The high life in Wellington

City apartment living. Wellingtonians love or hate the idea, with or without families.

The lovers see the joy of having the compact little capital’s sophisticated amenities so close, having no lawn to mow, and maintenance that is all-cost no-responsibility.   The haters see – lots.

There is noise, lack of parking and lack of space, unless the family has a great deal more to spend than the cost of a three-bedroom place in the 'burbs.

Then there are the reprobate neighbours who come home late and stub their cigarettes out on the balustrades, and the possibility that someone up to no good might be right outside the door, which doesn't create quite so much fear in Karori or Johnsonville. Plus, there's the ongoing Kiwi attachment to the idea that New Zealand is all about space, clean air and backyards big enough for trampolines.

In big world cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Toronto, not counting European cities where families have lived mid-centre for hundreds of years, apartment living is accepted, even coveted.

The city of Melbourne, for example, projects a population of nearly 10,000 children living in its borders by 2021, this despite University of Melbourne research showing "prevailing cultural attitudes that consider high-rises unhealthy and inappropriate for children".

In Auckland, a Massey University study pointed at inner-city living and children playing indoors as possibly being the cause of increasing numbers of children being Vitamin D deficient.

Kiwis can actually be terrified of being forced to live a vertical city lifestyle. A United Nations survey last year found that the greatest fear of young New Zealanders (18 to 35) was the prospect of living in a city apartment.

Some obviously get over it, since the typical Wellington central-city apartment dweller is a young professional man or woman aged 24 to 35, according to Real Estate Institute regional director Euon Murrell.

But for the young people who trembled at the idea in the United Nations survey, the idea of living in a city apartment was worse than a loss of autonomy, and lots worse than financial insecurity. In other words, to be poor is preferable to being cooped up in an apartment, let alone cooped up with a couple of children and a dog.

Or is it, really?

In the lovely, airy Sanctum apartment block, with its immaculate formal garden, one woman and her family has lived for more than eight years, with a dog, which gets patted to bits in the lift and then again on its lead when it's outside Moore Wilson's.

This family bought their place, bigger than most three-bedroom houses and with three balconies, off the plans and shifted in when their two children were 9 and 10. One is still at school, one at university.

"I've asked my teenage daughter what she loves about apartment living and she says she wouldn't live anywhere else," says the mother.

"She loves the fact there's transport everywhere, that you're never far from anywhere. Living here has made her street smart. She hasn't lived in a suburban bubble. She doesn't have the desire of other 14 and 15-year-olds to go to town. She lives in town. It's not this glamorous place but actual life."

The son went to Wellesley on the ferry and then to Wellington College, the daughter to Queen Margaret. Reaching schools was no more hassle than it would have been in the suburbs.

"We look at it as a vertical city. Others would say it's a gated community. I hate that. It's a very diverse community. Our kids have grown up carrying groceries and helping. You don't get that in suburbia.

"When we came here, people thought we were mad, even cruel, to be shifting in with kids. We thought they could walk to Oriental Bay and there's a pool here and a tennis court and a gym. We came from Mt Vic, where we lived for 15 years, which is close but quite different. The hill's always there. Here we can walk everywhere, to the supermarkets or to dinner. Security is brilliant. We felt comfortable leaving the children to go to dinner when they were 14. It has been less stress and hassle for us not having to drive them everywhere.

"I don't think I'd go back to a suburb. You fall in love with the soul of the city, feel a part of the heart of that. I'm not a suburban girl."

She estimates that about 10 of 96 Sanctum apartments are home to families, "not counting babies. Lots of kids have come and gone. I think people struggle with toddlers because they're scared of balconies. They seem to move out when babies are crawling. There aren't children between 3 or 4 and 9. There's a gap there."

Leaders estate agent Lynley McGovern and her family - her daughter has just turned 5 - have lived in a light, sophisticated, sunny and spacious Chews Lane apartment for nearly three years. It's close to everything, including the library over the road. They're shifting because they have an equally attractive option - their Mt Victoria house.

"We had to make a decision and decided on the back lawn and a bigger floor area. If I had had to go to a house in Khandallah I'd probably have stayed here. I'm really a city person. We could stay, but because we have another central-city option we will take that up. It has been great here."

So inner-city apartments are bliss for some families and avoided like the plague by others. Former mayor Mark Blumsky swore by them as family abodes and lived for years over the road from the shop - the Town Hall - with his wife and daughter, before relocating to another apartment in Cuba St.

One of the problems is that everyone who would like to relocate with their kids to the city would prefer a big, high-end apartment with outside space, but there are far more shoeboxes than palaces.

The boxes are not suitable but only the wealthy can afford the latter, and do. Flash apartments are selling well. Most of the planned One Market Lane apartments -many of them $2 million plus - have been sold off the plans. But the ordinary apartment market has been in the doldrums. From February to April, only 30 were sold, compared with 178 apartments sold at the same time at the height of the market in 2007. Investors don't particularly want them any more and most of them are family-unfriendly.

There are no accurate figures as to how many families live in inner-city apartments. The most recent city council survey - done three years ago - said there were more than they expected, that 12 per cent of apartments were home to children, which means, as Murrell points out, that 88 per cent of apartment dwellers do not have kids.

"There is no evidence of families going into apartments, and the reason is there are not many large apartments. There are three-bedroom apartments, but most of those are empty-nesters. I don't think inner-city living has really come to New Zealand, where kids come to town."

The last census was in 2006 and put the number of two and one-parent families in Wellington city apartments at nearly 11,000, about 2000 more than in the previous, 2001, census. There is certainly no more than a handful of families in most of the established blocks, like Chews Lane and Sanctum.

Charles Lindsay is a Leaders agent who has sold many inner-city apartments. He believes families have kept out of the city partly because of the quality of many of the developments. After the ground-breaking development of the upmarket Queens Wharf apartments in the early 1990s, developers saw a niche and built for investment, and the investors thronged in, resulting in what can only be called a rash of "crappy" apartments.

These days, Lindsay says, owner- occupiers are predominantly the buyers, though there are far fewer sales, and there are larger apartments being built.

"Galleria, in Tory St, for example, is dominated by people with families. It was a big complex, built with families in mind."

There are 28 apartments in the block. Of six he's sold in the past few years, five went to families. A block like the Chews Lane Apartments, though, Lindsay says, is dominated by "the young, upwardly mobile". Nevertheless, for all his optimism, Lindsay says most Wellington city apartments have only one or two bedrooms. "Only about 25 per cent of the market could cater for a family with three kids."

Still, the inner-city population has grown in the past few years to the point where there is now an Inner City Residents and Business Association. It was formed, says spokesman Gus Charteris, because of communal problems around rubbish collection and recycling, anti-social behaviour and security.

Charteris lives in the historic and long-ago developed old Bond Store in Egmont St. The complex has 17 apartments but - as far as he knows - there is only one family, with a small child, in the block.

"I am aware that it's a growing trend for families, but the bulk of the apartments are so shitty, why would they live in there? In this old factory the places can be 250 square metres, which is ample space for families. Most don't have that space and we're not building amenities."

Charteris says he's recently looked at apartments in Santiago, Chile - well- designed and with access to green space.

"Same in France. Here we take up every square inch of space right to the edge of the footpath. Here it's all cluttered up and let's not care about amenities, like the Soho apartments. The council's response is that we can't all have fantastic apartments, and with growth you need a range of buildings so a range of people can live in the city."

He hasn't, he says, seen any recent developments suitable for and attainable by families.

"I'm not for a moment saying we shouldn't have developments like Watermark and the Overseas Passenger Terminal. There is a role for regulation to make sure we don't go too far the other way. We don't want a race to the bottom.

"I know it's economically difficult to create larger spaces with outdoor areas. If we were a rich country with a greater population to support it we would be able to do these things."

Wellington city councillor Iona Pannett, whose title is built environment portfolio leader, lives in a house not far from Courtenay Place. She grew up in a place off The Terrace. She has a baby and a toddler. "I wanted to give the same opportunities to my children, the whole city to play in. Given Wellington's inclement weather, that's a god-send. I'm a strong advocate of families living in the inner-city. We need to offer choice."

She says the council supports families in the inner-city in many ways.

"The whole issue around housing is complex, which is partly the result of the history of the Europeans who came to New Zealand to a new way of life with more land. They didn't want to be crammed into apartment blocks. They wanted quarter-acre sections. That was very profound stuff. But you can have a quality of life in the city.

"Some of the development done has not been ideal, but we've tried to improve the quality through District Plan changes. I think we are getting stricter. We don't want people in shoe boxes with nothing in the way of green space. Affordability is always a problem. If you make then affordable, compromise is needed."

Then there are the issues of past opportunism by developers, leaky buildings and earthquake strengthening.

"It does add a layer of complexity."

Murrell says even most of Wellington's early super-large old apartments are not necessarily suitable for families, with most of the space allocated to dining and living.

"I've been to apartments in Europe and you can see why people are in apartments and they're used to cramped apartments, but in the old Kiwi way we're still used to land around. We're not used to high density. It's a trend. It will come. Trends we usually follow but it takes hundreds of years.

"I'm surmising, but I don't know why you'd take your children into town, because of the safety aspect, and schools.

"It could be evolving, but it takes a long time to get there. It's an acquired style of living."

The Dominion Post