Wellington Scoop

Newtown’s streets of history

newtown map

by Claire Nolan
The Waitangi Stream flowing off the slopes of Mt Albert fed flax and boggy ground, where Millwood and Riddiford streets are now. Parts of Newtown such as Wilson Street need deep house piles, and public drains with manholes on private property divert the water even now.

As one of Wellington’s oldest suburbs, Newtown was initially undulating fields sloping to swampy ground ending up at the Basin Reserve. The Wellesley Block was advertised to settlers interested in a house with land. Mostly they’d come from dense tenements in the UK or slums in Te Aro.

The Wellesley Block was launched in 1889 and had a mix of housing, from quite large ornate homes on Coromandel Street to the tramway cottages on Wilson Street. The section sizes also varied, with some being very small.

The early cottages on Green Street resemble Arrowtown. It can be understood why the WCC protected them 25 years ago. Infill, some of it poor quality, was threatening the older homes and the integrity of the suburb.

newtown old hospital

The hospital block is lost now with disparate infill. So when a councillor asks why most Newtown houses are protected – it is very simply because most were built before 1930, and some are 120 years old.

This is the history of Wellington – settlers wanting a better life with more room and jobs. Newtown was farmed initially, with houses scattered between dirt roads and the new hospital.

Gradually more houses were built out of native timber and with unique craftmanship. Some streets were named after the builders ie Alexander Wilson. Alongside the Wellesley Block (Mein to Constable, and Green Belt to Owen) Harper, Lawrence, Green, Emmett, Owen, and Balmoral are examples of intact streets and houses.

turret house

One example is the Turret house in Owen Street built by the builder for himself and more recently with a timber mill attached.

The early colonisation of Wellington was run from the UK. But the settlers came for a better life. And new owners have gradually renovated most of their old houses.

The DSP process was divisive, with a campaign against the old houses, saying there was mould and damp. Campaigners were keen to gut streets deemed to be intact by Boffa Miskel, who were charged with identifying heritage housing. The WCC largely ignored the report and swathes of four to six storey buildings have been drawn through the historic streets. Heritage precincts have been reduced, and the rest of Newtown has had pre-1930 protections removed.

old newtown street

To the people living in Lawrence, Harper, Owen, Minerva, Green, Balmoral and other streets. Look at your history, confer with your neighbours, look at the Boffa Miskel report. All these streets are intact and lived in and renovated. Your streets are in danger of being disrupted and smaller houses shaded. The draft district plan is now out so you can submit on your streets or the effect on Newtown as a suburb, till the 14th of December.

Let’s preserve the past. And place larger buildings on the many brownfields available in Newtown and all over Wellington.

Claire Nolan has been a resident of Newtown for 25 years.


  1. Daniel, 20. November 2021, 12:02

    This topic requires nuance, not didactic storytelling that encourages fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

  2. Kay, 20. November 2021, 17:54

    Daniel, what nuance is possible when the NPS-UD says that buildings of at least 6 storeys must be ‘enabled’ in these areas and the Councillors accepted this without protest? People who love Newtown do fear the outcome of these plans, and uncertainty and doubt are a natural response.

  3. Felicity Wong, 20. November 2021, 23:20

    Let’s remind ourselves what the experts (commissioned by the council) said about Newtown: “The area has a large number of intact old buildings” and the existing Newtown Character Area comprises 1612 properties. 43% of them are of “primary character” value, with 36% of “contributing” character value. Only a tiny proportion were assessed as being of “detracting” (low) or “neutral” character value.

    When he spoke to councillors on 24 June 2021, Chief Planner Hodgetts explained that they “took Boffa & put up minimal character to test it” in the DSP. Many submissions followed calling for Wellington’s character and heritage to be re-instated in the final Spatial Plan. Mr Hodgetts went on that WCC staff used a “methodology & undertook visits to form officer views on character”. On that basis officers recommended re-instating about half of the existing character areas of the inner (heritage) suburbs. A majority of Councillors (led by southern ward Councillors Fitzsimons and Foon) rejected that advice. They rejected the advice of the experts and they rejected the advice of their own staff. They adopted a final Spatial Plan euphemistically branded “ambitious” which reduced protection from a whopping 70% of areas including Newtown. What’s to be feared is more decision making based on expediency and alternative facts. It’s obvious many people love their welcoming and diverse neighbourhood of Newtown. Character comes from its people, and Newtown has that in spades! I’m looking forward to intensification along its main shopping and transport street, and its low rise, sunny back streets still housing all its wonderful characters. That’s the real alternative plan!

  4. We Are Newtown, 20. November 2021, 23:43

    Daniel: It’s the Spatial Plan and its accompanying divisive campaign of Fake News that encourages fear, uncertainty and doubt. Owners and renters of these warm and sunny family homes and gardens are to become collateral damage in a move by the keyboard class warriors on the left of the Council and Gen (Year) Zero to turn Newtown into a mini Bucharest. None live in Newtown.
    Neither will the developers, who will swoop in to make a killing at the expense of residents’ sunlight and privacy, while the residents are told by their Councillors to ‘give up their privileges’ and submit to a dysfunctional unaffordable housing market while these priceless treasures that have stood the test of time are sent to landfill. Kiss goodbye also to trees and greenery that get in the way of the new gold rush. WE ARE NEWTOWN are fighting for Density Done Well with a plan that builds, without killing the Golden Goose. Join us at wearenewtown6021@gmail.com

  5. Casey, 21. November 2021, 8:41

    An alarming aspect of the new District Plan, if adopted, is that council officers will be able without reference to adjacent property owners allow six storeys to become seven or eight or more. Other “adjustments” can also be made at council officers’ discretion. Too much power vested in council officers without allowing those adversely impacted to have a voice. A system open to manipulation to suit developers one might infer.

  6. pedge, 21. November 2021, 16:15

    Claire and Felicity, you talk of Newtown’s diversity, then ironically want to protect the homogeneity that is the houses of Newtown. If you think we are doing a poor job of designing and building new houses, the answer isn’t to protect every house from demolition, it’s to advocate for better design. I think new houses can create new character and diversity. We can build contemporary houses that represent new ideas and cultural values. I’d rather that than live in a country pining for its colonial past.

  7. Claire, 21. November 2021, 17:56

    Pedge: when architects have devised a plan in Newtown for Brownfields, I think that goes a long way to better design. But mixing 6 storeys and one storey houses of any kind new or old is poor design and planning.

  8. Ray Chung, 21. November 2021, 20:52

    An excellent, well-researched article Claire, thank you for this. Felicity, I agree with you that some of our councillors, who I’m sure don’t live in Newtown, can treat this grand old community with such disdain. Let’s start building 6-10 storey apartment buildings on the brownfield sites in lower Adelaide Road and leave the historic streets in central Newtown alone.

  9. Jim, 22. November 2021, 10:34

    “We are Newtown” – Your claims that everyone in Newtown lives in sunny and warm homes and that there are no Generation Z living in Newtown need some backing with sources. Once again, i repeat, that the Brownfields and Adelaide Road so often mentioned here as alternatives are all already being upzoned in the DDP/Spatial Plan – there is no encouragement to develope small sites with old houses on them over the larger Brownfields. This is a myth without evidence.

    There needs to be sensible approach to this from all sides. Tall buildings need to be well designed and green space must be retained or offset. But not all old buildings are worthy of saving – many have been drastically altered so little of the original architecture remains. Others are in poor state of repair. You can’t build anything taller anywhere without adding shading to somewhere, but as a city with limited space we must go up. It’s easy to say – “build it next door to someone else” & compromise is needed if we want to keep this city great. If the young, the artists, the musicians etc can’t afford to live here than we will loose that – despite retaining meaningless “character homes”

  10. Claire, 22. November 2021, 12:21

    Jim : The Boffa Miskel figures will answer your question (see Felicity’s answer.) A small percentage of housing was detractive or neutral.
    This report was cynically ignored by planners and councillors.

  11. Jim, 22. November 2021, 14:58

    Claire – Would you and Felicity be happy with what the report proposed? There were still plenty of areas outside the main road corridor that they noted would be acceptable for higher density. You spoke out against housing along Adelaide/Hanson which shaded a very average old house – one which was not noted in Boffa’s report by the way. This is the type of compromise I’m referring to. Heritage advocates need to accept that not every old house is worth saving.

  12. pedge, 22. November 2021, 16:10

    You’re doing a good job poking holes in the logic here Jim. Claire, would you support something along the lines of this – how you can successfully mix higher density with low. The windows all look either out to the street or into a back garden, no houses get built out, and everyone gets either morning and evening sun or if your house is orientated north-south you get a lot of midday sun. Have a look at a satellite image of Newtown and see that the vast majority of houses have virtually no sunlight entering the sides. The perimeter block idea in the above plan is almost in existence already. We just need to add a couple of floors.

  13. Claire, 22. November 2021, 18:25

    Jim: Hansen Street was all older houses once. Now it is built out with larger buildings that have shaded and helped the deterioration of smaller homes. This is to be avoided. It creates a domino effect. So Newtown won’t want that. It has mostly intact older homes according to Boffa, which looked at 1600 pre 1930 homes.
    Obviously there are areas of non heritage post 1930 homes and low rise that could take more around the main retail streets.

  14. Jim, 22. November 2021, 21:37

    My point is that not all pre 1930s houses are worth saving either – the report also identifies these. There are also post 1930s buildings that are worth saving so the blanket rule doesn’t work.

    Hanson Street now houses a substantially higher amount of people than it could if it was only old houses. Could it have been done better? Absolutely. But to blame the taller buildings as the reason for the poor upkeep of the houses along that road is not accurate. There are plenty of old houses near tall structures that are well maintained. Blame lazy slumlords for the neglect not the type of the neighbour’s building. Cities change and retain the most important heritage areas but it’s not possible to keep everything purely based on the basis that it’s old. Old doesn’t always equal good.

    Replacing low rise and brownfield is valid and this is made more possible through the DDP. But what happens if this site is beside a “character” house – is that site then deemed unsuitable as it may affect the neighbours? Where do you draw the line?

    Great link by Pedge. I encourage people to read through it. It’s a sensible approach.

  15. JAB, 23. November 2021, 11:02

    Claire. Has the council correctly identified all the vegetation used by birds in Newtown? Maybe there should be some SNA set asides. Funny how birds are allowed trees but humans not so much.
    Jim & Pedge. Why do you have a problem promoting rules that mean intensification is allowed but result in well planned housing for the people who live in it and alongside it? And what has happened to the group who really needed this change in the plan? I’m starting to wonder if they existed beyond a few people with a twitter account giving cover to developers either accidentally or deliberately. I have been to numerous meetings and read a lot of the online comments and have never spotted any of the under-35 group anywhere.

  16. pedge, 23. November 2021, 16:29

    JAB. I won’t speak for Jim, but the thing I care about most in this issue is design. If you’d read the link I posted above you’ll see an idea that is absolutely on the right track, density, large areas for trees and green space, privacy of apartments and I would argue better street scape than exists currently. The problem I have is people seem to be unwilling to educate themselves about what good urban design is, or are stuck believing old myths. An example about density – density alone doesn’t cause crime, antisocial behaviour, slums etc. There are many social, political and economic reasons totally unrelated to design that mostly cause these problems. Check out ‘The Pruitt Igoe myth’ documentary for some context. And if you really care about urban design start by reading ‘The death and life of great American cities‘ by Jane Jacobs.

    Lastly, I’m not advocating free reign for developers. That won’t give us well designed houses and neighborhoods. But, as Jim says above, not all of Newtown is worth saving. I think we are protecting too much at the expense of Newtown fulfilling its potential.

    New buildings create new character. Cities should change and evolve. If those statements don’t sit well, it’s probably time to move to the country.

  17. Jim, 23. November 2021, 17:01

    Hello JAB – you’ve just meet your first official under-35 year. Congratulations. Whilst I am fortunate to own my own home (an old villa if that means anything) I know that many of my colleagues and friends struggle to find quality housing both to rent and buy. I have also previously provided links to research on the poor quality of NZ housing. I have no problem promoting rules for good quality intensification. Our ideas of how to implement this just differ. I also don’t follow the logic that “all old housing is high-value heritage.”

    The constant push to restrict and limit new developments is not working. Take a look into the debacle of the Zavos Corner in Mt. Victoria and Mary Potter Hospice Apartments in Newtown. Both of these projects are low impact and fit into their surrounds well, but local groups fought to prevent them from happening. That’s where my concern about proposals such as Felicity’s come from.

  18. Jim, 23. November 2021, 17:02

    Well said Pedge. You formulated that much better than i.

  19. Phil, 23. November 2021, 18:45

    The outcome of the councillors’ decision to not adopt the Officer-Recommended Spatial Plan last year was an increase of just 1% in enabled dwellings (200-300) as a result of reducing heritage protection from circa 50% to 30% of the inner city suburbs including Newtown. Does that seem like a good trade off? This is an example of politics trumping commonsense.

  20. Claire, 23. November 2021, 19:01

    Jim and Pedge. Don’t assume people know nothing about design. Newtown has been working with architects as you know. As for leaving for the country ha you wish! But maybe you could try real density in Hong Kong.
    There are a lot of very good houses in Newtown according to Boffa. Pedge your housing coalition plan needs a lot of bare land. How you would layer that on to Newtown is a bit magical. The Hospice apartments do impact neighbours and shade them. Eventually they became a stepped down building to alleviate such problems. This was due to negotiations as there always are in real life.

  21. Pash rash, 23. November 2021, 19:25

    For all the people who reckon building multi-storey townhouses in Newtown/mt cook is the answer to affordable housing, cast your eye over Trademe, where newly-released two-bed townhouses are on offer for a cool $1.5million.

  22. Roland Sapsford, 23. November 2021, 22:24

    pedge and Jim – do you see demolition of old buildings and shading of existing houses as good things in themselves? I am confused.

    There are at least two ways of delivering intensification:
    * (currently proposed for NZ) widespread deregulation of planning rules and extensive upzoning with little regard to the effects of high rise buildings beyond their sites. This essentially starts from the idea that the planning system is blocking a tidal wave of construction and that land supply – meaning upzoned land – is the key issue. There is little evidence to support this view but it has the great virtue of being a simple narrative that leads to polarised debate.

    * (as practiced in most places people cite as good examples of intensification) clear sequencing of intensification in associating with transport and basic infrastructure investment. The focus is on leadership and partnership to deliver great quality dwellings, starting with underutilised land – both large scale brownfields sites and isolated sites (such as the 11% of CBD land used for single-storey carparking). This recognises that land supply is not an issue, rather the issue is how we make better use of undertutilised land – nicknamed “lazy land” by some.

    Dollar for dollar, the latter approach delivers more housing faster, with fewer adverse effects and supports lower emissions. So why would anyone back the first approach?

  23. pedge, 24. November 2021, 7:59

    Pash rash. I don’t follow your logic. Don’t you think one of the reasons for prices like that are because we have not kept up with the demand for houses in the last few decades? What’s your alternative solution?

    Claire. Hopefully you are still reading the comments on your article. I’d like to hear your opinion on the coalition for more houses proposal that I linked above. If you really care about design, any feedback about the design ideas in that proposal would be interesting to hear.

  24. Jim, 24. November 2021, 8:19

    Pash – we need more housing in general, not just affordable housing. This covers good quality rentals as well.

  25. Kay, 24. November 2021, 8:57

    Jim, a comment about the Mary Potter apartments – the building we see now isn’t the one that was originally proposed. The original design was much more intrusive. It took a community outcry and a series of negotiations and redesign efforts to come to this compromise, which has reduced height in parts and increased set backs. This process was possible because the design wasn’t compliant with the current DP rules. If the rules are changed as the DDP proposes, there will be no way the people in affected properties will have any say.
    Of course we want good urban design, but there is nothing in the DDP that supports this. 6+ storey buildings scattered among low rise is not good urban design.

  26. Kerry, 24. November 2021, 10:57

    Claire and all. I fully agree that demolition of old buildings and shading of existing houses are not good things in themselves. But neither is climate change, which is likely to raise Wellington’s storm-surge levels by two metres or more, within 79 years. GWRC have shown that Waterloo and Jervois Quays are already flood-prone: Wellington is already facing disaster.
    Managing this disaster needs to become effective as soon as possible — before 2050 — and an important step is increasing inner-city residential density, substantially and quickly. It follows that battling over every individual planning step cannot be permitted.
    Increasing density will allow many more people to use public transport more easily, facilitating much cheaper, more effective and less polluting public transport: light rail. Another approach to the same objective will be deliberately making car-use more difficult, and discouraging population growth outside the area where increasing density is permitted.
    By all means let us ‘preserve the past’ where practical, but we cannot afford to maintain outdated planning requirements.

  27. Ben Schrader, 24. November 2021, 11:33

    Roland is right in saying that there are two ways of delivering intensification:
    1) letting the market decide where and how it should happen, or
    2) or providing a degree of intervention and sequencing so it happens first in areas that are best placed to make intensification work and improve urban life. While there are many examples of cities that successfully followed the second approach, I don’t know of any cities that have followed the first approach and significantly improved the quality of urban life. If there are any I’d be pleased to know about them.

    I do know a lot about the history of city planning, and the common theme of the literature going back to the first building height regulations in New York in 1916 is that governments have had to regularly intervene to fix problems caused by market-led urban development. So while I’m prepared to believe that the deregulatory experiment we’re now embarking on will deliver thousands of affordable and high quality new dwellings and improve urban life, history suggests that a decade or two down the track we’ll be intervening to correct the failures that this strategy will inevitably generate. Surely it’s better to avoid this and go for option 2 in the first place.

  28. Claire, 24. November 2021, 11:44

    Kerry: increasing density also raises the co2 of the city. And clogs up the landfill. Wellington currently is a low carbon city because of all the wood. The mad rush to density is worrisome. As said, Newtown has its own plan for 2000 units on brownfields, mostly on the retail strip and some side streets – such places as disused petrol stations and carparking and old seventies buildings. Homes are needed and that is the best place.
    Most of Newtown’s pre 1930 houses according to Boffa are intact. So zoning 6-storeys through the middle is threatening people’s homes and wellbeing and history. And is completely unnecessary. Only the zealots would want wholesale destruction.
    Jab: There are only a few listed trees and any loss of greenery and habitat would be tragic.

  29. Kerry, 24. November 2021, 13:03

    Claire. Carbon dioxide is a symptom of climate change, not a cause. The primary cause is carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and oil, mostly since the mid-nineteenth century.
    The primary solution is reducing carbon emissions, although there are other solutions. One example is white roofs on buildings, so that they reflect most of the sunlight falling on them back into space. In effect, the white roofs are replacing polar ice-sheets that have been ‘damaged’ by melting, partially restoring the original balance.
    More carbon dioxide in Newtown will be offset by less carbon-dioxide elsewhere, in areas relieved of emissions by the same planning requirements concentrating emission in Newtown.

  30. Claire, 24. November 2021, 13:33

    Kerry: I was talking about embedded carbon ie concrete in buildings. Anyway have a look at Livewellington.org a group looking at doing density well but leaving out demolition.

  31. Julienz, 25. November 2021, 16:31

    Pedge – thank you for the link in your comment of 22 November which I have read in full. The perimeter block proposal has some merit. I have always thought a side boundary of around a metre where no sun can penetrate and where nothing can grow makes little sense. However party walls in a seismically challenged area such as Wellington needs further thought as the potential for a domino effect in an earthquake is real. We would need well considered legislation to deal with shared risk between properties. As I understand it, insurance issues on cross lease properties with shared walls after the Christchurch earthquake were quite trying to resolve. The idea of getting rid of the front yard requirement could work in some places but still needs nuance. The idea seems to me to work best on the flat but for those of us in the hill suburbs such as Crofton Downs, Ngaio and Khandallah, there is often a topographic obstacle to sun as well. East/west or north sun is probably acceptable but if there is a hill blocking one of these aspects and a building blocks the other then the idea starts to seem far less attractive.


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