Wellington Scoop

Threat to heritage buildings in our character areas

character areas

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 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, 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

Felicity Wong is chair of Historic Places Wellington.


  1. Rust Belt, 30. July 2020, 10:21

    Interesting article. I agree completely that the destruction of character areas to build multi storey complexes is a terrible idea. There’s already some god awful examples of apartment blocks in Mt Victoria and Thorndon, a taste of things to come? Why take away what makes wellington unique to create a mini Hong Kong? But at the same time you want to save the Gordon Wilson flats. A building out of character with the area it sits in, dominating the typical character housing in the area. I might add that these flats only utilise about 1/8th of the land area they sit on. It could be used to house far more people.

  2. Peter Steven, 30. July 2020, 10:55

    Heritage designations and low-density zoning are tools that have only served people who own property and want to keep their ‘investments’ propped up. Wellington rents and house prices have become inhumane and the only way this is going to change is if we build more housing.

    We should be building upwards instead of outwards for various reasons, but I think the most important is the fact that we’re facing a climate crisis and it’s more important than ever for people to be live locally and not have to drive a car to do anything.

    Minneapolis did something similar a few years ago by upzoning ‘single family’ lots to ‘fourplexes’ (pretty much four appartments) and rent prices have actually decreased by 18% since then!

    I’m really excited about the prospect of a denser city with more affordable housing. Bring it on I say!

  3. Andy Mellon, 30. July 2020, 11:30

    Does this principle apply to areas in other Wellington-region cities? I see Porirua and Lower Hutt also count as ‘tier 1’ cities. Does that mean, for example, that areas near suburban railway stations are also prone to having 6 storey development allowed, regardless of the character of those neighbourhoods?

    How extensive is this change?

  4. michael, 30. July 2020, 12:51

    I believe the character areas of Wellington must be protected as much as possible, and any infill building should be strictly regulated to maintain the character of the area and ensure it does not affect those living either side. Unfortunately, many councils do not have rigorous guidelines in place to guarantee that developments fit in with their surrounds. We have so many ugly square box type cheap undesirable developments that should never been given approval.

  5. Kara, 30. July 2020, 14:02

    While some buildings in Wellington do need protecting because of the architecture, that doesn’t apply to all. The Gordon Wilson building is long past its pull down date. Building a new accommodation block would help students. As far as the apartment blocks springing up around Wellington – what were the WCC resource consent people thinking of?

  6. CC, 30. July 2020, 16:49

    Kara, who should evaluate the buildings that have architectural merit and those that don’t? It probably goes without saying that the answer should be architects, the hint is in the title. When it comes to the Gordon Wilson Flats, it seems all and sundry are suddenly the experts instead of the professionals who had to take a case to the Environment Court in order to be heard.

  7. Marko, 30. July 2020, 21:17

    Interesting to see that the author’s conception of “heritage” and “preservation” lacks any mention of this country’s Treaty partnership and the atrocious history of colonisation in Wellington. Try again.

  8. Northland, 30. July 2020, 23:19

    CC, heritage buildings are not just observed and used by architects alone. The wider public should have their say in whether or not building such as GWF are to be protected from demolition, just as they should have adequate feedback into how the city as a whole should grow.

  9. V, 31. July 2020, 0:52

    There are objective standards to beauty, and GWF clearly do not follow them.

  10. Jess, 31. July 2020, 7:44

    I agree that our history does need to be protected, but please cap the number of heritage buildings – choose a few and provide the resources to protect them properly. Gordon Wilson Flats are an eyesore that need to be demolished.

  11. Guy M, 31. July 2020, 8:02

    OK – I’ve been searching WCC’s website but I can find no mention of this. Can anyone provide a link to the report or the info about what Council are actually discussing?

  12. Conor Hill, 31. July 2020, 9:41

    WCC doesnt have a choice for much of this actually. The NPS-UD forces the council’s hand. Thankfully. Policy 3 on page 11 .
    Guy – I cannot find the draft spatial plan, though the DomPost has mentioned it . And this RNZ report has just been published.

  13. TrevorH, 31. July 2020, 12:29

    It surprises me anyone is prepared to invest in an apartment these days when the seismic requirements seem to be constantly updated, imposing ruinous costs for retro-fitting.

  14. Ellen, 31. July 2020, 12:50

    Interesting discussion – The Gordon Wilson Flats are a good example – with some renovation, they could have been in use a while ago but a choice was made not to upgrade. VUW will demolish and not rebuild housing but more university sprawl.

    Often overlooked is that all the inner city suburbs are already medium density. What is the desired density for housing? There is no mention of green space for residents – a key consideration in many peoples minds after Covid19 lockdown where people really needed to get out. Inner city apartment dwellers walked far to find green and pleasant places.

    The NPS is a blunt instrument that is not supporting quality places to live, instead sticking to a formula approach. What about increasing the stock of accessible housing near the centre – some parking will be required for that. Where is the requirement for accessible housing? Who and how many people will want to live at the top of a 6 storey walk-up building? Lifts and escalators will add costs to housing.

  15. Albert Ross, 31. July 2020, 12:53

    If you care so much about these buildings – you buy and restore them. Why should others pay for your preferences?

  16. Conor Hill, 31. July 2020, 17:35

    The draft spatial plan is here now.

  17. Josh Hockley, 1. August 2020, 9:58

    While I do like the idea of saving heritage buildings, I have a question. Have you actually read the document? You may notice that it’s not that bad for most of the historical areas such as Newtown and Mt Vic. I believe the council have found a sensible middle ground between New York and Los Angeles. In fact I reckon this will make our city one of those “best places to live” cities, this will also put us as a city (and hopefully the region around us and hopefully the country) on track to be able to stop the climate crisis. Also I would like to point out I’m a born and raised Wellingtonian, I grew up in areas like Kilbirnie and Newtown so I’m not an Aucklander with no stake in this. This is my home and I hope we go through with this plan. In fact the only part of this plan I do not like is that it keeps Hataitai and Oriental Parade at town houses. It institutionalizes the superiority and the, well to put it plainly, rich, white, suburban, top 5%er area. These areas would be terrific for higher density due to their proximity. The council needs to rethink where they have 3-4 and 4-5 storey housing and it needs to be in a lot of Oriental Parade and Hataitai.

  18. Keith Flinders, 2. August 2020, 13:34

    Josh: The perception that all who live in Oriental Bay are mega rich white people living in high value houses and apartments, is vastly different from reality. Oriental Bay was one of the first suburbs to transform from large single family houses to multi storied apartments starting in the 1920s, perhaps earlier, and of course there are some more recently built opulent apartments to be seen.

    Taking stock of apartment buildings in Oriental Bay, the ones that house the most number of residents per square metre of ground space occupied are over half a century old. They provide efficient housing close to the CBD and services, but are not without issues. High rates in respect of the services provided by the WCC and GWRC, extremely high insurance costs since 2013, and with the prospect of strengthening work being mandated to bring the buildings up to a higher NBS percentage rating will add to future costs.

    Those who have been retired for many years have seen their savings they expected to see them through to end of life eroded by higher charges, inflation, and now virtually zero interest rates. Some of those residents of Oriental Bay now find themselves with apartments they can’t realise the full value for even if they wanted to move out.

    So, Josh, living in Oriental Bay is not what it might seem on the surface, and no different from other suburbs in respect of issues.

  19. David Mackenzie, 3. August 2020, 10:34

    There is no part of Wellington City that is not within walking distance of the city centre. It would be wonderful and safer and more pleasant for every resident or visitor if a low-height limitation for building were introduced, applicable everywhere.

  20. William wilson, 4. August 2020, 23:56

    Just thinking practically for a moment, it’s difficult to see how all these multi-storey apartments are going to go without a sewer connection. We have been taking our excess faeces by the truck load to the landfill. So what will it be? Just more trucks lol !

  21. mikesh, 5. August 2020, 12:20

    Introduction of a land tax by government would probably help long term.