OPINION: DAVE KELLY agrees with the aims of the Christchurch Central Development Unit's Liveable City proposal, but says the means are unfair and counter-productive.
Could this happen in Christchurch? You live happily in a residential area. One day a bulldozer starts clearing the site overlook your 'garden, and cast your house into shadow.
"You can't build that," you say, "it's taller than the height limits in the City Plan."
"Yes we can," the developer says, "we got consent to go taller."
"But you can't get those consents without consulting affected neighbours!"
"You're behind the times," the developer says, "the law now specificially prevents neighbours from having any say. Only the council and the developer get any input."
This assault on the rights of landowners is not in some banana republic run by a power-mad strongman. It is proposed for central Christchurch, in Cera's so-called Liveable City proposal (LCP), which is open for comment until tomorrow. This proposal has the worthwhile aim of increasing the number of people living in the central city to between 12,000 and 24,000, but proposes using deeply unfair means, which also seem liable to fail.
Rather than protecting the rights of the existing 7500 residents so they will want to stay, the LCP treats them as expendable. Rather than protecting existing neighbourhoods so there are diverse pockets that are attractive to live in, the LCP is one-size-fits-all. The sole mechanism the LCP hopes will fix everything is to remove any obstacles in the way of developers - including those annoying neighbours.
Of course, the LCP consultation booklet gives a different impression, with illustrations of happy residents and says that a thriving city needs "the support of the people living there" and "neighbourhoods with intimate character". However, the detailed rules in the back of the booklet do the opposite. The main changes include, firstly, an attack on the rights of existing residents by:
- imposing a single taller maximum building height, and steeper set of recession planes, across the whole residential zone, sweeping away five different heights tailored to local neighbourhoods;
- enabling developers to exceed even the newly increased heights, by tightly limiting the matters which can be considered if a developer applies to exceed the limits, and saying that "economic efficiency" always has to be considered;
- ensuring that affected neighbours cannot hinder proposals which violate the height limits, by specifically blocking neighbours from being consulted, thereby reversing to the entire philosophy of the Resource Management Act.
Secondly, the changes weaken existing neighbourhoods. As well as removing locally tailored height limits, the LCP also deletes all 11 Special Amenity Areas (SAMs), which protect local features in the different central city neighbourhoods.
Thirdly, the LCP also favours developers by dropping any requirement for Urban Design consultation about the appearance of significant redevelopments, and greatly reducing the minimum permitted size of apartments. This should facilitate the construction of really tall, cheap, ugly, small apartments, which is about the opposite of what Christchurch residents called for in Share an Idea in 2011.
Clearly, the LCP hopes that removing regulations will free "the market" to deliver a range of small and large dwellings built in attractive styles. After all, deregulation worked so well with leaky buildings, we should obviously try more of it.
This determination to make developers' needs top priority clearly comes from high up in Cera, because the LCP is the third review of central city residential zones since 2011. In December 2011 the city council released its Central City Plan. This CCP was based on planners working closely with residents to see what worked in inner city neighbourhoods. But Cera didn't think the CCP residential section was "simple" enough so asked the council to review it again in mid-2012.
The second residential review was completed in early 2013, but clearly still didn't satisfy Cera, which began a third review in-house. As recently as February 2014 the unreleased draft Cera plan still kept two different height zones, with lower heights protecting the current core inner city neighbourhoods.
But the final version released for public comment in July 2014 has lost all that planning wisdom and recognition of neighbourhoods.
But you may ask, perhaps the situation demands tough regulations? Perhaps the planners were seduced by residents, and the first three drafts were too generous to them? Several lines suggest this is not so.
Firstly, even the LCP talks about the importance of neighbourhoods and of keeping residents on-side for a city to work. Those sentences, however, are nowhere reflected in the detail of the proposed LCP rules, which focus on benefits to developers.
Secondly, even the current pre-earthquake rules allow high densities in the central city. Where I live near Victoria St, across only 2000 square metres (equivalent to two half-acre sections) there are currently 12 houses and flats dating from 1875 through 2005. At one household per 167 square metres that's a very high density, with nothing taller than two stories and well beneath the 2010 City Plan height limits. So the radical LCP changes are not needed to allow high density in existing central city neighbourhoods.
Thirdly, nobody deserves to have their property rights arbitrarily removed. Treating current residents unfairly to favour urban redevelopment will not go un-noticed by potential purchasers, and may be counter-productive in two ways. Current residents may sell up and move before their house is devalued by an ugly tall neighbour.
And prospective buyers may be put off from investing their life savings in such an unregulated environment.
Rather than more residents, these rules might see fewer.
So what is required? Three changes seem essential. Firstly Cera must drop the astounding rule blocking affected residents from commenting on consent applications. Secondly, the limited grounds to be considered in such applications should be deleted as this skews the hearing unfairly in favour of developers. Finally, the lower variable height limits of the February 2014 draft should be reinstated to recognize existing valuable and high-density inner city neighbourhoods, which are essential to supporting city businesses as the rebuild develops.
Everyone should comment to Cera as though your own house depends on it. If this precedent stands, it could be your turn next.
Dave Kelly, a biological scientist, has lived in the inner city for 28 years. He is the secretary of the Victoria Neighbourhood Association, though these views are his own. Submissions on the CCDU's Liveable City proposals can be made at ccdu.govt.nz/the-plan/central-city-residential-development.
- The Press