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Archive for August 16th, 2012

Kiwi Urbanism

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Gavin Lister and David Irwin spoke at SFU on August 16, describing two projects their design company Isthmus is currently working on. The first is Hobsonville Point a former NZ Defence Force airbase which is now being redeveloped as a mainly residential suburban area. They showed a video which I have been able to embed.

The other is an urban redevelopment in Auckland called Vinegar Lane which uses the site of a former vinegar factory for mixed use. Both projects are aimed at increasing density, affordability and sustainability. The both “reinterpret our history”.

As part of Isthmus’ ongoing research and development we have been looking to overseas locales for a range of inspiration and direction. Increasingly we see Vancouver as a benchmark in many areas related to urban design and transportation. Isthmus directors David Irwin and Gavin Lister are currently in Vancouver meeting with built environment professionals. Much of their study trip is focused on exploring urban intensification typologies and strategies that Vancouverites call “gentle density”.

The company is a design practice that incorporates landscape architecture with design/build projects.

Auckland is located on a narrow isthmus, with ocean on both sides, and is a field of volcanos (extinct or dormant) that were terraced by the Maoris as fortifications. This legacy of land forms, with a  heavily indented coast line  – “the wild west coast” which was largely ignored by earlier development – presents both challenge and opportunity.

Auckland and Vancouver share a common heritage of being part of the British Empire. There was a regular steamer service connecting the two ports as travel between New Zealand and England was quicker across the Pacific, then overland through Canada than the other way around the world. Like Vancouver it was a streetcar city, through the grid follows the topography  more closely. Much of the city has linear density focussed on the arterial roads. Auckland embraced the idea of becoming a motorway city in the 1950s with a connecting series of towns, [formerly linked by railway]. In recent years houses have got bigger, lots smaller and construction cheaper: they share the common experience of leaky homes.

Indicator                Auckland             Vancouver

Population                         1.4m                       2.3m

Density                            2,900/km²           5,250/km²

Annual Income per cap      $56k                 $82k

GDP                                    $66bn                      $81bn

Auckland has to increase its density to remain within its current urban boundary but also to improve affordability. In recent years 20 local councils have been amalgamated into a single authority.

New Zealand has been the country of a suburban paradise. There are now only three large scale integrated developer/builder companies. There many small builders, but no “giant building machine” to deliver the large number of homes that will be required to meet expected rapid growth in the next forty years. There is “fantastic architecture” based on wooden frame “NZ vernacular”.

Hobsonville Point is a site of 160ha where 3,000 homes will be constructed at much greater density than has been common. It is 15km from Aukland with access by motorway. As part of the development a new fast ferry service is to be introduced with a competitive 20 minute journey time to downtown. The site was a former airbase and some  of the “heritage” buildings are to be preserved. The overall density will be 25 dwellings per hectare but the objective in the longer term is to go to 40. The site has a spine road (Ponsonby) that was a streetcar route with townhouses and apartments. The coastal edge will feature a walk/bike trail and be a green edge to each precinct. There will be a heritage element to the architecture and a Marine Industries Precinct [in the former hangars]. Already demand for the houses is exceeding expectations as people are attracted by the farmer’s market and amenities such as public art and playgrounds.

While this form of suburban development is working well and selling in future over 60% of “new product” has to be within the growth boundary. This requires a different approach. Single family homes on the fee simple suburban model can get finance from the banks up to 90% of the price. Strata “urban title” can only get 60% finance. The remit then is to develop attractive fee simple urban development with 100% site coverage. There is an available model for such development Borneo Sporenburg in the Netherlands.

A former vinegar factory in Auckland was demolished, in preparation for redevelopment as a mall with four levels of underground parking. The developer went bust in 2008 leaving a huge hole to be filled. Isthmus is proposing to build a new subdivision based on fee simple ownership and 100% lot coverage. The edges of the site will have commercial development with a new 12m lane (“Vinegar Lane”) to provide access to the interior residential lots. These will vary in size and individual owners will have the ability to construct what they want with the design parameters of lot coverage and height. Current permitting is based on FAR2 but they intend to ask for FAR4. A lot of mixed use is expected with a wide range of potential outcomes. This presents a challenge for the conventional planning, as usually permits are not issued until a complete design is presented.  There were many possible plans and layouts shown. [Unfortunately none of these appear to be available on line.]

Q & A

I asked for more detail about transportation. There is no streetcar or light rail – actual or proposed – for either site. The Auckland Rail Loop is a  heavy rail electric train service now being advanced [but does not appear to touch either]. Hobsonville will allow for a 5minute walk to the ferry or a “high quality” motorway bus service. There are established ferry services already with feeder bus in other suburbs so the “ferry tradition” is well understood. It is expected to be a fast catamaran [no vehicles].

Private open space in the Vinegar Lane development will be within the buildings. While there is no requirement for green buildings, all the ideas discussed so far included roof gardens, but there could be green roofs or green facades – so far there are “no real clients” (individual home owners). There is no social housing component in either project.

“We are taking twenty lessons from Vancouver, this is just one that might work for you. We had a an issue of a four storey hole in the ground, and thought the answer we came up with was interesting.”

“Vancouver has embraced change” the approach to increasing density is varied and it is not all about shiny thin towers – there is “streetcar [city] stuff. They spoke about build quality and the distinct look architecturally but “where is the contemporary twist? They are all 1920’s using cheaper materials” like plastic siding  “it’s fake!”

They were intrigued by the idea that the path to affordability lay through mortgage helpers – laneway houses and secondary suites to rent out. The gentle density had achieved 10 homes on sites that used to accommodate three – that’s a good lift.

They were impressed by homes where there was private open space on top of the garage with three levels above. This also provides security over the back lane which has become the front entrance for some homes.

Frank Ducote spoke about the contract between the planning process in NZ and Canada quoting Ray Spaxman, twenty years ago, asking NZ planners “Aren’t you proud of your developers?” He detected that there was still apparently some adversial attitudes, unlike the cooperative approach here. This was acknowledged “twenty years ago there was some shocking stuff done – but a new design led team at the new unitary authority indicated a change in attitude at City Hall. However while policy planners may be sympathetic “permitting planners” (the people who have to give consent to the detailed plans) are a different matter.

Asked about the impact of the Christchurch earthquake, they said that ground conditions in Auckland were different. However a review of codes and public building stability is ongoing as Wellington seems especially vulnerable. The Christchurch City Blueprint is now available, but for many home owners the pressing needs are for insurable shelter – homes that can be built quickly.

Written by Stephen Rees

August 16, 2012 at 10:02 pm