Wellington Scoop

A tightrope act in Newtown

newtown b and w panorama

By Gregor Thompson
On Wednesday last week, a responsible Covid-19 community meeting in Newtown heard constructive suggestions for the increasingly polarizing WCC Draft Spatial Plan. A hundred or so people attended spaciously, while 50 others obliged and walked home to join the other 400 on the live Facebook stream.

Mayor Andy Foster spoke, as did Councillor Iona Pannett and Ashok Jacob from Renters United.

Perhaps most notable were the words of James Coyle – a representative of the Newtown Residents’ Association – who spoke of the Association’s real and quite original concerns with the Spatial Plan. He revealed what a shame it is for Newtown to need to oppose the council’s proposal, commenting that “they [the WCC] unfortunately had missed an opportunity to get one of Wellington’s more progressive communities on board, one that may have helped get their messages across”.

Aside from other worries with the Spatial Plan, the standout concerns of the Residents’ Association are the implications of rezoning the majority of Newtown’s residential area to allow 6+ storey buildings to be indiscriminately jotted around the community, casting shadows over homes and green-space.

The masterminds behind the Newtown Festival Martin Hanley and Anna Kemble Welch have been members of the Newtown Residents’ Association since 1982. Accordingly, they are well placed to discuss how their community has grown and to comment on how it should grow. Their concern is not inherently about heritage, but more about maintaining their community’s culture and diversity, something they have worked to encourage and preserve when needed over the last 4 decades.

“High rise infill randomly amongst the closely packed existing 1 and 2-storey historic housing stock is a catastrophe, which, if implemented as published, will become a slow running urban disaster. The mistakes of infill built in Wellington in the 1960s and 70s taught us that the two typologies are not compatible. Once you gain 6+ storeys next door to your little wooden house then you, and the whole block of your neighbours, are in shade, living in a much colder and damper flat or home.”

To Hanley and Welch, it is not about being an obstacle to growth, quite the opposite, it is about recalibrating the plan so the character of the suburb won’t come at an expense of growth. When asked whether or not they were against densification:

“We are absolutely for densification, and feel it’s a tragedy that the debate is being framed this way. The goal of increased density and more affordable housing is excellent, we love it. We have been long term advocates of increased density done well. More people make all of Newtown’s cafes, shops, schools, public transport, cycleway, clubs, organisations, support and health services, arts, events, performances and festivals more viable. We have proactively encouraged and lobbied the council to add density for years.”

Due to their concerns as well as 80 years’ collective experience in architecture and urban planning, they’ve decided to work on an alternative that they believe is better suited to Newtown. With the help of other involved communitarians, the two have spent a tremendous amount of work over the last few weeks creating such an alternative. The solution fits 2,000+ more homes in Newtown – which far exceeds the suburb’s quota for growth.

They have used 3 types of new homes as models that allow for outlook and views, courtyard space and shared amenities, to show that the growth is possible in the areas immediately bordering the transport corridor. Their logic is that by concentrating population growth on the arterial transit routes, they rule out compromising the residential area’s vibrancy.

In practice, instead of the council’s plan below which allows the location of 6+ storey buildings to be determined by developers in large proportion of the suburb …

density in newtown

… you would have something along the lines of this, where intensification is contained in a far more concentrated part of Newtown. The idea being to minimise the effects of high-rise blocks on their immediate environments, limiting shading and maintaining resilience.

better newtown
Click on image for a clearer version

Their proposition considers heritage concerns by mandating that shop facades and the most iconic heritage buildings in the Newtown commercial area remain intact while 6 storey apartments can be built behind. Infill and future intensification would still be possible in the residential area but at a height and scale that fits sympathetically with the existing homes and the landscape.

It’s also worth pointing out that the space implicated in the Residents’ Association’s mapping is the Newtown Suburban Centre, already zoned for 4-storeys and allowing buildings to be built right next to each other; the impact on neighbouring properties of 6-storeys would be much less than on the 1 and 2-storey residential homes while achieving more density. Furthermore, the neighbours in these zones already knew the conditions when they bought their properties so the scale of relative change would be significantly smaller for the residents to deal with.

Owner of several of Newtown’s historic shops Peter Noble welcomes the proposed plan by Hanley and Welch and believes there is an imbalance between maintaining the character and allowing viable improvements that some of the commercial properties require. He thinks that if regulations were loosened enough to encourage landowners in central Newtown to develop their properties, the suburb would profit immensely and wouldn’t need to forfeit its residential character in the process.

“There are a lot of buildings in the Riddiford Street shopping area that are looking run down and scruffy. Developing the centre of Newtown would be beneficial as it would allow the property owners to get a fair return on future improvements (including EQ strengthening), increase quality housing supply, and create safer and more attractive premises for commercial tenants.”

The Spatial Plan is an attempt at a solution to a problem; a housing-supply deficit. While it is by no means a silver-bullet and a lot more must be done, if people attempt to block this without providing an alternative they’re effectively promoting exclusivity.

This doesn’t however mean that de-zoning vast amounts of our inner-city suburbs and mandating 6+ storey buildings is a good solution either. For the Newtown Residents’ Association, increased density done well is the goal, at the appropriate scale and following good urban design principles, which unfortunately to them, the Spatial Plan does not provide.

Densification proponents should realise that heritage isn’t just an obstacle and that it has a diverse range of benefits to many communities and many more individuals. Heritage advocates should acknowledge that the status quo needs adjusting and that pride about where one lives shouldn’t come at the expense of someone’s ability to have a home. Then we may begin to get movement.

What Newtown has done is draw the battle of heritage and housing out of the trenches. In the process, some heritage may become collateral but in a far less disruptive way. Most importantly, the charm of Newtown will remain intact as growth comes into this versatile, desirable and constantly surprising suburb. If other communities follow Newtown’s lead, this may curb some of the hostility and lead to some much needed change.


  1. Michael Gibson, 25. September 2020, 10:01

    For what it will be worth, my submission is: “I submit that no new building should be permitted if sunlight or a view is taken from an existing building.”

  2. David Mackenzie, 25. September 2020, 11:13

    Well said, Michael Gibson.

  3. Roy Murphy, 25. September 2020, 11:20

    I think it is absolutely correct that town planning should not be left to the decision of profit-motivated developers. Random 6-storey buildings are not the answer to the housing problem. I applaud the Newtown residents’ considered and intelligent response.

  4. Marko, 25. September 2020, 13:07

    If we adopt the ‘alternative proposal’, to house the growth we expect would require every single one of those lots to be developed to their maximum (height and occupancy). That is not how housing development occurs anywhere in the world. Many lots (anywhere from 50-80%) are not able to reach their zoned potential due to lot size, road access, construction access, demand for larger floor space or outdoor space, etc. That is why we zone for much more as only a small proportion of lots are viable for the maximum potential development. (See MfE website and 3.26 of the NPS-UD for more detail).

    But the mindset underlying the alternative proposal is more insidious. Zoning for the bare minimum is not planning for the future, nor is it addressing rapidly increasing house prices/rents we have right now. We are in a housing crisis and proposals should reflect that reality.

  5. Julienz, 25. September 2020, 13:08

    Well done Newtown Residents Association. Forging local solutions to local issues is how it should be. Unfortunately this situation has been foisted upon us by Central Government, and the WCC say that six storeys near transport are compulsory and out of their control. The Council is up against the National Policy Statement for Urban Development 2020 promulgated by Phil Twyford using regulations after guidance from the Department for the Environment (250 submissions nationally – the highest response to a single question in the consultation 191, 30 submitters were Anonymous). The consultation took place during the period of last year’s Local Government elections so prospective councillors had their minds on other things. Wellingtonians need to make the National Policy Statement a general election issue because ironically Wellington is being bullied by Wellington. Ask your Wellington Labour MPs: why they allowed this one size fits all edict. The whole thing feels an insult to democracy.

  6. Claire, 25. September 2020, 13:16

    The alternative plan from the residents’ association still includes six storey buildings in Newtown. Granted they are in a concentrated area. However care needs to be taken over the historic shop frontages. Not unlike Cuba Street, they can be restored and provide a retail upgrade and an attraction. Six storeys would be better off on more suitable sites. For example Adelaide Road. Come on WCC – if you can strong arm Newtown, you can do the same to the land bankers there.

  7. Claire, 25. September 2020, 13:39

    I am part of the We Are Newtown group. The Newtown Residents Association does not speak for all in Newtown. I am not sure why they are providing alternatives to the WCC plan – that plan still involves six storey buildings along some of the heritage cut out. These buildings are not suitable in Newtown. A three or four storey step down model may work in the main drag, if there are high design and environmental protocols.

  8. Anna, 25. September 2020, 16:22

    Marko – this shows where 2000+ more homes can be built in the central area of Newtown over the next 30 years, and a real interest in this possibility from the owners of several properties who would be keen to go ahead immediately while also protecting their heritage shop fronts. This plan is well researched – we are very familiar with Newtown – your general figures of difficulties are not valid here but we are still assuming only a 25% to 40% uptake of this potential would need to be realised.

    The projected population increase the Spatial Plan was using would have required 1500 new homes in Newtown over 30 years but the Council have now revised those figures and realise they over-estimated. WCC now project between 500 and 750 more dwellings required in Newtown.

    This plan for developing in the centre of Newtown shows it is possible to well and truly meet demand and also no existing homes in Newtown’s residential area (whether rented or owner occupied) need to be harmed in achieving this. It doesn’t preclude infill also happening where appropriate in the residential area at a height that is sympathetic to the neighbourhood, and that is possible already.

  9. Lute, 25. September 2020, 16:28

    Claire: if you read closely you’ll see the proposal is for the character facades to be retained, with apartments built above and behind.

    Marko, this is not planning for the minimum. The minimum goal was for 1500 extra dwellings (or people?) in Newtown. This plan provides 2000.

  10. Wellington Commuter, 25. September 2020, 18:37

    Important notice for submitters to the Wellington Spatial Plan. The WCC has just released “Citywide Estimated Growth Distribution Figures”. This has the suburb by suburb Additional Dwellings & Population proposed under this plan & is on the plan website. [via twitter]

  11. Julienz, 25. September 2020, 21:07

    @Wellington Commuter. Thanks for the heads up. If someone can explain the numbers I’d be grateful!

  12. Conor, 26. September 2020, 9:38

    I am from the United Peoples Front of Newtown. We believe all new dwellings should be in basements, or preferably underground.

  13. Catherine, 26. September 2020, 11:48

    I wonder how representative the Newtown Residents Association is. I doubt many renters, students or lower income people of Newtown (who would benefit most from more warm, safe, affordable housing) are represented by this group.

  14. Traveller, 26. September 2020, 12:32

    Catherine: the residents’ association is not a closed shop and is always looking for more members. It would no doubt welcome more renters or students or people with low incomes. And you should join, too.

  15. Pedge, 26. September 2020, 15:41

    Conor. I am from the Newtown people’s united front. We believe all new dwellings should be suspended from existing buildings, therefore using no extra land.

  16. Claire, 26. September 2020, 18:23

    For all our sakes do some vetting of your commenters. Do they add anything to the debate?

  17. Trish Janes, 29. September 2020, 13:32

    Thanks Wellington Commuter for posting the link to the council’s updated expectations of population growth. Julienz asked what they mean. They show that the council thinks the most likely increase in population and dwellings in the inner and outer suburbs will be about 10% of the frightening potential of changes shown in the Spatial Plan, with both increasing about 10%. It’s a pity that they haven’t told us what growth could be accommodated under the existing district plan.

    The inner city (increasing 114%) and the greenfield areas might actually grow as suggested. In total a city-wide increase of 30-35% would be accommodated.

    It seems that the chance of a 6 storey building appearing beside your house in your lifetime is really very low. And the fear and uncertainty created by the draft Spatial Plan has been caused purely by the Government edict that 6 storey apartments can no longer be prohibited by the town plan unless there is a very, very good reason.

  18. Ellen, 1. October 2020, 19:55

    Well done Anna and Newtown Residents Assoc – coming up with a viable alternative is what is needed. Councillors need to get on board with this.

    And as to the numbers of housing needed in future this is what the 2017 HBA report from WCC said – there is capacity available under the current District Plan, and with this proposal from Newtown will help to increase this.

    “• Wellington City will need to provide for between 24,929 and 32,337 new dwellings between 2017 and 2047.
    Demand for residential dwellings has been assessed based
    on two growth scenarios. The first is based on projections
    produced by Forecast.id which are broadly equivalent to the
    Statistics New Zealand medium growth series projection. The
    second scenario is based on the Statistics New Zealand high
    growth series projection. This demand is then broken down
    further by demand for dwelling type across three categories – stand-alone housing, terrace housing, and apartments.

    Residential Capacity
    • Wellington City has a capacity for 20,294 realisable
    dwellings over the period between 2017 and 2047.
    • This represents a shortfall of between 4,635 and 12,043
    dwellings from that required to meet projected population

    Residential capacity has been assessed by determining as
    a starting point what capacity is enabled by the Wellington
    City District Plan. Plan enabled capacity is then assessed for
    feasibility, and lastly consideration is given to what proportion of that feasible development is likely to be realised.

    The assessment has revealed that Wellington City has an
    overall undersupply of residential development capacity
    beyond the medium term (10 years). This shortage is
    particularly acute in the form of terrace housing and apartment development, both of which cannot meet anticipated demand over the long term (2027-2047). There is sufficient standalone dwelling capacity to meet projected demand over the long term . . .

  19. Julienz, 1. October 2020, 20:29

    This applies to Khandallah but I suggest everyone along rail corridors should check the numbers. The Citywide Estimated Growth Distribution Figures 25/09/2020 state that the proposed plan which includes the six storey apartment buildings along the railway corridor provides for 1290 – 1666 new dwellings in Khandallah which could accommodate between 3237 – 4181 people.

    In contrast in assessing Khandallah for Medium Density Housing the Beca and Studio Pacific Architecture Document “Wellington Outer Suburbs Assessment and Evaluation” provided in the supporting documents for the DSP consultation has a map which shows up to six storeys only in the commercial centre immediately surrounding Khandallah Village and the estimate of possible additional dwellings is stated as 1469.

    There seems to be a discrepancy here. If we can achieve 1469 houses in the zones marked on the Wellington Outer Suburbs Assessment and Evaluation which is the mid-point between the 1290 – 1666 estimated in the Citywide Estimated Growth Distribution Figures 25/09/2020, then how many more are provided for in the six storey buildings proposed along the rail corridor in the DSP.

    It does not appear that there is any projection of the numbers of people that might be accommodated in the six storey buildings provided for in the DSP along the rail corridor. It looks like the numbers of dwellings they say they are providing understate what is actually provided for on the DSP maps.

  20. Jeff, 1. October 2020, 22:24

    Newtown solutions by Newtown people (as opposed to Newtown solutions by Wadestown people). Ka pai Anna, thank you for all you do for Newtown and great article, Gregor.