More houses than light rail
Last week the Coalition for More Homes sent a letter that we really shouldn’t have written. But first, some background and a few acronyms.
Auckland Council is required to implement the government planning reforms known as NPS-UD and MDRS.
Really, these reforms should have been called AMOTAOHACCATST: a huge opportunity to address our housing and climate crises at the same time.
Now we knew early on that Auckland Council didn’t see things the way we do. On the one hand, the “walkable watersheds” around rapid transit have been kept as small as possible, 800 meters, with the same distances used whether the station is in Drury or Newmarket. On the other hand, it seems that there is no advantage in the “6+ floors”, just 6 floors, whether you are in Drury or Newmarket.
And then the Council planning team used huge amounts of resources to figure out how many special character areas they could keep unchanged (games with the system if necessary). It seems too much time has been spent there, at the expense of a well-coordinated response elsewhere – although we will find out for sure on August 20, when the Council tables its main response to the planning reforms.
We now know that we have a whole new battle to fight: The board wants “delay the implementation of the [NPS-UD and MDRS] in Auckland’s light rail corridor »everywhere except downtown. This one flew under the radar, and hardly anyone noticed; cynics might suggest that was the plan all along.
The area affected by this delay is huge: 37 km² according to our estimate (including 26 km² in the isthmus outside the city center, and 11 km² in Mangere). This is at least double the size of all special character fields combined. In addition, the section of the isthmus is very well served by transport and well served by amenities – an area with high demand for housing, and therefore a vital area for densification. There is a lot at stake.
As our letter says:
“This last-minute call to pause 37km² in the most connected part of our city seriously undermines the intent of the planning reforms. It risks prolonging our housing crisis and deepening our climate crisis, and constitutes a huge change from the Council’s previous position as communicated to the public.
[Auckland Council] framed the decision to delay on the grounds that “more intensive development in the Auckland light rail corridor is planned” – relying on a transport project that is unfunded, uncertain and cannot access a process simplified hearing to allow accommodation more quickly.
In effect, this resolution reinforces the status quo, forcing housing to relocate to pristine areas like Drury and Whenuapai, and scattering them across the city in places that will never be as well connected as Kingsland or Onehunga are today. today.
Auckland City Council should jump at the chance to allow more housing in an already very accessible and highly desirable core area – bringing us closer to a quality compact city that can equitably reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and where people can afford safe housing”.
To be clear, the Council does not intend to increase the area everywhere in this corridor, with the exception of the city centre. The corridor includes or affects five stations: Karanga in Hape, Maungawhau, Grafton, Kingsland and Morningside. It also includes the entire southern fringe of the town center and seven town centers from St Lukes to Mangere, as well as a large number of local centres.
The corridor covers the whole of Dominion Rd and Sandringham Rd – some of Auckland’s best frequent transit routes, which already have bus lanes – and quite a wide area around them. The light rail will only run on one of these two streets, but they are both blocked, as well as all other areas that have an obvious sense of densification…due to a possible future project. The council says this possible project takes precedence over the City Rail Link, the Auckland 2050 plan and all the other plans and aspirations that make this corridor a logical place to ride in area.
We take a relentlessly positive outlook on things – at least until the planning hearing begins, then we will be positively relentless – so our letter to Council spoke of ’10 vital reasons to allow housing now in the project [Auckland Light Rail] corridor’. These reasons are:
- It’s a huge opportunity. The potential ALR corridor covers 26 km2 in the heart of the isthmus, encompassing the southern fringe of the city centre, five stations including Karanga at Hape and Maungawhau, seven city centers and numerous local centres. [Plus another 11 sq km in Māngere]. While special character areas have been the subject of much public debate, the ALR corridor is more than twice as large.
- It is a privileged space for housing. The size of the corridor underscores how vital this area is to central and well-planned intensification, with already excellent local and city-wide access via many modes of transport to services and destinations.
- We can plan now with confidence. The implementation of NPS-UD and MDRS in this area gives appropriate planning weight to a potential future transmission project that is still uncertain and unfunded, i.e. very little weight.
- New housing can start in 2023, not 2028. The Intensification Planning Instrument process will allow intensification at least 5 years sooner than waiting for the ALR alignment to be (potentially) confirmed.
- It’s financially prudent and the only option for the climate. Allowing intensification along this corridor will result in greater adoption of public and active transportation, reduced transportation emissions, and curb sprawl into pristine areas. Together, this will mean lower transport costs for Aucklanders and lower infrastructure costs for the Council.
- This is consistent with the Council’s duty to consult on important issues. Resolution PLA/2022/86 is a major departure from the policy direction set by the NPS-UD and MDRS, and the public and mana whenua did not have an opportunity to comment on the corridor during the public consultation from April to May 2022.
- It is consistent with the Council’s duty to conduct its business in an open and transparent manner. Only three points were provided to the public as justification for the June 30 resolution, offering very limited evidence of the thinking behind the planning committee’s decision.
- This is consistent with the Council’s own arguments against the 2021 Housing Bill, in particular the concern that “the MDRS is encouraging a model of dispersed growth in places that are not currently well served by public transport, and in some cases will not be never”.
- It is in line with the Board’s key plans and strategiesfrom the Regional Land Transport Plan to the Auckland 2050 Plan to Te Tāruke-ā-Tāwhiri: the Auckland Climate Plan, all of which identify this corridor as a key growth axis and steer you towards a more compact, sustainable and equitable city , capable to survive the decades to come.
- It’s legally and ethically the right thing to do and removes a huge reputational risk to the Council.
The Council has probably paid for the best legal and planning advice money can buy. They had to find someone who said ‘you box ignoring planning reforms in the corridor” (although we and others will dispute this at the hearing). But that doesn’t mean they should do it.
What does “delay” mean in practice? Auckland council staff spoke about this at the last planning committee meeting: they said it would only be a 12-18 month delay for things to start, until the route and location of stations are confirmed. No doubt this will also be their response to our letter.
But that really distorts the picture. Everything has been put in place to give a thoughtful and streamlined approach to the review of the NPS-UD and MDRS reforms in Auckland, starting August 20. The government has put new rules in place to speed up the process, and it is expected to take a year – that is, by the end of 2023 all the reforms will be in place (and indeed the MDRS is expected to come into effect immediately on August 20 this year).
The light rail is in a totally different position. The government has a favorite ‘tunnel’ option for the City to Airport project, and it’s little more than just an ‘idea on the page’ – but it still has 3-4 years of consent and design to go. This preferred option leaves much to be desired, from a Greater Auckland perspective: for the same amount of money, Auckland could build two surface-level lines from the city to the airport as well as from the city to Westgate.
At $15 billion, it is the most expensive transport project ever considered in New Zealand (in fact, perhaps roughly equal to what an additional road crossing of Waitemata Harbor would cost), and at minus twice the cost of the City Rail Link. It’s also not currently funded and, at least from Greater Auckland’s perspective, it’s not the best way to invest $15 billion in our transit system.
If the current tunnel option remains the “preferred”, will the route and the stations be known in 12 to 18 months? Probably, but there’s a lot going on in that time: a Council election and a government election too – with any change in government likely to mean big changes for the project, or outright cancellation.
And even if none of that happens, in 12 to 18 months the project will still be less than halfway through its concept period and it won’t be funded yet. This means that it will still not count for NPS-UD purposes, as proposed transit projects must have some certainty of funding (i.e. funding is allowed within the next 10 years ).
In our opinion, the tram project would not be ready to file a change of plan for NPS-UD purposes for another 3-4 years, once the design work has been completed and only if the financing has been confirmed. A number of things could derail the project during this time. Even if all goes well, the plan change itself would take at least 2 more years to become operational under a standard (not streamlined) planning process. We would therefore be talking about the end of 2028 at the earliest, i.e. a delay of at least 5 years.
It appears to us that the planning committee, made up of all councilors and two representatives of the Maori Independent Statutory Council, was misled by council staff. Honestly, we don’t think they realized the seriousness of this situation. They spent all their time discussing the special character, and no one pointed out to them how crucial the area in the tram corridor is to the development of Auckland.
At its meeting this Thursday, August 4, the planning committee has one more chance to get it right and say that it didn’t understand the full context of the decision it made in June. We really hope they do. But we are skeptical that a change will come now, and we are ready to argue in the hearings process instead.
See our full letter here.