If you zone it they will come

Yesterday I explored some of the issues around the council greatly increasing the costs of building houses in Wellington. The rules themselves are almost impossible to understand, a point the council concedes in Kafkaesque fashion where the first chapter of the guide to the district plan is an overview to using the guide! It’s a Russian doll of nonsense, which is too complex for professionals, let alone laymen to understand. In many places, the rules force people into building car parks, make it difficult for people to build small homes, and coerce people into mowing lawns. These rules add huge amounts to the cost of new buildings. They do nothing to provide Wellington with the smaller, affordable homes close to public transport and amenities that so many of us want and need.

I’d like to suggest a basic rewrite of the rules, to resemble something along these lines. Happy for input here!

  1. Residential zone – The minimum zoning to be to be set to a height of three stories, with one dwelling per 50sqm of section allowed by right. This would mean that all across Wellington, beautiful social homes like Berhampore’s Centennial flats or more expensive place like Mt Victorias Zavos Corner could be built without having to get special consent.
  2. Transit zone – within 400 meres of any transit station – apartments and terraced housing up to 6 stories allowed. This would be along the Johnsonville line, and the planned Railway station to Wellington airport transit line. The art deco apartment buildings of Mt Victoria and the modernist apartments of the city side of Brooklyn are the inspiration for a zone like this.
  3. Cliff zone – Any section that backs on to a steep hill can build to the height of that hill. this is how Oriental Bay, one of our most vibrant suburbs is zoned, and I suggest that this be rolled out cliffside throughout the city.
  4. CBD zone – No change to the cbd – new homes seem to be able to built here easily enough.

There’d be other changes too. there’d be no minimum parking requirements, less requirement for outdoor space in most suburbs, and mostly we’d allow low level commercial opportunities on the ground floor. The mix of housing options and amenities enjoyed by our residents of Thorndon, Newtown and Mt Victoria would be available throughout the city. We’d end up with more affordable homes and greater choice in our neighbourhoods. They’d be more walkable, and have better amenities and more viable public transport. Sound good?

 

 

 

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What’s wrong with building houses in Wellington

Showing up late for a working bee, mainly for the takeaways and beer, I managed to make my semi annual appearance on TV late last year.  It was for Grand Designs and the house build of some friends of mine. Full credit to them for getting it over the line, from what I’ve seen and heard of building a place, it seems like a total mission. And there seems to be some pretty good reasons why  – it’s a motherflippin’ house full of concrete and rebar and wood and paint and hundreds of different building materials, that you have to stick together in the right order and in the right way.

But then, there’s a whole lot of reasons why building a new home is hard, that have nothing to do with the physical effort. A ludicrously large number of these are to do with council provisions, many of which make no objective sense, and which make our city a worse place. Thanks to Wellington’s District Plan, in most parts of the city you have to have a car park, can’t build over 2 stories, and have to buy a large section and put only one home on it, which can usually only use 20 or 30% of the large section you have been made to buy. Going outside of these restrictions will add time and cost to your build, and you might get turned down.

The craziest thing about these rules is that Wellington’s most enjoyable neighborhoods were built before they existed.  Aro Valley, Thorndon, Mt Vic and Newtown are filled with cottages on tiny sections with no car pars. There’s also plenty of gorgeous apartment buildings, whether it’s the laid back art-deco above Shalimar, or the Mt Vic Monastery, which is really just an old school version of affordable housing right? And in all of these suburbs there’s high rise living. In Oriental Bay, the rules are very relaxed, you can build up to 34 metres, and don’t have to leave almost your entire section as grass or concrete like you do in Newlands or most parts of the city. These older suburbs have great amenities, plenty of people, cafes and good shopping.

But for some reason, the mixed housing model of our older suburbs has been abandoned and replaced with a conservative, car centric approach to neighbourhood building. There’s plenty of things wrong with this approach, but the worst thing about it is that it makes houses so much more expensive than they need to be. Forcing people into large sections with one or more carparks and no more than one home adds tens, if not hundreds of thousand of dollars onto the cost of a new home.  This is total bullshit, and Wellington can do better.

 

Trackless trams: NKOTTB

Trackless trams are the new kid on the transport block. The mayor and a Wellington ward candidate are pushing for their adoption from the airport to Karori. Given that the transport package our Mayor recently released had no mention of Karori, it’s bizarre for this to suddenly be on the cards.  Like unicorns, pink elephants, and other things that don’t really exist, trackless trams are hard to criticise, but I’m going to do my level best.

Indeed the fact they don’t exist in any real way is what is appealing to people. People can project whatever they like onto the idea. If you’re a car person, a trackless tram is just like a big bus, and probably won’t have any road space prioritised over your needs. If you are a public transport person, a trackless tram gives you all the benefits of light rail at a fraction of the cost. Basically people can project whatever they want onto the idea, and because it doesn’t exist you can’t tell them they’re wrong.

The big problem though is that the trackless tram debate almost misses the point, particularly in Wellington. The hardest challenge of getting rapid mass transit to the Airport is allocating two lanes from Wellington station to the airport. Regardless of the technology the transit needs to run separate from traffic. Taking road space from cars will be the most difficult political challenge. The tunnelling costs through Mt Albert will be the single most expensive part of any solution. This is true for Bus Rapid Transit, trackless trams and light rail.  As to transit to Karori, there are genuine concerns there, but given that transit to the airport is not currently scheduled until the 2030s, the idea that there will be trackless trams operating to Karori by 2022 is pure fantasy.

Really if you are going to bear the political challenge of genuine rapid transit, and the tunnelling costs through Mt Albert, then the rest of the project will take care of itself, regardless of the technology. While I am not completely against trackless trams, I think proven technologies are better solutions.

Big dumb toys

Yesterday I wrote briefly about Wellington’s 85 million dollar plans for an arena, and some ways that money could be better spent.  It’s not the only unnecessary project that the council wants to spend huge amounts of money on. There’s also 154 million dollars set aside for a conference centre, and potentially hundreds of millions for the Wellington airport extension. All three of these projects could be funded by the private sector, and there’s no real reason for the council to spend up here. There’s also the massive opportunity cost – with an extra half a billion dollars, what else could the council do?

First, the conference centre. Conference centres had their moment in the sun under John Key. There was some bizarre cult mentality, an idea that these could solve all a city’s problems. It was always ludicrous. New Zealand is the worst place in the entire world to have conference. We are so far away from everywhere, not a centre for anyone. And while New Zealand is a bad place for a conference, Wellington is even worse. We don’t and never will have a proper international airport. Our hotels are reasonably busy due to the amount of government work. If a Wellington conference centre was a great profitable idea, a private organisation would be doing it anyhow. The fact they are not tells you everything you need to know.

Next the airport extension. The majority owners of Wellington airport are Infratil, but it seems that the council is fronting all the investigation costs. I’d expect that to continue if the  300+ million dollar project ever got greenlit. It’s because it’s a bad idea, and the private sector know it. There are no countries of 5 million with three viable long haul airports. No airlines have expressed any desire for this to go ahead, and indeed Air NZ are strongly against the idea.  I’ve always thought one of the charms of Wellington was flying in, watching surfers catch waves. Potentially destroying that for two long haul flights a week is not worth it at any cost

Again it’s the opportunity cost that is killer here. If we want meeting places then let’s  facilitate more awesome community spaces like Aro Valley community centre, the Vogelmorn hall, or the Newtown Community centre. If we’ve got money to spend on transport, then our bus system, light rail and cycleways could use the money.

Instead of spending money on some identikit concept of the city, we could spend a fraction of the amount and provide real tangible benefit to our communities and the people that call Wellington home. Let’s do that.

You got to fight, for your right, to party!

There’s two pretty key sides to live music. People make it and people go to it. At it’s best, live music feels like something you are vital to, even if you are just part of the crowd. It’s something that specific music cities know well. The audience has key local characteristics which make it vital and which the music literally wouldn’t exist without. Whether it’s street bands in New Orleans, samba troupes in Rio, Forro in little bars in Lisbon, warehouse raves in 80s Manchester or Hip Hop block parties in New York, the music and the scene are integrated.

The role of council then is to figure out what the best way to enable this is. And our council has this totally and completely wrong. At the moment the council has 85 million dollars set aside in it’s long term plan to build a 12,000 seat arena. The council preference then is to spend it’s money on building an arena for international artists, an arena so big that not a single Wellington act would be able to sell it out. This will not do anything at all to enhance Wellington’s local music scene.

If we have 85 million bucks to spend on live music, let’s actually try and spend this in a  way that will build the local music scene. First, the council could do party hire/permit. My inspiration for this is Whopper Chopper, the beachside parties of the early 2000s. A promoter would be able to  get quick turnaround party permits for specific locations, and temporary food and drink permits. It could start as specific locations that this permit would be available – Mt Vic Quarry, underground in Wrights Hill Fortress, a few specific beaches. The council could rent a package including an awesome sound system, generator, toilets, water, a recycling station – it could also include security staff and a bar duty manager. If you and your musical mates saw the forecast for the weekend was going to be awesome, you could rock up to council on the Wednesday, get the permit and gear, promote the hell out of the thing online, call up a food truck, and have the party on the Saturday. Good times, and only chump change compared to 85 million dollars.

Apart from that, there’s got to be other things we can do. We must be able to provide some support to smaller venues and recording studios, which are vital parts of the music scene. Competitions where bands can win recording time. I dunno, I imagine there are some noise related zoning issues which might need sorting. I’d love to hear ideas. We could build a paint by numbers arena for Robbie Williams to return to endlessly, or we could work on ideas that allow Wellington to continue to build it’s own unique musical identity. Let’s do the Wellington one.

 

 

 

 

Park it

I hate car parks. The endless circling, looking for parks downtown. The fact that in most parts of the city it’s totally free to use this council owned real estate, despite car parks having a value of around 50 grand. That in central Wellington alone, the council provides 4,200 carparks, but not a single decent cycleway.  The fact that I cannot park.

I don’t quite understand why the council provides any free parking spaces at all. In Wadestown for instance,  there are many million dollar houses, with owners parking their cars on street for free. In essence, the council is providing a service to the cities wealthiest, and the only real justification for it is that it’s the status quo. We live in a city where the library charges you to borrow popular books, but you can park for free almost anywhere. It says a lot about our priorities.

There’s of course hidden costs to all of this. Road maintenance is an obvious dollar cost that the council bears to maintain all these free parks. This is added to your rates, or downstream to your rent. As significant is the opportunity cost. Carparks take the space of what could often be bus lanes, seaside parks,  cycleways or really anything.

All of this is without going into just how bad cars are for both our safety and our environment. Why provide subsidies in the form of car parks? The council is asking for feedback on their parking approach, so go ahead and have your say here

The Hurricanes train – call it Ardie

You know your Easter hasn’t gone to plan when you end up with a handle of Speights, at the Rat Hole in Bulls, alone.

That my friends, was my Easter three years ago. I was at fault, but shitty regional buses with long transfers didn’t help. Currently the rail network doesn’t really work for most trips outside Wellington. This post is going to look at how simple it would be to change that and give the lower North Island (Hurricanes territory) an integrated rail network where you could easily get from Wellington to anywhere and almost any town of 10,000 to any other.

Firstly, the existing rail. The real shit quality map has current operational train lines in the lower North Island. While much of this is freight only, there are three current services that run. The five times a day Wairarapa line, the daily return Capital Connection to Palmerston North and the odd days only Northern Explorer going to Auckland via Palmerston North and the Wairarapa line.

There’s only three things you’d need to do to connect every small town in the lower North Island, with at least twice daily frequencies. Only one of these is a new service.

1. Push a couple of the Wairarapa line services via Waipukarau and Hastings through to Napier.

2.  Add another daily service to the Capital Connection between Wellington and Palmerston North. Push the end point of this service out to Woodville, so it can connect with the trains travelling through the Wairarapa to and from Hawkes Bay.  Change the frequency of the Northern explorer to daily, which would give Wellington to Palmerston North thrice daily frequencies.

3.  Create a new twice daily service running from New Plymouth via Whanganui and Palmerston North to Woodville.

Implement these three things, and you have the beginning of some decent regional transport. Not only can you easily get between Wellington, Palmy, Napier and New Plymouth but any two points in between are serviced. Hawera to Masterton, Marton to Waipukarau, Levin to Hastings, Fielding to Eketahuna. Many of these trips are not currently possible via anything other than car. There’s over a million people living in this catchment and the vast majority of them live in towns that would be serviced by this network. It’d be great for tourists and the environment.

Maybe I’m just a weird anorak, but seated trains are nearly always more enjoyable than buses or even cars. You can wander round, get a feed and watch the world go by through massive windows. What do ya reckon?