Wellington Scoop

Saving our good character

character houses 2
WCC photo

by Lindsay Shelton
Wellingtonians are taking sides about the city council’s new spatial plan. Let’s be pleased that there’s such passion about the development of our city.

In July, three organisations asked the council to delay consideration of its plan. Then came a warning from Historic Places Wellington that the plan was being rushed and would allow demolition of large numbers of heritage and character buildings. But the council didn’t respond to these concerns.

Right from the start, the arguments in favour of character houses and character areas have been clear:

Foreign cities have their particular character but when you think of Wellington, you think of wooden houses nestled into the hillside. They are our identity. That identity exists because people have gone before me, expressed our shared community value, and ensured the rule of law protects them.

At the start of this month, a new organisation was formed, called Keep Wellington’s Character, to defend the old inner suburbs against demolition and replacement with high-rise apartments.

The WCC has gone far beyond what’s needed for an affordable, compact, resilient city. The plan will destroy heritage suburbs. The council has not been transparent about its plan to allow 6 storey development in the heritage suburbs of Mt Victoria, Aro Valley, Mt Cook and Newtown. Nor has it been transparent about 3-4 storey development in all the heritage suburbs, including Aotearoa’s oldest suburb of Thorndon. Keep Wellington’s Character calls for the heritage of inner city suburbs to be recognised. They should not be broken up with high rise and intense development. Protecting a few streetscapes (as WCC proposes) will not adequately reflect their heritage values.

Then came an opposition group, A City For People, whose concern is affordable homes.

“We have heard a lot from people who say they want to protect the character of old houses, and what we are saying is that the character of a city comes from its people. Without a credible plan for new affordable homes, a whole generation of Wellingtonians is at risk of being forced out from the central city into new suburbs sprawling north, and spending hours every day in traffic jams.”

To which the Mt Victoria Historical Society responded knowledgeably:

Building 4-6 storey apartments in Mt Victoria is unlikely to provide affordable housing and will, in fact, expel the many young people occupying the large houses currently divided into multiple flats. Development should be phased, so that it first takes place in areas which need regeneration e.g. Adelaide Road and Kent Terrace, and actively planned rather than laissez faire, so the Plan does not give rise to low quality, inappropriate development in the wrong places.

Historian Ben Schrader has challenged the population forecasts in the draft document, and said the city council would be wiser to aim for a more realistic, medium growth scenario.

And Hugh Rennie has reminded us that there’ve already been years of fighting the Council to get homes that locals wanted, not what planners dreamed of.

The major attractions of Wellington life – lifestyle, residential environment, culture, education etc – are based on what is now to be discarded by these “planners”. Many of the areas Wellingtonians like most would never make it through today’s planning controls if they had not already been built.

You can join the debate. Send us comments now, and then send your opinion to the council if you are willing to deal with its rather controlling requirements – its consultation closes on Monday October 5.


  1. Conor, 18. September 2020, 7:01

    There is some misinformation out there unfortunately. Heritage is protected under the RMA, and no Heritage buildings are threatened by the proposed plan. There is also the simple fact that New Zealand is growing much faster than earlier forecasts – in 2004 we were going to have 5 million people in 2050, but we have that population now. Even the WCC’s highest growth projections are on the conservative side.
    Finally Hugh Rennie is right, we shouldn’t leave it up to planners to restrict what people want. The Council should not have the restrictive rules that stop people building the kinds of homes they want, even if they may be 4 or 5 storeys.

  2. Mud flap, 18. September 2020, 9:38

    The debate is turning into a mess. Rather than bringing people together, it feels like they’re becoming more divided as it goes on. I don’t think it’s helped by the confusing language the council used – which has people assuming that anything new will have to be 6 storeys plus. I’m also concerned by some councillors who seem to have taken an ideological stand on this rather than listen to the concerns of all affected parties and try to work out a solution. It’s not helpful when you have a Twitter mob mocking concerned homeowners and talking about bulldozing houses or threatening to demolish one heritage house at a time till they pass the spatial plan. They’ve also gone off on a tangent where – once upon a time, they lived in a leaky, mouldy house and therefore all should be demolished. This is covered by central government rental standards, and poor maintenance, nothing to do with the spatial plan. Everyone would love to live in Mt Victoria etc, that’s why it’s so expensive. The pro spatial plan people haven’t said how “affordable” housing can be achieved when demand is so high. The example given of the Parsonson Architecture apartments is great but they’re a million dollars each by the looks of it. In my opinion the only way it can be achieved is for the government or council to buy huge swathes of land – ie all the car yards on Cambridge/Kent tce – and build apartments that are sold below market rates and/or rented out below market rates. Driving the cost of housing down. There are multiple poorly used sites which could be used before we even think about touching existing houses. If it’s left to developers and investors it will only ever stay high.

  3. Toni, 18. September 2020, 9:45

    If the council fillfulled its obligations to UN guidelines for sustainable living, problems associated with negative responses to development would likely abate. UN guidelines are directed towards ensuring socially inclusive, better integrated and connected cities that foster sustainable urban development, instead of the current unsustainable development for profit not people.

  4. Conor, 18. September 2020, 15:05

    Mud flap – the council is currently selling 20 homes. There is zero chance of council building the required homes. As to central government, not a single Kiwibuild home has been built in Wellington city, and I don’t know when the last state home was built here. Anyhow, the spatial plan would not stop government doing as you suggest.

  5. Mud flap, 18. September 2020, 17:33

    Conor – I’m fully aware the council and government won’t do this which is why they’ve both pushed this spatial plan. It’s a cop out after the failure of kiwibuild, a second attempt at building more houses but again leaving it to developers, which is why kiwibuild failed the first time. My point was that the only way it can be affordable is by using the power of the state. If the council made it easier to subdivide existing sections by removing restrictive site coverage settings and excessive consent fees etc it would go a long way to addressing the issues. Because they haven’t done this, the pendulum/wrecking ball has been swung so far the other way that these restrictions are meaningless and we’re now staring down the barrel of eight storey apartment blocks instead of sympathetic infill housing.

  6. Diane Calvert, 18. September 2020, 18:12

    We need to be working with central govt & mkt to build and intensify on land that is available now ie Greenfields & inner city land on Kent/Cambridge Tce & Adelaide Rd. [via twitter]

  7. michael, 18. September 2020, 22:15

    Diane – has anyone told the council officers that, as they seem to be the decision makers with their own agendas?

  8. Conor, 19. September 2020, 8:12

    Mudflap – You’ve said that housing can only be made affordable by using the power of the state, but then given some examples of deregulations (site coverage and subdivision) that would rely on the private sector to make housing more affordable. I agree with you that the council should make those changes (citywide). But I can almost guarantee there would be an uproar in Wellington when those changes are proposed. People here hate change. Even though it’s the only constant.

  9. Wellington Inc, 19. September 2020, 13:33

    Making houses more affordable requires freeing up more land. If we want to grow the residential population of the city fringe AND retain the city’s historical built heritage, then we need to bring into the debate the possbility of building on some of the lesser-used, lower conservation value parks and reserves. That is the trade off we face.
    As important as green spaces are, Wellington has a plentiful supply relative to its size and population, and carefuly and selectively freeing some of it for development could be needed. How people respond to this suggestion will depend on how they value natural vs built heritage.

  10. Flood Map, 19. September 2020, 16:12

    Wellington Inc – I agree. If people are willing to remove character and heritage protections on houses and suburbs then they should be willing to do the same for areas of the town belt, parks and reserves. Be interesting to hear the arguments against this though. They’ll say the green belt is part of Wellington’s character and attraction but at the same time argue that heritage areas are not. After all, the people are Wellington’s character apparently, not old houses.

  11. Peter S, 19. September 2020, 19:35

    I still don’t understand what the problem is. If so many people want to move to Wellington, and there aren’t enough houses/apartments for all of them, then tough bikkies! Just because somebody wants something, such as the opportunity to live in Wellington, then the universe is not obliged to provide that for them, is it? Why the constant obsession with growth? As is easily seen, there are many apartment blocks being built in Wellington already, with lots more on the way. Also, there are lots of townhouse developments in the suburbs. Don’t we have enough natural growth as things stand? Someone, please explain why we have to change the rules.

  12. Violet, 19. September 2020, 19:51

    I’d far rather see 6 storey apartments in my home town (Newtown) than see the green area built on.

  13. judy siers, 20. September 2020, 8:54

    Excellent article, and timely as the consultation process has aroused much passion, skewed aspects and is making it difficult to stay focussed for a meaningful submission. My concern is for the impact on the northern suburbs which are being overlooked, understandably, by the overwhelming city suburban issues. However the outer suburbs offer change, for many a huge release and relief – getting out of the city into quieter and greener spaces.
    There is historic significance here. Roads from Kaiwharahwhara, along the Bridle Track, also up the Gorge to the top of the hill then down through Ngaio, Khandallah, Johnsonville Tawa and Porirua, follow original Maori tracks and our first historic 1840’s Old Porirua Road and the North Road.
    These streetscapes are precious and the proposed plan would allow demolition and rebuilding on such a scale that character would be lost to sunless wind tunnels without view of our green environment (the pride of the northern suburbs) or a hotch-potch of large constructions out of scale with the existing buildings.
    A revised plan is a must.

  14. michael, 20. September 2020, 12:50

    My concern is for the inner-city, as the current developments going up have no community or green space around them or nearby. At a recent council seminar they admitted green space in the inner-city is so far below international standards it is becoming critical. Yet more high rise apartments are going up surrounded by concrete. If this is an example of things to come, then there won’t be a problem with housing as no one will want to live in the city. Lack of community and green spaces is detrimental to mental and physical health, as borne out by the many cities overseas that have learnt from experience.

  15. Ben Schrader, 20. September 2020, 13:48

    Having suggested that the 80,000 growth forecast underpinning the District Plan was wildly optimistic, I went back to the 2017 Statistics NZ figures on which (I think) they were based. The predicted growth of Wellington City between 2018 and 2043 (25 years) is based on low, medium and high growth scenarios:

    • Low growth predicts the city’s population would reach 221,600 (an increase of 18,883 and a growth rate of 8.5%)
    • Medium growth predicts a population of 250,400 (47,663 increase; 19% growth)
    • High growth predicts a population of 279,00 (76,253 increase; 27.3% growth).

    The forecast included historical data. It showed that between the 1996 and 2018 censuses Wellington City’s population increased from 157,700 to 202,737, a growth rate of 22.2% over 22 years. This rate is closer to the medium growth scenario outlined above, but not too distant from the high growth scenario either.

    Over this period the city accommodated an extra 45,047 people with relative ease. This was done through infill housing, townhouse and apartment developments, as well as new suburban housing on the urban fringe. The city is denser now than it was in 1996.

    Might it be possible to accommodate a further 60,000 people in a similar vein? By utilising the many existing brownfield sites (Riddiford Street, Adelaide Rd, Kent Tce, etc) and encouraging further infill housing (especially in second ring suburbs like Kelburn, Northland, and Hataitai), or even taking over Council road reserve land for housing, we may find we can make much better use of the land we already have without the need to destroy large swathes of older housing.

    This would certainly be the more environmentally sustainable option. As the French architect and sustainability expert, Carl Elefante, reminds us: ‘We cannot build our way to sustainability; we must conserve our way to it.’ This means retaining and adaptively re-using existing buildings rather than constantly demolishing them and starting anew. We need to learn to recycle old buildings rather than routinely dumping them in the landfill.

  16. Adam Weir, 20. September 2020, 23:41

    We wanted to buy in Wellington 5 years ago. On a teacher’s salary it just wasn’t going to happen with the housing stock available. We would have bought affordable apartments, or terraced housing, or anything really, but there was very little in our price range. Naenae however… [via twitter]

  17. Trish, 21. September 2020, 10:15

    Mudflap is right – Mt Victoria is so expensive because lots of people want to live there. The approach of the government and council to achieve their objective of more and cheaper homes seems to be to make the buildings and the neighbourhoods so undesirable that fewer people would want to live there. If that’s their strategy, it just might work.

  18. Toni, 21. September 2020, 12:53

    I don’t understand why all of a sudden it is considered essential that people ahould have an absolute right to live only where they want? When buying our first home over 40 years ago, even though we took on weekend jobs to save money, we still couldn’t afford to live in Wellington. So we bought out in the Hutt where we could afford to live, and it was years before we were able to buy in Wellington.

    And Trish I agree with you, by the time the city loses all its character and is overflowing with wall to wall high-rise apartments, the city will become very affordable as people leave in droves.

  19. D'Esterre, 22. September 2020, 0:41

    Ben Schrader: “….retaining and adaptively re-using existing buildings rather than constantly demolishing them and starting anew. We need to learn to recycle old buildings…”

    I agree. We have family in central Europe: the citizens in that part of the world love their heritage buildings and go to considerable lengths to preserve them. Many of us here feel similarly about our beautiful old houses, and also put considerable effort into maintaining them.

    It would be good to have Council support in this, instead of having constantly to battle attempts to bulldoze our heritage areas.

    To those who complain about “old and cold” housing: lack of insulation and double glazing can be remedied. We ourselves have done this with older houses, both here and elsewhere in NZ. If a house lacks sunlight in the winter, anything new built in the same area will have the same problem.

    Many of us live in Wellington because of, rather than despite, its current housing. We already have multi-storey, “modern office” apartment buildings in the inner city. We need more of that sort of thing in suburbs such as Ngaio and Khandallah like we need toothache.

  20. Kerry, 22. September 2020, 9:43

    It seems that nobody wants density, and yet Wellington needs density.
    The solution is ‘density done well.’ Is anybody really proposing twelve-floor buildings next door to heritage buildings? I don’t think so.
    Density Done Well puts a ‘height-ramp’ between them: plenty of good examples on the web.

  21. Benny, 22. September 2020, 10:08

    Kerry, can you please point to a document, a law, that ensures this density will be done well? I’m genuinely asking. The Council and Councillors are promising that, of course, it is the intent, that green will be baked in the district plan, that buildings will be beautifully integrated, etc when debating the district plan, next year. I trust they genuinely want this, but I don’t trust “the system” and I can’t see how we can agree on a spatial plan until we know what will be built in the “envelope” and how. A discussion on what “good densification” will look like and its engraving in the district plan should have come first.

  22. Conor, 22. September 2020, 13:51

    Ben Schrader – Your maths there is incorrect. The growth rate from 1996 – 2018 based on your figures was 28.5%.
    A growth rate of 22.2 percent would only have seen Wellington’s population at 192,709.

  23. Ben Schrader, 22. September 2020, 19:26

    Conor – Thanks for correcting my clumsy error. Must have gone to the same school as Paul Goldsmith! The City’s growth rate between 1996 and 2018 was indeed 28.5%. I’ve gone back and corrected the other growth percentages in the three scenarios. These should be:

    • Low growth predicts the city’s population would reach 221,600 (an increase of 18,883 and a growth rate of 10.7%)
    • Medium growth predicts a population of 250,400 (47,663 increase; 23.5% growth)
    • High growth predicts a population of 279,00 (76,253 increase; 37.6% growth).

    The last scenario still seems overly (if not wildly) optimistic to me. If the city does grow by 37.6% over the next 25 years it will be a truly remarkable achievement.

  24. D'Esterre, 22. September 2020, 19:31

    Benny: “….can you please point to a document, a law, that ensures this density will be done well?” My worry exactly. It is regrettable, but many of us don’t trust Council to make decisions that conform with its own district plan, whatever that may be. We have evidence of this having already happened in various parts of the city, over many years.
    Road to Hell problems and all that. Or so it seems to us.

  25. Guy M, 23. September 2020, 8:36

    Kerry – “Is anybody really proposing twelve-floor buildings next door to heritage buildings? I don’t think so.”
    Ummm, yes, sadly, a 12-13 floor building has been proposed in Frederick St, right next to the 1 storey high heritage Chinese Mission Hall. Density is not being done well at all.

  26. Waripori, 23. September 2020, 8:52

    This reminds me of an AC/DC tune. Density, done dirt cheap. Density and it’s done dirt cheap. Pretty much what’s going through every developer’s head right now salivating at the prospect of the ‘daft’ spatial plan.

  27. John Rankin, 23. September 2020, 12:09

    @Waripori: here was I thinking AC/DC sang about “dirty deeds done to sheep”. You live and learn.