Wellington Report, Day 2: Our population and housing

21:18, Jun 10 2013
day2landscape
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: The region's housing will change .... but homes will still be attainable.

Dying city or not, people still want to live in Wellington.

And with that will come major challenges over the next 20 years, as the region moves from a population of 489,000 to more than 540,000.

Already house prices are high - though far from Auckland levels - and creeping ever higher.

But affordability is only one of the many questions vexing the minds of city planners and officials in Wellington, Porirua and the Hutt Valley.

With more people coming in all the time, how will the city fit them in? Where will they live? Is there enough land to grow? And what kind of Wellington will be left to our children and their children?

On day 2 of The Wellington Report, we're looking at housing and the changing landscape, our ageing population and our immigrants. Click here for the interactive graphics, reports and comment pieces

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Those plotting the future landscape know this: We will live with the decisions being made today for the rest of our lives.

The city of the future is a city of choice, the decision-makers say, where every type of home will be catered for somewhere.

In the central business district, city slickers will grab a coffee on their way from their apartments to work. In newly thriving suburbs such as Johnsonville and Kilbirnie, young people will find their first home in one of the infill subdivisions around new shopping centres and businesses.

Further afield, in Porirua, lifestyle sections will dot Judgeford hills within an easy drive of the Transmission Gully Motorway. Upper Hutt will be favoured by families looking for a slice of the old Kiwi dream, close to innovative new companies, while Lower Hutt will keep its suburban character but coupled with a multitude of new low- and high-rise apartment buildings, ideal for commuters.

Not for Wellington the shopping malls and sprawl of the suburbs; this will be an efficient, fast city. A city where we can all get what we want, where we can all find the home we desire. Where it will still be possible to get on to the so-called housing ladder.

All that said, our attitudes to homes and houses have changed.

More of us want to live in the heart of the city. More of us value convenience and ease of living over a high-maintenance section.

The old quarter-acre dream of perpetual suburbia, which turned Auckland into a sprawling often clogged mess, is passing.

Auckland has become a mega-city where the average house price hovers at $735,000 and is forecast to hit $1 million by 2018. Some suburbs, like Herne Bay, are fast approaching $2 million.

Prices there are already 10 per cent higher than the peak of the pre-global financial crisis bubble, and Christchurch is heading the same way, its market fuelled by housing shortages in the wake of the earthquakes.

Wellington has been fortunate so far to escape those excesses.

Here, prices have climbed slowly, but surely. Kapiti, Porirua and the Hutt Valley remain cheaper than the peak of 2008, and prices have increased in only a handful of suburbs there.

The city itself has generally returned to 2008 prices.

The biggest falls have come in Otaki Beach, Plimmerton, Wainuiomata, Te Horo Beach and Taita. Places such as Oriental Bay, Roseneath and Kelburn are starting to climb above 2008.

No doubt prices are high but not as high as they could be.

And that gives the city a solid base to build on.

Even so, residential property will not get cheaper any time soon, even in the new Wellington being plotted by developers and councils.

Ian Cassels is a prophet of new Wellington, an evangelist of Te Aro, the Emperor of Manners Street. A polarising property mogul who knows what he wants and goes for it.

Cassels thinks Wellington has more potential than any New Zealand city. He wants the central business district to add 2000 people each year. Now, he says, about 6000 are renting there.

It is a simple equation.

The more people living close to work, the more efficiently Wellington runs - lowering costs for business and Government, he says. By this logic, having a cramped area to build in is actually a good thing - because the city can't sprawl and a sprawling city is an expensive city.

DENSE BUT NOT A MESS

He sees the Wellington of the future as a miniature Singapore or Hong Kong - a hyper-efficient, highly compact and dense city full of thriving business.

It is a stark contrast to Auckland, which he dubs a poorly planned mess. "The dishonesty of Auckland is they honestly think affordable housing is 40 miles out [of the city]," he says. "You're going to handicap those poor bastards who are going to have to travel all that way for the next 50 years with petrol, in a car . . . that's not affordable housing.

"That's dooming them to a miserable existence. It's failing to recognise the operating cost."

Think what you like about Cassels but the Wellington City Council is planning for the same thing. Warren Ulusele, Wellington's manager of urban development, says the city does not want to channel people into the city centre but he does think people's attitudes have changed.

Apartments and smaller sections are more attractive now.

Ulusele expects 40 per cent of the population growth to flock to the city centre, with 40 per cent into more intensively developed suburbs - Johnsonville and Kilbirnie are the priorities - and 20 per cent to greenfield expansion.

Land is not an issue and changing planning rules will not help keep prices low, he says.

"Land supply is a component of house prices . . . but not nearly to the extent some are suggesting . . . the issues facing Auckland are very different from the situation in Wellington.

"We have 20 years of growth provided for under our current planning. There are no planning constraints impacting on house prices for Wellingtonians."

However, not everyone thinks the council is planning in the right way. Johnsonville Community Association vice-president Graeme Sawyer says intensification is inevitable but to single out particular areas is unfair.

By making medium-density possible in Johnsonville, the council has acted in the belief developers will come in and build quality places.

But Sawyer says the kind of people who want to live the apartment lifestyle don't want to do it in Johnsonville. So most developers won't come and those who do will want to maximise profit rather than build a community, he argues.

There will be a proliferation of cheap state housing and low-quality flats.

"It will cause a planning blight in Johnsonville . . . people will look at it in the same way as we look at Cannons Creek."

Sawyer wants experiments with intensification limited to greenfield sites. Design greenfield development around a core of amenities and high-density housing and see how it works, he says, rather than subject existing suburbs to the consequences if planners get it wrong.

Housing problems are not unique to Wellington City.

The suburbs face exactly the same issues - how to grow, intensify and thrive without sprawl and inefficiency?

Cassels has little time for the suburbs and is blunt about it.

"Lower Hutt, Upper Hutt and Porirua, they're f-----," he says. "Honestly, tragically, frankly.

"They no longer have the engines . . . they produce people that work in the city."

He is particularly vitriolic about Lower Hutt, calling it "a stupid city" that has "sold its soul to Queensgate", a gigantic American-style mall.

If Cassels has an opposite number in Hutt Valley, he is probably Malcolm Gillies. He was behind the successful conversion of the South Pacific Tyres factory in Upper Hutt, closed in 2007, into a mixed-use business park. A former welder who started work at the tyre factory in 1974, Gillies found tenants for almost 40,000 square metres of space.

He is also behind apartment and housing developments across the valley.

He respects Cassels but says the Hutt will continue to attract jobs and new residents. "A lot of people are moving out this way for a nice place to live," he says.

"Someone's able to come out . . . have everything the kids want and still effectively walk to catch the train to Wellington.

"It's the best of both worlds."

Companies will be attracted out of the city centre because of earthquake risk, looking to get away from high-rises and potential disruption, Gillies says.

The planners in the other cities also disagree with Cassels.

They are planning for change.

Upper Hutt is not going to grow fast - predictions suggest it will maintain steady, slow population growth - though during the global financial crisis it was under pressure to keep up with housing demand.

Upper Hutt city director of planning Richard Harbord and planning manager Mitch Lewandowski say it will always be a commuter town but can avoid simply becoming a soulless adjunct of Wellington.

"Twenty-five per cent of our working population go to Wellington, 50 per cent stay here or go to [Lower] Hutt, and the rest go elsewhere," Harbord says.

The council thinks the valley has enough business opportunities to reduce the amount of commuting. The city has more greenfield land than the rest of Wellington and, being in a valley, it tends to be easier to develop.

THE planners have focused their energies on Maymorn, to the north of the central business district, and Trentham to the south, reasoning these lie right on the transport "spine" of Wairarapa trains.

However, these new developments - both greenfield and infill housing - will not be modelled on the quarter-acre dream (1011sqm). Section sizes have fallen dramatically. Most are now about 400sqm and all the councils are looking to reduce the size further. "It is likely councils will review the minimum urban lot sizes in their district plans," Harbord says.

SUBURBIA BUT NOT A SPRAWL

So the city of the future will not be a sprawling eternal suburbia.

"We shouldn't beat ourselves up about not being Auckland.

"Not being Auckland is positive," Harbord says.

Lower Hutt faces a housing shortage. Its population growth is slow but there will be 4400 new households in the city by 2031, as people get older. Hutt City principal policy adviser Dwayne Fletcher says if current trends - 150 new homes a year - keep up, Hutt will not have enough houses.

The city is not blessed with much greenfield space. There are two options, Fletcher says. One is to keep planning rules largely as they are but encourage apartment buildings in the central business district and western Petone along with low-rise development in selected locations, such as Waterloo and the esplanade.

The other would be to reduce minimum-section size, enable apartment development across the city, coupled with relaxed rules on design and consents. Plans are to encourage more low-rise apartment developments, and offer affordability, intensity and reduced impact.

Fletcher believes attitudes to intensified housing have changed.

The apartment lifestyle in Hutt is attractive and pre-global financial crisis plans for complexes are being revived.

In Porirua, Matt Trlin, Porirua City Council's planning manager, is preparing for the city to grow.

The population will rise steadily over the next 30 years.

Optimistic estimates suggest about 9600 more people will live there by 2031, up from 52,700.

Porirua has a reputation for affordable housing and it is likely to stay that way. The eastern city averages 120-150 new houses a year and Trlin expects demand to continue at normal levels for the foreseeable future.

Porirua has more than 1000 sections to be developed in its existing urban area. Expansion towards Pukerua Bay from Camborne is planned once those sections are developed, as are new rural houses around Judgeford.

Talking to the planners, it is clear Wellington still has room to grow without sprawling. But it has to maximise its advantages and move into the future; it cannot wait to see what will happen.

The Dominion Post