by Karori’s situation “needing further examination”.

The “infrastructure constraints” to which WCC refer is principally the road to Karori. Though Karori is way, way closer to the CBD than, say, Johnsonville is, the access road has always been a bit of a bottleneck to commuters who prefer to drive rather than bus or bike to work. No surprises there. There is also some chat about how maybe they should pretty up the town centre a bit to make sure it can “cope” with those 600 new housing units the WCC hopes will be built in about 20 years.

But are these “infrastructure issues” really a constraint on introducing MDRA this year? Consider:

Even if all the 600 units MDRA Karori is expected to attract were to be built tomorrow, the population of Karori would only increase by about 10% (or about a third of the expected growth that MDRA is thought might result in Johnsonville).

This re-zoning is “expected” (i.e., guessed at by WCC ) to add 600 new dwellings to Karori in about 20 years, but the actual rate of MDRA development in Johnsonville since MDRA was introduced suggests that the rate of MDRA development in Karori will be about one development (perhaps 15 units) in five years, initially.

If the introduction of MDRA in Karori is delayed, the rate of “residential infill” (people with larger sections sub-dividing their sections to create an additional dwelling in the ‘traditional’ manner) in zones marked for MDRA is likely to be considerably higher under existing “outer residential” rules.
Karori actually has all the essential infrastructure (2 supermarkets, library, pool, etc etc) , and more, than Johnsonville has, but far fewer people to use it (Karori is something of a cul-de-sac, while Johnsonville is the closest centre to 40,000 other neighbours). So, by examining the case for the WCCs suggested ‘pause” for MDRA plans in Karori, we see it makes no logical sense to halt MDRA progress because of some bogus “infrastructural uncertainty”. The Johnsonville experience suggests that housing growth within Karori’s proposed “MDRA zone” is likely to be greater without the introduction of MDRA than it would be with the introduction of MDRA – so the arguments for suspending MDRA for Karori just don’t stack up at all.

Similarly, there are no credible reasons for delaying MDRA in Khandallah and Island Bay either. The people of Island Bay are distressed from a cycleway battle, and Khandallah people just refuse to share the burden of intensification outright, for reasons of unadulterated NIMBYism – but neither of those are reasons that have any bearing on urban planning for Wellington’s future.

MDRA is even more of a failure when you realise that it was designed to encourage redevelopment of sites occupied by older properties; none of that has occurred at all, anywhere. Why? The economic fundamentals of what MDRA seeks to do don’t stack up, And while there may be future demand for the “housing choice” that the WCC seeks to encourage citywide, demand for that choice is universal throughout suburban Wellington, and most certainly not concentrated in a couple of places where the WCC would like it to be.

Who wants to sell their leafy Khandallah eighth-of-an-acre section and move in to a flat in Johnsonville with no trees, crowded streets, few parks and the real risk of rapid urban decay? Not many, it seems…. Those people want a nice little unit around the corner from their existing property, but the unequal and unfair rollout of MDRA means they can’t have it!

Population growth in Johnsonville has been considerable, but – paradoxically – none of that growth has been in MDRA zones or due to “MD” redevelopment!. Only one single MDRA development (on Dr Taylor Terrace) of 13 units – has actually begun construction since MDRA was passed by WCC 5 years ago, as yet uncompleted, so it’s still uninhabited….. So as yet, MDRA has added ZERO to our population five and a half years on.

This begs the question, why continue to roll out a targeted intensification scheme at all, when it has utterly failed in Kilbirnie (zero consents for new units in five years) and failed nearly as badly in Johnsonville?

The problem with the idea is that MDRA is meant to encourage “redevelopment” of older residential dwellings en masse. Except that both of the two consented developments in Johnsonville (one unbuilt, the other under construction) have been on land that was already vacant, or condemned business buildings. So no REAL “redevelopment” occurred at all in Johnsonville in 5 ½ years (!!).

This future scenario of MDRA’s failure was foreseen by expert witness caucusing results from JCAs environment court case against WCC on introduction of MDRA to Johnsonville in 2013; expert valuers from both “sides” agreed that MDRA redevelopment in Johnsonville was unlikely to occur as hoped for by WCC at all, because the opportunity cost of land with existing dwellings was too high for it to be economic to redevelop in such a way. And remember, that was WCCs expert valuer saying that!

So these expert witnesses – one of them paid by WCC to “defend” MDRA! – confirmed what JCA had told District Plan Change 72 Commissioners form the beginning three years earlier: There is insufficient demand for “Medium density”” housing to make MDRA zoning viable in Johnsonville, and by creating MDRA zoning “rules” that encourage the type of development that people don’t want to buy, you are create a “planning blight” that inhibits any development at all, and discourages maintenance of existing dwellings entirely.

What does that all mean? That MDRA is a dead duck, and needs to be buried before the stench gets any worse.

Yet WCC planners answer is not to bury the corpse, but exhume it and pump it full of speed and steroids: The suggestion of creating an urban redevelopment agency to use huge sums of ratepayer money to somehow ‘reanimate” the dead corpse of MDRA is nothing short of bizarre. MDRA is – genuinely – very, very attractive to developers already, as it removes ALL the traditional barriers to building high density units – especially the removal of ‘notification”. So WCC officials can (and do!) bend and break the rules to let developers away with murder, and remain unaccountable. (We wish that could change, but no sign of that so far….)

So, if developers are not undertaking MDRA redevelopments in significant numbers now – and they are not – there is a reason; that it’s simply not economic to do so. So, anyone who thinks WCC can chuck ratepayer money at urban redevelopment and somehow “make it” economic, without financially disadvantaging the previous owners of the property (Cr. Foster has already hinted at compulsory acquisition) is deranged: No council in NZ has the expertise to do this, least of all WCC, and frankly, it’s the sort of folly that none of us want to see our rates money burned on.

Wellington already has lower house-price zones with great public transport fully formed – its just that they are not in Wellington City: Upper Hutt, Hutt City, Porirua…. The list goes on as rail transport improves…..

So if MDRA were to be abandoned, what would replace it? Most of us agree that some suburban intensification is desirable, but how to achieve that? It may come as a shock to many, but two recent developments proves that no zoning change (from outer residential) is actually required at all to build high density in outer residential zones at all.

Firstly, at Trafalgar St in 2012, a 5 unit development on a 550m2 site was consented and built under “outer residential” rules. All neighbours agreed to the design, and since construction, all units have sold (albeit very slowly). Done. Under ‘outer residential” rules.

Next was the consent for 8-10 Middleton Road in 2013: The community had just succeeded in getting this area excluded from MDRA (unsuitable due to highly dangerous pedestrian access) Within 3 months of that environment court decision, WCC planners allowed a high density development on the site anyway, despite massive breaches of the Outer residential rules, and universal opposition from all surrounding neighbours. This case, while abhorrent, and showing how readily WCC officers are prepared to breech WCCs fiduciary duty to its residents, does prove that WCC consenting officers do not need MDRA rules to allow high density in “Outer Residential” zone at all.

But, the argument goes, “we need MDRA rules to protect the community from poor-quality of MD developments”. That fiction is utterly dispelled by the consenting of a development at;

4 Frankmoore Ave. in mid-2015 (as yet un-built). MDRA Planning rules – for Parking spaces, height, site coverage, distance of building from boundaries, and more– all went by the wayside, and consenting officers deliberately ignored specific Environment Court direction around parking provision, to approve a design that will create an 8 park deficiency in perhaps the most congested suburban street in all of Wellington. All this to allow developers to cram 18 units on 1750 m2 – densities so extreme that they would never be allowed in the Auckland “higher density” zones we hear so much about from Aucklanders. This proves that MDRA “rules” do nothing to protect a community at all, because consenting officers – for reasons that many speculate on – simply refuse to uphold those rules, and Councillors continue to fail to bring the chief executive to task on those failures.

So, 5 years of history tells us MDRA is utterly uneconomic to “redevelop” dwellings that are perfectly good & have generations of life left in them. So ‘higher density” development will only occur on greenfield sites. Yet WCC continue to refuse to mandate “medium density” on greenfeilds sites like Stebbings valley and Woodridge; Why?

In their panic to get some MDRA development happening, WCC consenting officers are getting more desperate, and as a result they are abandoning all semblance of “quality control” over the MDRA consents. Because of the restricted discretionary nature of MDRA rules, affected neighbours are defenceless in the face of developers – so no wonder suburbs fear & reject them.

WCC defends this policy by claiming it encourages “housing choice’, but builders build what people want to buy – end of story. That’s how markets work. So only offering that “choice” in poorer, more distant suburbs’ guarantees that MDRA will fail: By ‘picking winners” (or losers) with the MDRA lucky dip, they are creating the type of socio-economic class separation that created cannons creek,.

IF WCC was serious about creating “housing choice” then intensification would truly be offered in all suburbs equally, all at once. What is really going on here now is that WCC is continuing a clear policy of imposing “targeted intensification” on relatively poorer suburbs – all, coincidentally in the Northern Ward, which is already struggling under the demands of almost all of Wellingtons “Greenfeild” growth as well – while WCC councillors protect wealthy NIMBYS from any change at all in their beloved leafy enclaves….

Over the last years, we have heard certain councillors tell us that change is inevitable, and its council’s job to plan got that change and make sure we can cope with it. If they pull Island Bay, Khandallah and Karori from MDRA zoning tomorrow because they are deemed to be “not ready” for it – SEVEN YEARS after they started consulting with Wellingtonian on MDRA – they will have utterly failed to provide any leadership whatsoever.

If MDRA is pulled from three rich suburbs, it should be pulled from all of them – Particularly Newlands. Plus the two suburbs whose MDRA zones have stagnated over the past 5 years.

Before signing off I must allow myself an “I told you so” – after the WCC announced Karori’s formal candidacy for MDRA in May 2014 I wrote on Wellington.Scoop:

“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”.

What point could be more diplomatically acceptable at the council table than when the Mayor is 7 months out from an election and desperate to repair her devastated support base in Island Bay?

Can we please have Councillors put their personal interests aside and have an honest All or Nothing vote on MDRA tomorrow?

All in (including Island Bay, Khandallah and Karori) – if you REALLY believe the dead duck that is MDRA deserves another year on life support, or if you really listen to your conscience…..

All Out – reject all new MDRA zone proposals, and begin the process of eliminating MDRA altogether.

Peter Sullivan is a member of the Johnsonville Community Association


  1. Ben, 15. March 2016, 17:03

    Quite frankly this council seems to have lost the plot on more than just the MDRA. They seem completely out of control as far as fair and transparent consultation is concerned. Deals are done and then they announce they will consult. Consultation, if it takes place, is often ignored or cherry picked to suit their agenda. Roll on the elections!!

  2. Graeme Sawyer, 15. March 2016, 17:23

    Excluding the “rich suburbs” (as you put it) from MDRA as WCC plan to do tomorrow is pretty contentious. Some excellent points made here Peter, but the biggest problem with MDRA rules at the moment is, as you mentioned, they are not being enforced adequately by WCC consenting officers.
    MDRA takes “rights” away from neighbours – the right to object to any development that interferes with your enjoyment of your property – in exchange for “protection” to the level of a permitted baseline of activity. That places a huge amount of trust in WCC officers to be the “white knight” in all this. But, as we have seen in Johnsonville since mid 2015, consenting officers are more like Sauron – happily wave ‘the rule’ aside and let developers do whatever the hell they want (4 Frankmoore Ave is case in point that will live on in infamy forever.).
    How can other suburbs being “offered” MDRA have any confidence in the “rules” that are meant to protect them?
    MDRA is a dead duck, but the least WCC’s governance can be expected to make sure the rules – especially re; provision of off-street parking in Johnsonville – are adhered to. Unless that is done, both the build quality and the desirability of MDRA suburbs will go down, down……. and that does none of Wellington any good at all.

  3. Graeme Sawyer, 16. March 2016, 23:53

    An update on today’s WCC debate on MDRA::
    I was gratified that many councillors were sympathetic to the perception that the withdrawal of Karori, Khandallah and Island Bay from becoming “MDRA zones” this year – while leaving Tawa and Newlands “in” – is a monumentally bad look if WCC wants MDRA to be fair and evenly implemented around Wellington. Many (most?) seemed comfortable with a revised propositions (proposed by Cr. Lester) to be voted on tomorrow (Thurday) that Tawa and Newlands will also be withheld from adopting MDRA until issues deemed to require further consultation with the good people of Karori, Khandallah and Island Bay are worked through. The revised plan will be that all five suburbs formally become part of MDRA just a few months later. Those who are pro-MDRA can live with this short delay, and those who fear that MDRA is being implemented inequitably can be assuaged. Win – Win.
    A second resolution from Cr. Lester asked for a report on the progress of MDRA: level of uptake, rate of compliance (or otherwise) of Development Consents with planning “rules”, affordability of resulting properties, etc etc.
    Cr. Sparrow welcomed the resolutions, as the first satisfies his pro-MDRA Tawa residents, and the second addresses the concern of anti-MBRA Tawa residents. Five years on since MDRA was passed by the WCC (and imposed on Kilbirnie & Johnsonville), the second resolution promised to provide evidence on whether this 10-year investment in planning for Wellington’s future is likely to succeed – or should be replaced with something more workable.
    The great thing about these two amended propositions is that all parties can see there is no downside in accepting them, and considerable upside in terms of equity, fairness, and providing hard data on which to base future policy decisions.
    Almost all councillors – and all residents’ groups who attended today – are keen to establish residential intensification as an important part of future housing development. Accepting both these resolutions tomorrow (Thursday) is now key to ensuring that happens in a way all could agree with.
    So, the first amended proposition will only see the introduction of MDRA delayed for a few months, while ensuring the responsibility of intensification really is shared equally across the city, The second will help all Wellington suburbs have confidence that MDRA really is a successful mechanism to achieve the residential intensification we all want and need.
    All of Wellington should be pleased with these pragmatic compromise solutions. I hope that councillors will all see the sense of adopting both of them. The people of Wellington – those of the Northern Ward, and Tawa Johnsonville and Newlands in particular – will take notice of how the votes are cast.

  4. Henry Filth, 17. March 2016, 6:15

    Am I right in understanding that MDRA has produced no new housing in 5 years in Kilbirnie, and that since it has been so successful, it is to be continued and expanded? Except where the rich live? Has the city gone mad?

  5. Graeme Sawyer, 17. March 2016, 9:19

    That’s correct, Henry. MDRA was conferred on Kilbirnie & Johnsonville 5 weeks or so before the 2010 local body elections. (The fact that Mayor Prendergast – the major cheerleader for MDRA – lost that election is no coincidence). MDRA introduction in Johnsonville was delayed significantly by the terribly long time it took the Environment court to hear the people of Johnsonville’s case; but MDRA officially became the ‘Operative District Plan” for central Kilbirnie in late 2010. For an answer to the question “why no MDRA redevelopments at all in nearly 5 years,” refer to Peter’s comments in his article above about the professional valuers’ opinions at the Environment Court: both independent valuers agreed that “MD” redevelopment would not be taken up by developers because they know it was uneconomic do so, amd because the cost of buying good homes and demolishing them was too high – the more expensive the suburb, the more that is true. Developers have (so far) only used MDRA rules to develop on the very, very few “vacant lots” within the MDRA zone; that is NOT the “redevelopment” WCC hoped for when it passed MDRA. And the downside of MDRA – for thousands of homeowners whose biggest asset is within these zones – is disproportionate to the additional convenience and profitability for developers on the one or two developments that have occurred in all that time. Many people who are “pro” quality suburban residential intensification, and think the best road to achieving that is MDRA zoning, don’t seem to understand; MDRA zoning just is not the way to get the suburban intensification they – and most of the rest of us – want.
    I fear that many among both operations and governance for the District Plan at the WCC have too much history with MDRA to see this clearly. Most opponents of MDRA want the same thing they do – they just want a fairer and more practical solution that works WITH “markets” rather than against them. Not only is MDRA a rather nasty sledgehammer, it ain’t breaking many nuts, either…

  6. Diane Calvert, 18. March 2016, 14:17

    Following the meeting 17 March, the Council agreed to proceed with the next stage of implementing MDRA in Tawa and Newlands and to carry out more targeted engagement with those suburbs. They also agreed to slow down the process in Khandallah, Island Bay and Karori while carrying out the same targeted engagement. Disappointing they chose to reject one of Cllr Lester’s amendments which was to also slow down the process for Tawa and Newlands to align with the other suburbs. While instensifcation needs to be tailored to individual suburbs, surely there should be some common principles agreed first? Agreeing to proceed with Tawa and Newlands reduces the ability to do this. And what is the harm with a six months delay in a 30 year plan? The benefits would be a more cohesive approach and better community engagement rather than a ‘divide and conquer approach. Cllr Lester did manage to get an amendment through requiring Council officers to review MDRA impacts to date and report back. Surely it would be better to wait for this report before proceeding with Newlands and Tawa? Councillors considered there appeared more support in Newland and Tawa for MDRA. But this was based on the Council’s own intepretation of submissions. We in Khandallah found that the submission form was misleading and the Council’s summary left out important observations.

    I agree with the previous commenter, “I fear that many among both operations and governance for the District Plan at the WCC have too much history with MDRA to see this clearly. Most opponents want the same thing they do – a fairer and more practical solution that works WITH “markets” rather than against them. Not only is MDRA a rather nasty sledgehammer, it ain’t breaking many nuts, either.”

  7. Jim Candiliotis, 21. March 2016, 19:16

    Peter, a very well thought out article. I’m aware most of our Councillors read it prior to the vote being taken. Some even changed their minds. Of the six who voted, only two were a surprise in how they voted, David Lee and Simon Woolf. These two KNEW and INDICATED to our representative that had the time to come to council with our views, that it was patently unfair. As for Hubris Helene, nothing she does surprises me, she gave up listening to the North fifteen years ago. Hence the declining vote she has…27 at the last election wasn’t it Helene. Roll on November.
    If anyone’s interested they should read this https://www.neighbourly.co.nz/message/view/6189658