Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Down and up or down and out? Confused heritage thinking in city hall

Oh no, not another one
Another overseas expert has been called in to tell us how to do our business here in Auckland.  Peter Marquis-Kyle, a heritage architect, spoke to councillors, officers and heritage advocates about how they protect old houses in Brisbane.  There the default heritage planning position is that all old houses are protected and can only be demolished if owners can successfully argue why that should be allowed.

Now it seems that Auckland Council is seriously considering new rules that would ban the demolition of all pre-World War II houses.  The exceptions would be houses that are damaged beyond repair. Apparently these rules would apply to "23,344 houses in the existing character zones of the inner city suburbs, Devonport, Birkenhead and Northcote, plus thousands more pre-World War II houses being identified in other parts of the city”.

Looking backwards
So much for heritage policy identifying and protecting those markers of the past worthy of preserving and passing through the generations.  We seem to have lost the capacity to discriminate and to balance the needs of multiple generations – past, present, and future.

If all dwellings over seventy years old are worth preserving, no doubt in 20 years time the suburbs of the 1950s will qualify, and then those of the 1960s.  The urban heritage of my generation that will qualify for blanket protection will be the sprawling suburbs that mark the triumph of automobility . 

I might have no problem with such move but I suspect there will be some serious confusion in city hall where such suburbs are anathema to the compact city brigade. 

So, how does this affect the Auckland Plan?
Development expert Martin Udale recently told the Auckland Council that if it wished to achieve its ambitious plans for urban consolidation and medium density residential growth, it needed to rethink its approach.  For starters, the targets set out in the Auckland Plan require the demolition of perhaps 15% of housing stock.  As the Plan calls for consolidation around existing centres and the CBD, demolitions need to be more extensive in these areas, the very areas in which pre-World War II houses are concentrated.  So now the Council is thinking about adopting heritage rules in its proposed Unitary Plan that will frustrate the compact city vision shaping its adopted spatial plan. 

Given the Auckland Plan’s unrealistic emphasis on compacting Auckland, perhaps there is a silver lining in this cloud of confusion!

But the latest proposal certainly doesn’t look like the sort of rethink Martin suggested was needed.  Because now the Council is planning to put a large chunk of the housing stock that has to go if it is to fulfil its vision out of the reach of the bulldozer – or at least substantially lift the cost of pulling it down in favour of multi-unit housing.  And cost is already one of the reasons that the Council’s plans for upping medium density housing are running into downdrafts. 

Is the Council really prepared to further frustrate its recently completed spatial plan in order to follow Brisbane’s indiscriminate approach to heritage?

Some other questions
Before we can take this latest silly idea seriously, we might ask a few more questions.
  1. Where is the consultation and analysis that might underpin this particular silver bullet?  The occasional controversy over the odd demolition is not all that unhealthy because it raises awareness and stirs debate.  This move will only stir resentment
  2. Is this a make-work plan for under-employed city planners?  Just how much time and money is absorbed in pedantic resource consents processes and opportunities lost to conservative decision-making, and how much more will be lost if this rule is introduced?
  3. Or is this initiative a further joining of the legions as planners, already leaning on reinforcements from urban design to justify resisting discretionary resource consent applications, can now add heritage architecture to shore up their resistance to change?
  4. Have the protagonists of this approach even considered the state of repair of many of these houses, not yet ready for demolition but already a liability for their owners,  especially now that earthquake risk and readiness are on the public agenda?
  5. How far will old houses now be left to deteriorate by their owners until they are beyond repair?  And what will that do for our inner city rental stock?
  6. The Council is proposing a sledgehammer to crack a nut.  So what will happen to the sales of sledge hammers that might be more gainfully employed– to shift a pile, bend a beam, or strike a stud?
  7. Has the Fire Service been consulted?
No easy answers
It is hard not to be cynical in the face of shallow policy thinking.  But heritage is not easy, and there are no quick fixes.  It inevitably involves the application of subjectivity and exposes conflicting values that need to be worked through.  It requires trade-offs to be made, and sacrifices.  What the public really values it may have to pay for, and not simply shift the burden of preservation onto the private sector. 

There is no silver bullet in this area, and we need to be suspicious of those who tell us that there is. 

Multi-purpose, multi-layered, multi-metaphored
Perhaps the problem of shallow thinking lies in the confusion of goals in a large, multi-layered, multi-purpose behemoth.  Creating a super council in Auckland was not the way to get the region moving forward.   Not only do we now have the poacher as gamekeeper and mountain-making out of molehills in our council, but it also looks rather like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. 
How confused - and confusing - is that?  And how costly will it prove to be?



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