Save our suburbs

by andrew.mcnulty / 28 January, 2012
Bill Ralston worries that planners are intent on doing for inner-city Auckland what quakes did for Christchurch.


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?
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