United We Stand, Divided We Fall: The Auckland Unitary Plan

In 2010, Auckland governance was overhauled as seven district councils and a regional council combined to form the Auckland Council.

The new Council has been busy in the last three years, with the substantial task of replacing the old district and regional plans with a single plan, the Auckland Unitary Plan.

Released as a draft on March 15th 2013, The Plan has been a hot topic in the media ever since.

In this issue of the Retail Examiner we breakdown the document’s crucial points, and analyse its strengths and weaknesses.

Then we look into the Plan’s allowance for new retail and amenity development, analyse the affect new zoning will have on Auckland’s Metropolitain Centre’s, and predict where we can expect to see major developments occurring.

Lauded by some and laughed off by others; the Unitary Plan will shape Auckland’s future in the decades to come. And it all starts with growth.

Auckland’s Growth

Today, Auckland has a population of more than 1.5 million people, from Wellsford in the north to Pukekohe in the south. The city is more than three times the size of Christchurch or Wellington, and it is growing at a rate of knots.
"Two-thirds of the growth will come
from “natural increase” – births minus deaths
– and migration will make up the remainder."
According to projections from Statistics New Zealand, the region is likely to account for 61% of New Zealand’s population increase in the next 20 years. At current growth rates, the city will hit 2 million people in around 20 years. Two-thirds of the growth will come from “natural increase” – births minus deaths – and migration will make up the remainder. This is in line with past trends for Auckland.
The Auckland Council is planning for Auckland’s population to reach 2.5 million by 2041. This means, over the next 30 years:
  • 1 million extra people, and
  • 400,000 extra homes.
That’s a lot of growth, and it raises the question of whether Auckland should grow upwards (aka, intensification) or outwards (aka, sprawl). Here’s where council planning comes in.

The Auckland Plan

The Auckland Plan was released in 2012, and it’s the Auckland Council’s vision statement – showing where they want to see growth over the next thirty years, and where they plan to invest. Let’s take a look at what it said:
The Auckland Plan says: 60-70% of Auckland’s population growth is to occur in the existing urban limits.

We say: This is 240,000 to 280,000 dwellings, or at least 8,000 dwellings a year for thirty years. Getting there will be a tough ask! We note, though, that there’s a fair bit of greenfields space within the urban limits, around Flat Bush, Hobsonville, Takanini, Long Bay, Silverdale and Hingaia. The Council reckons this will provide for 40,000 dwellings. The rest will need to come from true “intensification”.

The Auckland Plan says: Aim for at least 64% of Auckland households to own their own home. This was the ownership rate in the 2006 census.
We say: The home ownership rate is likely to have fallen since 2006. The Council will have a big job in front of it!
The Auckland Plan says: Make housing more affordable, for both renters and homeowners.
We say: If we can get over the current supply shortage, then this issue will start to take care of itself. 
The Auckland Plan says: Try to “retrofit 40% of Auckland’s housing stock in need of retrofitting by 2030”.
We say: It’s not quite clear exactly how many homes the Council refers to here, but certainly a large number of us live in old houses that are cold, leaky and expensive to run. Anyway, we wish the Council good luck!
Overall, these are admirable goals, and it’s hard to disagree with the Council on the overall vision. But at the end of the day, the Auckland Plan is something of a wish list, and it’s the Auckland Unitary Plan that will provide the nuts and bolts to put it into effect. Not to mention all of us in the development and construction industries!

The Auckland Unitary Plan 

So what can we look forward to under the Unitary Plan? At a glance, the Auckland Unitary Plan looks like a great idea – rolling at least eight documents into one, and giving consistency across the region. Only five residential zones, and ten business zones across the whole region – much simpler, right?
Well, once you add in all the overlays it gets complicated very quickly. In fact, it’s hard to find anywhere in the city that’s not covered by any overlays – on the isthmus, the only places left untouched are parts of Hillsborough and St Heliers.
Click on the map below to visit an interactive info graphic of the
Plan's overlays:
The “Rules” section of the plan is 1,297 pages long. To be fair, the old plans would have been much longer, but it’s still a hefty document. 
"We hope you love planners and resource
consent applications, because this status means
a time-consuming, costly application at the
whim of a council planner with illusions of
urban grandeur."
The first thing to hit you is that pretty much all development activity is Restricted Discretionary. We hope you love planners and resource consent applications, because this status means a time-consuming, costly application at the whim of a council planner with illusions of urban grandeur. In fact, we can only find two business zones in Auckland where it is a Permitted activity to build a building: the airport zone and, oddly enough, Neighbourhood Centres i.e. the corner shops.

Residential Zones

If you’re in a middle-class suburb well away from the coast then you get to do more of what Auckland is good at – chop off the backyard, only this time it’s in smaller chunks of 300 sqm. 
"...you may have doubled your
suburb’s population but the plan forgot
to double any facilities or amenities like
shops, schools, parks and so on."
The North Shore, West Auckland and other post-war suburbs get the most of this “opportunity”.  Unfortunately, when homeowners find out that 1 or 2 site subdivisions are uneconomic, this initial gold rush feeling may die quickly. The other problem is you may have doubled your suburb’s population but the plan forgot to double any facilities or amenities like shops, schools, parks and so on.
What else does the Plan let you do? Well, now every homeowner can become a landlord in their own house – convert a single dwelling into two dwellings, provided that they share a common wall (or the ceiling). This is a Permitted activity so there’s no consent required, and yes the second dwelling can have a kitchen. Problem solved for the other million new residents, pity about the home-ownership goal as you can’t split off the title for the second dwelling.
Looking at this rule another way, it could be used to develop duplexes on sections as small as 300 m2, the only problem being that there will only ever be one title for both dwellings. It could be interesting to see these pop up around Auckland!

The Five Zones

The five residential zones in the Auckland Unitary Plan are:
  • The “Single House” zone (35% of the urban residential area)
  • The “Mixed Housing” zone (49% of the urban residential area)
  • The “Terrace and Apartment Building” zone (7% of the urban residential area)
  • The “Large Lot” zone (9% of the urban residential area)
  • The “Rural and Coastal Settlement” zone

Click on the map below to visit an interactive info graphic of the
Plan's zoning:

Terrace and Apartment Buildings Zone

You’d think that this would be a pretty important zone for Auckland’s future, but the amount of land covered by the Terrace and Apartment Buildings zone is so minute, it’s laughable. The globally accepted rule that highest densification should occur in the highest value land has well and truly been ignored. Where’s the intensification by our parks and water? Where’s the amenity in the inner west?
"The globally accepted rule that
highest densification should
occur in the highest value land
has well and truly been ignored."
Some of our coastal suburbs do get this zoning. Luckily there is a stream of wealthy aging baby boomers that are dying to buy luxury apartments by the sea in Milford, Takapuna, Mission Bay and St Heliers. The big gamble is that the rules require amalgamation of sites to build apartments or terrace houses. You might be lucky to live a block back from the sea, but don’t hold out for too high an offer for your place,
or you may also find yourself an orphan with apartments on either side and no development rights at all. Planners call this “quirky” or a “richly grained urban texture”, some people call it dumb planning…
If you live on a major arterial road you get the apartment opportunity too, except there are no rich boomers looking to move in, just poor folk waiting to buy a noisy 30 sqm dwelling overlooking a bus lane. 
But don’t worry too much, the urban poor are being channelled into the Great Western Trench formerly known as Avondale, New Lynn, Glen Eden, Henderson – this is the big Brownfield Redevelopment strip that is 10 kilometres long. There’s no coastal amenity or large green parks adjacent, just a high-speed train to get you out of there real quick. With apartment towers up to 18 storeys, it’s all very East London meets East Berlin in the 1960s. Again, lots of dwellings but no real increase in amenity and facilities. Manukau Central and Papakura get a similar treatment – lucky them. Slum landlords will be rubbing their hands with glee over these areas.
The Terrace and Apartment Buildings zone will also make an appearance in greenfields areas like Westgate. It’s likely that this will be a kinder, more middle-class kind of high density lifestyle, all able to be centrally planned by a large corporate developer. In Swanson, though, we can only describe the zoning as schizophrenic – apartment zone hard up against larger lot semi-rural lifestyle, almost like an English country village, serf and gentry living hand-in-glove.

Mixed Housing Zone

The most common zoning in Auckland allows subdivision into 300 m2 lots and is distributed across most suburbs. Of note and concern to many is that if you can secure 1,200 m2 of land (probably just your house and the one next door), there is no limit to the number of dwellings you can create, as long as you conform to typical development controls of height, setbacks, coverage, minimum dwelling sizes etc. Assuming, of course, that the water and other services in the area are up to the task!
"Two sites, formerly home to just two houses,
could potentially hold 24 apartments."
Point Chevalier has many 600 m2 sites, and if you combine two together, we think
it would be possible to create 10 two-bedroom apartments and 14 one-bedroom apartments, with basement car parking and conforming to all the design rules.
Two sites, formerly home to just two houses, could potentially hold 24 apartments. This needs a Restricted Discretionary consent, but the assessment criteria can be relatively easily met.
This gives a density of 1 household per 50 m2 of land – pretty high density living. Potentially you can have this behemoth in a street of single houses on a full lot,
which is quite strange from an urban design perspective. Economically, it might cost $750,000 to buy out the neighbour, but selling the two-bedroom apartments at $400,000 and the one-bedrooms for $300,000 (so $8 million total), it’s probably worth it to spend $5 million creating such a project. 
The alternative would be to build two houses on each site (remember, you’ve got 1,200 m2 of land so density limits don’t apply), and split each house into 2 three-bedroom apartments (165 m2 each), giving a total of 8 dwellings. This is actually a Permitted activity and the only resource consent needed is one to subdivide the property. This is 1 household per 150 m2: medium to high density still, and at least a little more suburban in nature. 
In fact, even those on a single 600 m2 site can create 4 dwellings (2 need to be flats), each 150 m2 in area (i.e. three-bedroom average homes) as a Permitted activity. 
You can achieve in the Mixed Housing zone, and the Terrace Housing and Apartment Buildings zone, in suburbs that currently have average house sales of $700,000 plus. With this level of density in the residential zones, we don’t really need high rise (four storeys or more) anywhere, particularly not in inland town centres with no access to parkland or coastal amenity (we’re looking at you, New Lynn, Henderson, Manukau, Papakura, and Albany!) 

Single House Zone

There is also the Single House zone, aka the “let’s keep this a nice middle class family area” zone. These are all the nice areas next to the Million Dollar protected areas, and you can’t do much here except of course turn some of the house into a flat. It’ll be perfect for the kids (or the grandparents) to live – very Italian.
"Many of the inner-city suburbs are spared the
need (or ability!) to intensify, and remain as
“Single House” areas... surely some of these inner-city
suburbs are excellently suited to intensification
and should have zoning which reflects this?"

In a lot of ways, the Council has chickened out. Many of the inner-city suburbs – Remuera, Ponsonby, Grey Lynn, Westmere, Mt Eden – are spared the need (or ability!) to intensify, and remain as “Single House” areas. These areas are also covered by either the Historic Character or the Pre-1944 Demolition Control overlays. There won’t be any subdivision or high rises in this neck of the woods. In fact, things won’t change very much at all.

What a missed opportunity – these suburbs have high amenity, are close to employment centres, and tend to have pretty good public transport links. This emphasises that the Unitary Plan hasn’t been developed in a vacuum: it’s had to
take account of existing zoning and built form. We’re not saying that the heritage and character provisions should be done away with, but surely some of these inner-city suburbs are excellently suited to intensification and should have zoning which
reflects this? 

Large Lot Zone 

If you think you have lucked out, don’t worry – the Biggest Loser award goes to Titirangi and Laingholm which get Large Lot zoning and a special overlay. Special because essentially no subdivision and tiny house coverage. No adding on rooms or decks here, thank you! Our Deputy Mayor, Penny Hulse, wants you to wither & die, just like kauri die-back. All those quarter acre residents are formally squatting in a national park under the rules in this zone.

Business Zones

The Unitary Plan is all about a centres-based approach, with an implied hierarchy of centres, so let’s lay things out in the order the Council wants… 
  • The “City Centre” zone 
  • The “Metropolitan Centre” zone 
  • The “Town Centre” zone 
  • The “Local Centre” zone 
  • The “Neighbourhood Centre” zone 
Added to these are the Mixed Use, General Business and Business Park zones, plus Light Industry and Heavy Industry zones. 
Although one of the business zones is named the “Mixed Use” zone, the vision really seems to be that most business zones will take on an increasing mix of uses, especially residential. We’ll talk about this more below. 

The City Centre Zone 

The Council is trying to steer clear of calling this the CBD, and fair enough too as Auckland Central is already a lot more than just a place to do business. There’s a mix of height limits, most of which are unchanged from the district plan.
As for retail, there are two distinct “Core Retail” areas – K Road, and the area north of Mayoral Drive, centred around Queen Street and reaching all the way to the waterfront area. Within these areas, anything goes. Elsewhere, department stores are Discretionary activities, as are other retail developments above 5,000 m2. Anything else in the 1,000 m2 to 5,000 m2 range is Restricted Discretionary. Again, these rules are pretty similar to what was in the old district plan.
Despite the hysteria about the unitary plan allowing “shoebox” apartments to rise again, there isn’t much that has changed here either. In 2005, the then-Auckland City Council acted to prevent shoebox development by instating a minimum apartment size at 35 m2, including a 5 m2 balcony. The only difference is that now an 8 m2 balcony
is needed.

Metropolitan Centre Zone 

There are ten Metropolitan Centres across Auckland, from Albany in the north to Papakura in the south. This zoning allows for buildings up to 18 storeys, and a wide range of uses. The ten centres have clearly been chosen to give a good spread across the region, but some of the choices are otherwise hard to fathom.
For example, Sylvia Park becomes a Metropolitan Centre, along with the Apex Mega Centre across the road. Westfield St Lukes is relegated to a lower Town Centre zoning. Score one for Kiwi Income Property Trust! 
Westgate is also identified as a Metropolitan Centre, and there is plenty of greenfields land ready for development in this area – both residential and business. NZRPG’s 2012 master plan for Westgate shows the centre being primarily developed for LFR, which is certainly possible under Metropolitan Centre zoning, but is rather different from the mix of activities found in more established centres. Perhaps it’s time to rethink this master plan?
When you look in detail at the Metropolitan Centre areas, the zoning is applied quite sparingly – so, for example, Newmarket is a Metropolitan Centre along Broadway, from the Westfield mall and Nuffield St through to Carlton Gore Rd. There’s only a fairly small area covered on each side of Broadway, and the total area is just 14.5 hectares.
The zoning for these centres suggests a high intensity of development, with height limits at 18 storeys and a wide range of permitted activities.

Town Centres 

There are 40 of these Town Centres, with 8-storey height limits for the “large” ones – like Newton, Manurewa and Ormiston – down to 4-storey limits in the “small” ones – like Devonport or Parnell. Again, there’s a wide range of activities, and there are enough Town Centres around the city to make sure that no one is ever too far from one. 

Local Centres 

Things get tougher when you move down to the 50+ Local Centres, like Balmoral or Mission Bay. Retirement villages are Discretionary rather than Permitted, and it’s the same for “entertainment facilities” such as bars, cinemas or – strangely – gyms. Jetts Fitness might not be too happy about this? 
Retail development is Restricted Discretionary if there’s more than 450 m2 on a site, which could be a single LFR retailer or a handful of smaller shops. Supermarkets get the same treatment, unless they are larger than 3,000 m2 in which case they get full Discretionary treatment.

Neighbourhood Centres 

The Plan might call them centres, but these are really just the corner shops, and the zoning is generally in line with that. Strangely, though, you can still have up to 500 m2 of offices on a single site as a Permitted activity – which is actually a fair bit of office space. It’s also odd that Neighbourhood Centres are the only places in Auckland where it is a Permitted activity to put up a building – everywhere else, you’ll be needing a resource consent thank you very much. 

Mixed Use 

This zone is a real mixed bag, and encompasses a lot of commercial development around Auckland, as well as the lower-intensity stuff you get surrounding centres. The height limit is 4 storeys, but to make it that high you’ll probably need to be developing apartments, as there are restrictions on how much retail or office space you can have. 

What Happens to Auckland’s LFR? 

There’s now a consistent definition of LFR across Auckland: if you’re a retailer and your store is larger than 450m2, congratulations, you qualify. 
"LFR developments which are lucky enough
to be zoned Metropolitan Centre or Town Centre
are sitting pretty...The ability of LFR retailers to set up
shop “out of centre”, though, has been curtailed."
LFR developments which are lucky enough to be zoned Metropolitan Centre or Town Centre are sitting pretty. The retailers are carrying on a Permitted activity, and it’ll be possible to redevelop the site more intensively when the buildings start to get a
bit creaky. 
The ability of LFR retailers to set up shop “out of centre”, though, has been curtailed. Things aren’t too bad for Local Centres, where the activity is Restricted Discretionary. However, you’re looking at full Discretionary for the Mixed Use zone – including The Hub and 500 Ti Rakau Drive.
LFR is Non-Complying in the Light Industry zone, which includes places like Wairau Park and the Manukau Supa Centa. It’s tough luck for any retailers who want to set up shop there, including supermarkets. Trade suppliers are given a reprieve, as they are Restricted Discretionary.

How About Supermarket Competition? 

The Unitary Plan does more than Foodstuffs and Progressive ever could to entrench the supermarket duopoly. Supermarkets are Permitted only in the Metropolitan Centres and Town Centres.
"The Unitary Plan does more than
Foodstuffs and Progressive ever could
to entrench the supermarket duopoly."
They’re Restricted Discretionary in the Neighbourhood Centres (if they’re less
than 3,000 m2, of course), and elsewhere the best you can hope for is a
Discretionary consent. 

How About Retail in Your Neighbourhood? 

Dairies are Discretionary in the Single House zone, good luck getting one of those through. Restaurants and cafés up to 100 m2 are Non-Complying activities in Single House and Mixed Housing zones. Harmless businesses like Pasta Italia on Parnell’s Brighton Rd are to be feared! 
Service stations are Discretionary in the residential zones (if they’re on an arterial road), and most business zones. Fair enough, though, and there aren’t really a lot of service stations being built these days anyway – in fact, numbers have been dropping quite fast. 
The activities above get a better outcome than all other commercial activity, though, which is Non-Complying unless it’s home based. 

Where are the New Centres? 

A big concern is that most areas have to intensify but there isn’t a commensurate increase in commercially zoned area – in a few decades’ time, you might need to go to Hamilton to get your car fixed or buy furniture! It seems that the council only wants cafes, boutiques and artisan food stores in the neighbourhood. Westfield probably loves it – bring on the multi-level mall renovations… is it too late to buy back Shore City and Pakuranga? 
"Most areas have to intensify but
there isn’t a commensurate increase
in commercially zoned area."
"...land values in the Metropolitan and
Town centres will shoot up over the
next few decades."
One of the main points to take away from the Unitary Plan is that there’s a lot of opportunity in the larger centres. If the future turns out the way the council wants, land values in the Metropolitan and Town centres will shoot up over the next few decades. Higher demand for mixed-use activities and residential uses in business zones will mean much more intensive use of this land. Just look at how much population growth is expected here: 
Dwelling Growth to 2041, Showing 70-30 and 60-40 Growth Splits
Circle the Metro/ Town Centres columns

A Better City by Design? 

The “Auckland Design Manual”, which doesn’t yet exist, will sit along the Auckland Unitary Plan as a non-statutory guide. Our experience is that these documents take on a lot of importance. Follow the manual, even if it’s just ticking the boxes, and you’ll fly through, otherwise development becomes very tricky. The tension between “what retailers want” and “what urban designers want” continues, with the Council expressing a preference for carparks that are hidden away from view.

The “Rural Urban Boundary” 

The Auckland Council wants to replace the current urban limits with a Rural Urban Boundary, and for this to become the “line in the sand” which will absolutely not be crossed before 2041. 
You might wonder where this boundary is going to be, which is a fair question. Unfortunately, the Council is still thrashing this out, and the lines haven’t been finalised yet. But, to make a long story short, the Rural Urban Boundary is likely to allow for extensions (beyond the current limits) in:
  • The North – Silverdale and Warkworth 
  • The Northwest – Kumeu/ Huapai and Whenuapai 
  • The South – Pukekohe, Drury, Karaka, and areas in between More than half of the growth will be in southern Auckland.
This will mean up to 160,000 new homes in the areas marked with question marks in the drawing above, and no doubt Aucklanders will have plenty of questions!

The Final Word

Auckland is a large city by New Zealand standards, and people seem to enjoy living there. Auckland is growing and the Council’s job is to make sure this happens in a way that we won’t all regret 30 years from now.
The Auckland Council had the right idea with the Auckland Plan – a vision for a quality compact city, which acknowledged that a big chunk of Auckland’s growth would still need to happen at the fringes.

The Council went from there to the Auckland Unitary Plan, but it seems to us like a step has been missed somewhere. Did the public really buy into the vision? Have they really gotten on board with the idea of intensification? Certainly what’s being reported in the media suggests that there are large numbers of people up in arms about
the idea.

There are some innovative ideas in the plan – we like the part where residential density limits don’t apply where at least 1,200 m2 of land is being developed. This could lead to some comprehensively planned, high-quality developments, and we look forward to seeing the first ones off the blocks.

The lack of Terrace and Apartment Buildings land is an issue, though. And why wasn’t more done to up-zone the inner-city suburbs?

The real gold mine could be in the various Metropolitan and Town Centres, especially those where land is cheap at the moment. These few small areas across Auckland are expected to take on a big share of residential growth, which will also improve the viability of retailers and other businesses there. It’s win-win, and we’re already starting to see major development in formerly run-down areas like New Lynn. The versatility of this land will drive up its value.
Retail sometimes seems like a bit of an afterthought in the Auckland Unitary Plan. It’s certainly hard to see how Auckland’s retail space could expand as fast as its population. There isn’t a lot of new land zoned for business activities, so Auckland retailers may have to intensify just like the residents.

What really gives us pause, though, is that resource consents will be such an omnipresent feature of development. This means uncertainty and risk. The Council will have to ensure that good proposals are approved in a timely and cost-efficient manner, while not letting bad ones slip through the cracks – we’ve seen enough of those already. Overall, we think the Auckland Unitary Plan will make it harder to develop Auckland, not easier.

If you thought this was the plan that was going to allow Auckland to grow quickly and spread the burden relatively evenly across all areas, you will be sorely disappointed – our thoughts are that there will be a lot of justifiable complaints, and government intervention could be on the cards.


John Lenihan

John is recognised as New Zealand’s leading retail designer. He is a registered architect, retail strategist, as well as a multi-award winning designer. John has degrees in economics and architecture, and is an industry association leader.

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