I'm writing to you because of the differences I am discovering between the urban design of Wellington and the urban design of Auckland, and because I want the best urban design for Auckland as it regenerates, redevelops and rebuilds.
In a nutshell, what's bad about Auckland's urban design is reflected in the public amenity that was built on Princes Wharf, and what's good about Wellington's urban design is the public amenity that has been built on its waterfront over a similar planning period.
Urban designers and architects were engaged by Auckland regulatory authorities during the planning and consenting stages of Princes Wharf. Their involvement and sign-off did play a critical role in the outcomes that are on display on Princes Wharf. But the fundamental influences for the imbalance between private benefit and public benefit outcomes was weak planning on the part of Auckland Regional Council, increased rates revenue priorities for Auckland City Council, and the pursuit by Ports of Auckland Limited of its corporate "successful business" objective.
Similar temptations existed for Wellington City Council and Ports of Wellington Ltd, but the planning environment there evolved differently from Auckland's - despite much the same legislation being in place. This was primarily because of the engagement over time of its professional urban designers, landscape architects, architects and planners - sometimes formally, sometimes through structures rather like Auckland's Urban Design Panel, and sometimes informally. Whistle blowers.
I am writing to you today because I am concerned you may be playing the same role for Precinct Properties regarding its Downtown development proposals, as did the professionals who were engaged in assessing Kitchener Group proposals for Princes Wharf 15 years ago.
Terms of Reference describe the thinking behind, and function of, Auckland's Urban Design Panel. I think these extracts are especially pertinant:
This thinking is in line with The Auckland Plan, which: “Demands good design in all development”; “Realises quality compact urban environments”, and “Seeks to create enduring neighbourhoods...."
Benefits of design panels are considerable and include: Identifying weak and inappropriate schemes at an early stage, when significant design changes can be made with relatively little waste of time and effort; Putting schemes in perspective and seeing the bigger picture; Questioning the design brief or site assumptions and thus opening up new opportunities for improved development....
The review undertaken by the panel is not limited to the scope of the District Plan, but is intended to encourage best practice approaches to development, specific to a site’s context, that support the overarching objectives of the Auckland Plan; recommendations from the Panel are to assist Council officers in forming their professional opinions with respect to a proposal and the requirements of the District Plan.
The Panel may also make recommendations to the Council for regulatory changes, decision-making on modifications to infrastructure or development on sites that may be outside the scope of an application itself, but should be considered for the benefit of creating a quality urban environment.
In reviewing proposals the Panel will focus on the appropriateness of the building or development in relation to its physical, social and cultural context.... In striving for excellence in design the Panel will consider the overall quality of the development and its architecture, as well as its appearance from the street and public spaces, and contribution to the sustainable development of Auckland.
Elements the Panel might typically look at (include): ...How the development works for both users and the public, e.g. the relationship of public and private realms; safety for users and passers-by; circulation and servicing; treatment of public and semi-public spaces....
There is growing public interest in Auckland's downtown area and how it might be developed. Auckland Council is currently engaging the public about proposals for public spaces that might be paid for through the sale of Queen Elizabeth Square (a proposal which itself has not been canvassed with the public). Auckland Council has prepared - but not consulted - its "Downtown Planning Framework". This is not a masterplan, it is a collection of ideas which are largely unfunded, and which lacks credibility particularly because of its inadequacy regarding bus transport planning.
I am personally acquainted with many members of Auckland Council's Urban Design Panel, and trust you not to rubber-stamp Downtown proposals without giving them your full professional attention. But in the absence of a plan change for the area, robust downtown master-planning - particularly in regard to the public realm and passenger transport operations, it will be challenging to deliver the promises and potential contained in your terms of reference when assessing Precinct Properties proposals in isolation.