Save our suburbs

By Bill Ralston In Life

Print Share
28th January, 2012 5 comments

Getty Images

It’s slowly dawning on me that I’m about to lose the suburb I live in. Over the next decade or so, many of the heritage buildings will go and the Victorian villas that make up the majority of homes in the neighbourhood will be torn down.

It’s a tragedy that Christchurch has already lost hundreds of its inner-city heritage sites, city blocks yawn emptily and entire long-established suburbs are on death row — but that has been brought about by natural calamity. In Auckland we are about to achieve the same desolate effect by a demented act of will.

In a couple of months the Auckland Draft Plan will be completed, and in the name of reducing urban sprawl, it seems it will declare that 75% of new dwellings must be built within existing city boundaries and only 25% constructed in “greenfields” environments in the countryside. In one of those glorious euphemisms employed by local bodies and the military, it is called “housing intensification”.

What it really means for my suburb of Freemans Bay is the charming three-bedroom villas will fairly rapidly be destroyed and replaced by modern multi-unit developments and tower blocks to maximise available inner-city space for many more people to “dwell” in. I note the planners have replaced the warm word “home” with the clinically cold “dwelling”. I don’t want to be a dweller on the 17th floor of a high-rise.

It’s not just Freemans Bay that would go. Ponsonby, St Mary’s Bay, into Herne Bay, presumably out through Grey Lynn to the furtherest extent of the Western Bays, these graceful old suburbs will suffer the same fate. Similarly, the harbourside suburbs of the North Shore and many old established suburbs to the south will suffer high-rise “intensification”. In my case, our local community, as I know it, will be destroyed.

Mine is a street where many people know their neighbours. The local coffee shop, Agnes Curran, is like the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, a place where we meet, pick up the local gossip and occasionally rally for some fit of community action. For some odd reason the street takes pride in festooning virtually every house with a deluge of lights every Christmas and many thousands of Aucklanders come to enjoy the sight. When the old two-storey brick hotel at the bottom of the street was threatened by the construction of a motorway tunnel, the community rallied and helped ensure the pub didn’t just move up the hill to avoid disaster but was moved back to its landmark position at the bottom.

There have been a few new houses built in the area, but as three- or four-bedroom homes, they largely fit in with the character of those around them. Now, as land values increase, Auckland Council seems determined to allow the demolition of homes that have sat on their sites for 120 years or more and their replacement by modernistic carbuncles. Still, at least they are homes and not “dwellings”.

My elderly neighbour, Violet, lived in the suburb all her life and had been in the house next to us for more than 70 years. She once explained how during the war our place was a house of ill repute, rendering great service to much of the US Marine Corps. She died recently and her rather rundown old house is on the market. The value of the land on which it sits is such that I have nightmares of someone putting a bulldozer through the house and, in the spirit of “intensification”, plopping a multi-unit carbuncle on the site.

Freemans Bay was originally a working-class suburb on the city fringe. Over the years parts of it deteriorated into a slum with sly-groggers and illegal brothels, but despite this, or perhaps because of it, it has always had a strong community spirit. In the 1960s some urban planner decided a council-run slum clearance project was required and around Wellington St the bulldozers moved in, the residents were evicted with poor compensation, and blocks of landscaped modern units built.

They’ve proved to be nice homes. But if the council had waited only 10 years more it would have seen the area regenerate, as did the rest of Freemans Bay, when young couples moved into the dilapidated villas and renovated them. It would have spared the residents of the area and the ratepayers of Auckland a lot of grief and cash had the council held off its well-meaning “slum clearance”, for the slum cleared itself.

The council is again headed for a well-meaning disaster. In my dotage I’m to be condemned to living in a 17th-floor rabbit hutch. If I wanted to live in Hong Kong, I would have moved there. When is the next local body election?

28th January, 2012 5 comments

More by Bill Ralston

Comments Skip to Comment form

5 Responses to “Save our suburbs”

  1. Owen McShane Feb 5 2012, 10:18am

    The story of Freeman's Bay is largely correct but wrong in some important details and the real story adds weight to Ralston's general argument.
    When I joined the new Urban Development Team in Auckland City in the mid sixties one of our first tasks was to under the mess unfolding in Freeman's Bay/Ponsonby caused by the Urban Renewal programme initiated by the MInistry of Works and strongly supported my Mayor Robbie.

    Our research soon found that the "slum down" of the Bay was being caused by the programme and in particular by the stringent rule that one could not rebuild on any lot smaller than24 perches. Most were about 10 - 12p.
    This meant that you could not insure your house against fire which meant you could not raise mortgage finance.
    So our team set about creating ordinances etc to enable decent houses to be built on small sites and built some demonstration prototypes to test them in the real world. Most of actually lived in what we had specified.
    There is quite a story to tell but once the new rules were written into the District Plan then renovation and rebuilding took off. People who wanted to move out to get closer to their work in Penrose could do and make enough money for a new house and car. No one was forced out.
    After I returned from the US I lived in one of townhouses (I invented the word) on the flats and after a couple of years, (in 1972) bought a villa at 28 Hepburn St for $10,000. My lawyer advised against buying property in such a slum. I did it up and it is now listed as a Historic Place. And worth more than I want to know.
    Freemans bay rejuvenated without any need for MULs or RUBs. And indeed once we applied these new enabling rules to the whole city medium density intensification boomed – but without density being regarded as a virtue but simply a means of increasing choice.
    Once the Smart Growth (Dense thinking) gang took charge everything went downhill.
    Report Report
  2. Jeremy Reynolsd Feb 3 2012, 8:34am

    Great article Bill
    Planners have no respect for or appreciation of the city's heritage. Not sure where our elected representatives stand on this it appears the planners are calling the shots. But it is not just inner city suburbs that are threatened. Old established suburbs with villas, bungalows and lots of trees will be in line for rezoning so high density "dwellings" can be rammed into the city along "growth corridors" etc. All this to meet the "compact city" goals of containg 75% of new population growth inside current city limits. No thanks
    Report Report
  3. Geoff Houtman Jan 30 2012, 10:34am

    Bill, luckily Freemans Bay and Ponsonby are two of the densest developed suburbs in Auckland already (Auckland Plan Para 486) and although marked as "City Fringe" are not slated for more intensification.

    Well, that's what they say right now.

    You are right to fear the destruction of the Victorian villas though, as events in Paget Street and Hepburn Street show us- people will do almost anything to build a carbuncle in Freemans Bay.

    This is why Proper protection must be given to our heritage areas, not the weak lip service in the current plans.

    Save Our Hood!
    Report Report
  4. DeepRed Jan 28 2012, 10:23pm

    Ever been to Vancouver, Mr Ralston? Here in Wellington, like San Francisco, there isn't much choice to grow fatter rather than taller. And what if another major war erupted in the Middle East and pushed up oil prices? This column goes to show that Dickensian attitudes from Wakefield's New Zealand Company days haven't changed much.

    On the other hand, lessons can be learnt from the shoeboxes that sprung up in central Auckland. Not too long ago, the Auckland City Council imposed a minimum floor area (about 35-45 sq m), which effectively halted the shoebox bugbear.
    Report Report
  5. Richard Harris Jan 27 2012, 7:21pm

    What a bizzarre post of elitist self interest? Did Bill use to edit the Metro? A man of intellect? I don't believe he wrote this. Who said Grey Lynn et al were going to be bulldozed to build 20 story apartments? How absurd.

    The city needs to build in city limits so areas continue to be regenerated like you mention Ponsonby Grey Lynn Freeman Bay have done. If the city keeps extending slums don't regenerate as developers just build new homes further and further out scretching infrastructure. Restricting limits mean they need to focus on your more undesirable areas.

    THere is nothing wrong with quality medium density homes. It just will give a greater choice of homes. I'm sure you'll still be able to live your life content in your villa in your elitist hood.
    Report Report

Post a Comment

You must be to post a comment.

Switch to mobile version