The Battle of Arch Hill: Bunnings vs Nimbys?

by Donna Chisholm / 27 November, 2013
Arch Hill residents are fighting plans for a Bunnings megastore in their close-knit neighbourhood — but are also up against accusations they’re just a bunch of wannabe Grey Lynn wankers.

Above: Anita Aggrey and Katie Sutherland of the Arch Hill Residents' Group. Photo by Stephen Langdon.

 

For the residents of Arch Hill, the backlash, when it came, was as unexpected as it was venomous.

One day they were fighting the Bunnings “big box” development planned for the Great North Rd ridge above their homes; the next they were defending an online barrage of accusations. Precious nimby wankers. Pretentious buffoons. What bloody up-themselves prats.

The suburb, “Merf” wrote on the NZ Herald website, “is infused with a sort of smugness which is unpleasant. The colour of gentrification appears to be taupe.”

Merf and the many other posters reflected the position of online columnist Shelley Bridgeman, who wrote, when commenting on the Bunnings protesters: “Scratch the surface of a Grey Lynn resident and you’ll often detect a whiff of self-congratulatory smugness that’s anathema to inhabitants of the rest of Auckland.”

This wasn’t about Bunnings per se, she wrote, but about “big business, consumerism, materialism — a trio of capitalist bogeys that any card-carrying citizen of the People’s Republic of Grey Lynn is honour-bound to fight to the bitter end”.

Of course, Bridgeman, a contented resident of Remuera — which has in its time also been accused of a certain smugness — is in the business of provocation; prodding readers into a response is a measure of the “success” of her contributions.

 

Before the Battle of Bunnings, many Aucklanders had probably never heard of Arch Hill, a community of about 150 century-old houses in a grid of fewer than 20 streets wedged on the slope between Great North Rd to the north and the Northwestern Motorway to the south. Arch Hill shares a postcode with Grey Lynn, but not the property values. The threat of Bunnings notwithstanding, that is changing. In October, the most expensive property ever sold in Arch Hill — a large four-bedroom villa in Home St — went for $1.39 million.

To some extent, the dreary and ad hoc developments along the Arch Hill end of Great North Rd have hidden this close-knit little neighbourhood from public view and council notice. A council urban designer has even admitted that he’d concentrated on the Great North Rd-facing aspect of the development when considering the Bunnings application — rather than the “local context” of the residential area behind it.

The residents haven’t minded the car yards — from the upmarket Audi and Bentley dealers to the less salubrious Buy Right Cars — or the drycleaners and the army depot. They didn’t mind Ambler & Co’s Summit shirt factory when it operated for more than 30 years at 272-302 Great North Rd, where Bunnings wants to be.

The factory backed on to the tiny Dean St cul-de-sac where Anita Aggrey has lived for the past two years in the property she’s owned since 1998. The obvious friction in the interface of a character-protected Residential 1 zone on one side of the street and a mixed zone accommodating businesses on the other has never manifested itself before, with both sides managing a courteous co-existence.

“My neighbour across the road who gets the cars ready for the sale yard gets to work early but doesn’t open the roller door till 8.30am, in his words, ‘in consideration for us’,” Aggrey says.

When she heard a rumour from Summit staff, early in 2011, that Bunnings had bought the site from the Ambler brothers, she called the council, who told her no application had been lodged for any development on the site. She wrote asking to be “kept in the loop”.

The Waitemata Local Board also recommended to the council that applications for the site should be notified — meaning residents would not only be informed, but have the right to challenge any proposals at resource consent hearings.

 

In April 2012, soon after having her second child, Aggrey again rang the council, only to be told that a company called Shetland Strong Ltd had been granted consent to develop a home-improvement centre in the existing building. Shetland Strong is a shelf company, whose directors are Bunnings’ Wellington lawyers, but no one was yet calling this place Bunnings.

Shelf companies are commonly used as a kind of “Trojan horse” to keep potentially commercially sensitive information about the buyer under wraps — in this case all the properties bought for the development went through shelf companies first and, in some cases, Bunnings was not listed as the owner until up to 18 months later.  Lawyers at Simpson Grierson, Bunnings’ Auckland legal firm, were directors of two other shelf companies through which land purchases for the site were also channelled.

The council told Metro it now has no record of Aggrey’s request for information, but it also ignored the recommendations of its own local board that the development be notified. Why? Because the council, without reference to the community around the store, deemed the likely impact of the proposal to be “less than minor”.

Building-improvement centres and other such big-box developments are not complying activities in a mixed-use zone like this. So how, the residents ask, could a non-complying business of such a size, which would ramp up truck traffic on a small residential street from 2-5 deliveries a day to 20 and customer traffic in the narrow streets nearby to around 2000 a day, possibly have a “less than minor” impact?

If the proposal for a store within the existing footprint of the Summit factory site was — in the minds of the Dean St residents at least — quite bad enough, things were about to get very much worse. Shortly after the consent came through, a third property in the same block became available, which Shetland Strong also snapped up.

Suddenly, the big Bunnings store was about to get substantially bigger. The second proposal, a 17-metre tall, four-storey building with underground parking, doubled the floor size from 4200 square metres to more than 8400. This time, the application was notified — but council processes failed, with some householders notified and their next-door neighbours not.

It is this application that has just been considered by a panel of planning commissioners, whose decision is due in early December. Both sides say they’ll appeal if it goes against them, meaning the fight will be off to the Environment Court. Bunnings general manager Jacqui Coombes told Metro the company “will always comply fully with the statutory requirements of the consents process”. She says it’s been keen to ensure the views of the local community are taken into account, and held an open day to “openly discuss” the application.

Coombes says the second proposal removed customer traffic from Dean St, helping to allay residents’ fears. She does not mention the additional truck movements required for the bigger store, which would see a truck arriving and leaving every 15 minutes between 9am and 3pm via a street which has a kindergarten on the corner.

 

For Arch Hill Residents Inc., battle HQ is Katie Sutherland’s tastefully renovated villa (yes, Merf, taupe reigns here) in King St, just a few doors down from the Bunnings site. The nucleus of this group — human resources manager Sutherland, Parnell primary school teacher Sue Lyons, wine consultant David Batten and stay-at-home mum and make-up artist Aggrey — have met here every week or so for many months.

Sutherland settled the purchase of this house in May last year, just a few weeks after the council approved the non-notified consent of the first application for a home improvement store, made by Shetland Strong. “I paid someone to go through the council records and they came back with a report and said, there’s nothing there, you’ve got no problems, go ahead.”

Lyons, a refugee from the Waterview tunnel project, bought several years ago but moved in only last year, while Batten has lived in Potatau St for 10 years.

The quartet have been stunned by what they regard as a laissez-faire and less-than-objective council attitude to the notification and consenting process. “They were saying we know what’s best for you, without asking us,’ says Sutherland.

Brian Putt, the urban planner who gave expert evidence for the group at the October resource consent hearings, agrees. Putt’s great-grandmother lived in Dean St and he remembers spending a lot of time there as a child. He hadn’t been back for 35 years until he was hired by the Arch Hill residents.

Putt says the test for a consent application to be notified — it needn’t be notified if the effects are less than minor — should be “a really difficult hurdle to jump. They jumped it because people weren’t being careful enough about that test. When you make that decision, you’re taking people’s rights away from them, so the onus is on the decision-maker to be very vigilant.”

He says even if the application was written in “glowing terms”, which had been the case here, “the council’s experts are in a position to see through all that and not be duped”.

Putt says while it’s often suggested that a council “can-do” attitude favourable to business interests might subconsciously influence its independent advisers, “I’ve never had that experience, perhaps because I’m a difficult bugger. But you often wonder how some things slide through and this is an example. You do wonder how someone was not cautious enough to say, this activity is way out of zone, it’s not expected by the district plan, surely the neighbours should be involved.

“Here we are with a mixed-use zone, a really important zone in the Unitary Plan because it’s the council’s way of getting more residential housing into these areas. It interfaces with Res 1, one of the most sensitive residential zones in the city — a special-character zone for heritage purposes — and the council is going against all its own intentions.”

The Res 1 zone means residents can’t demolish or remove any house built before 1940. The irony is that while the council routinely denies them permission to change the front of their properties to accommodate carports in an area of little off-street parking, it allows something the size of Bunnings to sprout across the road.

Metro asked Auckland Council about its handling of the Bunnings application.  It won’t comment on the non-notified consent for the first plan because that’s the subject of an upcoming judicial review, and it’s acknowledged “administrative errors” in the notification process for the latter proposal. Those errors have been identified and addressed, the council says, so there’s no need for any rethink on how such submissions are handled in future.



Putt says the unacceptable level of traffic the development would bring to the area is a sideshow. The real issue is the loss of the site for residential development on the city fringe. Residents had hoped Great North Rd would become an attractive boulevard mixing retail, restaurants and residential with light commercial en route to the central city.

He says the opprobrium directed at the residents is grossly unfair. “The people who’ve made the mistake here are Bunnings for not choosing a site that allowed them to function. I think they saw a marketing opportunity that was just beyond belief in terms of location.”

In other words, residents aren’t opposed to the site becoming a multi-storey block. If it was well-designed apartments, they’d welcome it. But Bunnings lawyer David Kirkpatrick told the consent hearing there was no requirement for developments in a mixed-use zone to have a residential component. “Opportunities are fine things but to be valuable, they must be taken. There is no authority to support the refusal of consent on the basis that something better may come along.”

He said Bunnings had reworked the traditional “big box” approach to “internalise” parking and timber-yard sales areas, and predictions of traffic chaos were “worst case” and based on the flawed premise that peaks for Bunnings use coincided with those for other road users. “There is no doubt that the weekday evening peak on Great North Rd presents challenges for everyone, but that is not when Bunnings attracts large numbers of customers.”  The hearing was told the usual Bunnings green would be replaced by a “simple deep cream” on the Dean St site, and architecturally its impact had been minimised.  The store would also employ about 120 people.

The residents’ fears remain.  They resent their portrayal as Grey Lynn nimbys — and it’s hard to discern which of the two descriptors in that phrase upsets them most.

“Arch Hill is grungier, the people are more eclectic,” says Lyons. “We’re Grey Lynn 20 years ago,” says Sutherland, “but we’re not aspiring to be Grey Lynn.”
She says locals who lived in Arch Hill for 30 years were “blown away” by the “mean-spirited” Bridgeman article and comments pitching the rest of Auckland against them. Bridgeman’s column appeared the day after the Herald reported that Nothing Trivial star Tandi Wright had made a written submission against the project, and that Seven Sharp presenter and Arch Hill resident Jesse Mulligan had signed a petition against it.

“Grey Lynn people protesting — it’s kind of an easy punch line,” Mulligan told Metro. “This dreary cliché, Grey Lynn darlings, First World problems; people love getting on that bandwagon, and who can blame them because jokes are hard to come by, as are subjects for a column.”

But he was perturbed when a journalist, “who I’d normally really respect”, tweeted a link to a Bunnings protest story, with the words, “Precious wankers”. Mulligan felt compelled to respond, “You’re having a go at people for protesting against a non-notifed consent for a hardware megastore next to a kindy?”

Mulligan and his partner, Victoria Dawson-Wheeler, who runs community website Arch Hill News, were first-home buyers when they moved in in 2011, “which says a lot about the values in the area”, he says. “It’s improved since then. We didn’t think it would be realistic to buy for another couple of years. When Victoria found the place on Trade Me, we saw from the map that it was in this place that didn’t seem all that appealing. It was perfect for us and we felt it was undiscovered.”

Mulligan says families moving into the area at the same time “looked a bit like us: mum and dad and one child under one, or pregnant and about to drop”.

It may be easy to knock these people from afar, but listening to the effort they’ve put in to prove their case — and to raise money — is to understand the scale of the fight residents take on when they challenge big business and council bureaucracy.

Sutherland, Aggrey and Lyons spent hours sitting in the carparks of Bunnings’ stores in Mt Wellington and Mt Roskill, counting cars, to check the company’s estimates the store would attract “only” 2000 cars a day.

They counted up to 2100 vehicle movements to and from each store in one three-hour Saturday period alone. Bunnings’ figures were based on outlets including those in less-populated provincial areas.

They’ve taken photos of Arch Hill streets chocka with cars — as they often are on Saturday mornings anyway, particularly if there’s a wedding at the Samoan Methodist Centre in King St.

In trying to be provocative, says Sutherland, Bridgeman “missed the emotional debt this community took on. I’ve been in tears over this, I’ve been so tired and frustrated. I’ve always had a lot of faith in Kiwis, but with the mean-spirited friggin’ Aucklanders who don’t like this community who’ve gone in with a knife to stick it to us… I’m really disappointed.”

Add Lyons: “Part of it’s the green-eyed monster. Grey Lynn has constantly been in the news because of the property values, but Arch Hill has missed out on that.”
Arch Hill real estate agent Keith Dowdle says while prices have increased since the $500,000-$665,000 the old villas were fetching five years ago, they’re still lagging behind Grey Lynn’s.

With about 25 sales a year, the area has been transformed from about 50 per cent rental stock into owner-occupied properties. The cheapest — a “do-up” in the sun-starved section nearest the Northwestern Motorway, will typically fetch $800,000-$850,000, while a “done-up” higher up the slope will fetch $1 million.
Barbara Stewart, an Arch Hill resident for the past 25 years, now lives with her mother in the 1880s Home St villa that’s been in the family for decades. She has seen the demographics change but not the spirit.

She knows the names of all her neighbours and what they do for a living. “I’ve never known such a strong sense of community.” She says that’s partly because all the houses face the street, and with no garages, residents will usually meet on the road as they head off to work.

“I think big business has taken advantage of a lesser-known area and turned a blind eye to any detrimental effect. What they didn’t consider is who actually lives here. They’re not putting up with nonsense.”

But Auckland councillor Cathy Casey, who represents the adjoining Albert-Eden-Roskill ward, says it’s often too hard for residents to take on the retail giants, as she’s seen in her area’s losses to developments by Westfield, McDonald’s and The Warehouse. “One of the things I’m on council for is to make sure people have a voice and these giants just march in, they’ve got lawyers, they’ve got money and the power to get what they want and I don’t think we’ve done anything to change that, to be honest.  Ordinary folk who say, ‘Actually, I don’t want that next door,’ find they’ve got all these mountains to climb. My heart goes out to them.”

 

Auckland’s home-improvement and hardware business is cut-throat. Bunnings reported an annual loss of $2.6 million last year, and the company is fighting hard to increase its market share.

“It’s really in-your-face competition, so to deal with a neighbourhood is nothing compared with what they’re used to,”  says Putt.

He says Bunnings must have known from the outset its plans didn’t comply with the mixed-use zone, but it went ahead and applied for an exemption anyway. “It’s worth a punt. They could have had an easy ride if the community had backed away. They might have had 100 people standing up and raving, and they could have just swatted them away like mosquitoes.

“It probably came as a bit of a shock to find in this case they’re faced with a very articulate and skilled community who had a good vision of what they wanted to achieve and were prepared to put their shoulder into raising money to run a good case.”

The group’s lawyer, barrister Alan Webb, says he wasn’t convinced he had that good a case to start with, but was relatively quickly moved.

“I said, ‘Well, what’s your gripe, what’s so bad? It’s Great North Rd, it’s Bunnings, what’s your problem?’ Then I started putting myself in their position and getting my head around what they were dealing with and the light came on for me. If you scratch the surface of this application, there are some big holes in what they’ve applied for and they’ve glossed over some really serious issues, mainly the traffic. I thought, ‘Gee, there’s something in this.’”

He believes the council has a “real culture of non-notification” of applications, since a change to the threshold about 10 years ago, which allowed for impacts “less than minor” to escape the notification process.

Webb says because the Arch Hill residents didn’t have a lot of money, they had to pick their issues. He’d warned them that legal challenges did not come cheaply. “There’s no point saying you’ve got $20,000 in the bank and think you’re going to have a chance.”

Is it fair that a group of residents has to stump up thousands of dollars to challenge a non-complying development that could fundamentally alter their daily life? No, he agrees, but he struggles to think of a fairer system.

“No one has budgeted or planned for it; no one needs it; it takes time out of their lives, but that’s just a consequence of living in the city.”

Webb says the intensity of the traffic meant Bunnings would effectively turn Dean St into its own private accessway. “This was putting a square peg in a round hole. I don’t think anything the residents said was unreasonable. That was the beautiful thing about acting for these people. They’re really proud and they’ve turned these arcane, rustic little streets into a vibrant community.”

Not spoiled nimby brats? “When I tried to put myself in their position, I asked, ‘Would I like this?’ The answer is no.”

Update: in November council commissioners granted Bunnings consent to proceed. Arch Hill residents are appealing the decision.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Metro.
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