How to bring Hobsonville into Auckland

Brendon Harre
Apr 27, 2018 · 10 min read

Hobsonville Point has been a great commercial success.

It demonstrates that Aucklanders will eagerly choose higher density living if it is master planned to a good quality.

The challenge for Auckland is in replicating that success for its existing suburbs that were originally designed for low density autocentric living.

Hobsonville Land Company (HLC) was established in 2006 to master plan a greenfield site, the former Hobsonville Air Force base of 167 hectares.

Hobsonville’s densest residential blocks have about 100 dwellings per hectare.

HLC (now short for Housing, Land & Community) is a fully owned subsidiary of the government department Housing New Zealand.

Auckland has the opportunity to replicate Hobsonville in many existing low-density suburban areas which have much better access to Auckland’s centres of economic activity.

Auckland Council development agency Panuku has a plan to develop Henderson, a suburban centre a little closer to the middle of Auckland than Hobsonville.

Some private developers have some excellent projects underway in this space too -such as Ted Manson’s $160m philanthropic apartments. One of his projects is being constructed right next to the Glen Eden train station.

Given the demand for housing in Auckland and the improvement in commuter train travelling times that will eventuate once the City Rail Link is completed in 2024, a more ambitious proposal would be to facilitate the intensification of the entire western rail corridor.

Spatial economic theory (and empirical observation) indicates for a monocentric city, resident’s collective preference (not planners dictates), results in a city, such that as one travels towards the city centre, house prices rise, dwelling sizes decrease, building heights rise, density increases and land prices increase. A polycentric city is similar but instead of a single centre there are multiple centres.

When the City Rail Link is operational it will in effect move the western rail corridor suburbs closer to the centre of Auckland. Which theory indicates will increase the demand for higher density housing.

How might this look in the real world?

An investigation of the residential suburbs around three train stations on the western rail corridor -Sunnyvale, Glen Eden and Fruitvale -shows there is the opportunity to increase residential density fivefold, if effective mechanisms are enacted to enable this.

I examine three examples where suburban blocks could be intensified to yield more than 500 new homes net. There is potential to replicate this process many more times in the western rail corridor.

In a recent joint announcement by Mayor Phil Goff and Housing and Transport Minister Phil Twyford, they outlined their plan to invest $28 billion on Auckland’s transport infrastructure over the next decade, much of it developing a congestion free rapid transit network.

This means there will be more rapid transit corridors in Auckland where housing intensification supply can be provided along corridors of growing demand.

It is therefore worthwhile investigating the specific supply potential of these newly connected rapid transit suburbs.

Sunnyvale example

A residential block adjacent to the Sunnyvale train station on the east side. Block surrounded by bush and trees.

Approximately 35 existing houses.

Area 350 m long by between 40m and 100m wide giving an approximate area of 1.75+ hectares.

If Hobsonville type density housing were built here then this block could be intensified to 175 or more houses, a fivefold increase in its density.

Glen Eden example

A residential block approximately 500m from Glen Eden train station with the following boundaries; the wide Clayburn road and the narrower Malam Street, Clayburn park and the train line.

Approximately 29 existing houses.

Area is approximately 2 hectares.

If built to Hobsonville type density it could contain up to 200 residential dwellings, a more than sixfold increase.

Fruitvale example

A larger residential block that is less than 500m from the train station at its farthest point. It has the following boundaries -Fruitvale, Northall and Westhall roads, the train line and some existing newer higher density housing.

There is an area of natural storm water drainage in the middle of the block that drains eastward, which will need to be retained. Public walkways may benefit the wider community to prevent such a large block being an obstacle for accessing Fruitvale station.

Approximately 50 existing houses.

Area approximately 2.5 hectares.

Potentially this site could be intensified to 250 dwellings depending on how much land area is required for storm water drainage and public paths.

What sort of mechanisms would enable a fivefold increase in intensification?

The Unitary Plan has upzoned a lot of Auckland, especially areas around rapid transit -such as the western rail corridor.

In the above examples, the Sunnyvale and Glen Eden sites are zoned for terraces and apartments, with a height limit of 16m and a boundary recession plane of 3m vertical and then angled in at 45 degrees.

The Fruitvale site is in a mixed housing urban zone, which has a height limit of 11m plus 1m extra for an angled roof. There are some other minor differences, such as, building and impervious ground coverage (see above Unitary Plan link).

Building five story 16m high apartments would certainly give a fivefold plus increase in housing density. How affordable these would be is questionable, given the savings on land costs per dwelling would in part be countered by more expensive foundations, lifts, sprinkler systems etc.

The more affordable medium density housing option from a construction point of view, is terrace housing and three story walk-ups -the type of dwelling that makes the bulk of Hobsonville.

The problem though with achieving a fivefold increase in density across large residential blocks, such as the examples I examine, is they are broken up into 29 to 50 individual property titles where there are various Unitary Plan rules to prevent one neighbour’s development being a ‘nuisance’ to another. Such as recession planes and outlook requirements -for sunlight and privacy externalities.

Recession planes

Outlook requirements

If bigger sites are assembled then these externalities can be better internalised.

What this means in practice is that for larger sites, where there is a clean slate, like what HLC had in Hobsonville, the master planned development can maximise density while ensuring each dwelling has a good level of light, privacy and other externality considerations.

Smaller sites like the individual property titles in the examples I examine are not big enough to maximise the height allowance that the Unitary Plan allows. If intensification happens at this individual property level it will achieve much less density -perhaps only a two or three fold increase.

Larger sites could be assembled by sole private developers, purchasing neighbouring lots to create a site with more density potential and therefore more profit potential. This takes time and is prone to hold-outs who can maximise their monopoly pricing power, at the expense and potentially viability of the sole private developer’s project.

Alternatively, I have speculated that groups of agreeable neighbours, in order to get the best degree of density and profitability from their combined assembled site could join together to facilitate development on a equal party basis, in neighbouring pairsthat I call reciprocal intensification or larger groups to create new laneways.

This general concept is called hyperlocalism and is discussed in the “Rebalancing the continuum between devolution and centralisation” section of my report — Unravelling the strands of the urbanisation debate: To improve urban performance.

The two hyperlocal proposals that I have previously written about do not appear well suited for the blocks I have examined in Auckland’s western rail corridor. So I am going to suggest another unit for neighbourhood cooperation called;

Master Planned Blocks

I would suggest that a legal structure be created that would allow the landowners of a residential block to develop a ‘special purpose vehicle’ where the community contributes their land and houses, becomes pro-rata owners of the resulting development, can access finance and can partner with a master planning entity, such as HLC or a Urban Development Authority.

This would allow all the landowners to jointly benefit from a scheme that maximises the density and profitability from their assembled block of landholdings.

If each Master Planned Block had its own planning permission or worked in conjunction with an agency that had planning permission such as a Urban Development Authority and there was many Master Planned Blocks competing against each other and against other housing development models, then in theory planning regulation costs should be competed down to the true social benefit value of planning regulations (for managing externalities, nuisances etc).

This saving should also in theory be shared by increased profitability for developers (the original community of landowners in the Master Planned Block’s case) and lower prices for new home buyers.

Increased construction competition would drive productivity investment and innovation improvements.

What factors should be considered to make Master Planned Blocks effective?

*A clear definition of the geographic area of a potential Master Planned Block

  • Community, council or central government entity defines the area?
  • Must not border other residential areas? Or if it does, clear rules about the boundary effects and a government agency determines where the boundary goes (to prevent some groups of landowners gaming the system geographically by strategically blocking off other potentially more competitive shaped Master Planned Blocks).
  • Must not be too big, maximum of say 50 properties, so that community cooperation is viable?

*What percentage of existing property owners must agree to initiate development? Eighty, ninety percent? Also how to stop developers buying into neighbourhoods and stacking the vote?

*What sort of management structure -something like body corporates, democratic, what?

*What are the rules for rehousing existing residents within the new development versus getting a financial payoff and moving elsewhere? In other words is retaining and building a community an important aspect of Master Planned Blocks?

*Can the new special purpose entity have planning powers within its own geographic area? What about at the boundary?

There is a lot to consider but none of it seems insurmountable.

Given the important benefits intensification brings for maximising the potential from the public’s investment in rapid transit and for addressing the housing crisis and environmental considerations, such as climate change. I believe Master Planned Blocks is something worthy of further investigation.

Articles from the internet that support intensification of anglo-centric cities

London’s Adam Smith Institute makes a compelling, free market argument for removing restrictions on housing intensification, so more people, can live more affordably, in places where there is the most economic opportunity.

John Myers co-founder of London YIMBY in his latest paper argues;

we could easily treble the number of homes in London by allowing Georgian or Edwardian densities again …attractive rows of gorgeous terraced houses or maisonettes and mansion blocks…. it would vastly reduce the cost of land per home… (making) better housing more affordable.

Patrik Schumacher is an outspoken London architect. He has polemic free market views for how removing government regulations can solve the housing crisis. I think he goes too far in some of his prescriptions, such as privatising public land -like Hyde Park. He seems to have pulled back on some of these extreme ideas in his following paper.

Sometimes though to make a dent in public opinion, especially in such a intractable problem like the housing crisis, someone has to express extreme polemic views to move the Overton window. This public service by Patrik Schumacher is recognised by others in London, even when they disagree with him, by their acknowledgement -“his heart is the right place”.

In general, I have nuanced views on the continuum between the free market and state control. In the housing sphere, I believe that mostly regulations need to to be freed up, although in New Zealand, building (construction) standards for healthy homes (warm, dry, ventilated, mould-free) should be raised.

In New Zealand, the new coalition government has indicated that although they are not interested in private capital provision for hospitals, schools and prisons, for transport and housing related projects they are “open for business”.

Patrik Schumacher in his paper alludes to a possible solution along the lines of my Master Planning Block proposal.

To the extent that collective decision making is called for to regulate development rights in the light of externalities, I suggest that an organized association of property owners should set regulations. Voting rights could be distributed in accordance with the relative value of the respective holdings, analogous to shareholder rights in stock companies. Such a privately organized planning system (similar to how to many successful industry self-regulation initiatives operate) can be expected to maximize total social value, in contrast to our current political processes.

A related idea has recently been proposed by John Myers as key proposal of his YIMBY campaign. The proposal involves allowing individual streets to vote on giving themselves permitted development rights, to build upwards to a maximum of six storeys and take up more of their plots.

A less confronting discussion of the need to improve the cultural acceptance of living in higher densities is presented by American/Japanese aspiring musician Ryan Tanaka.

Brendon Harre

Written by

Trying to optimise amenity and affordability values for urban areas

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