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Central Area design guide and review – Wellington City Council

Fast facts

Publication title: District Plan Change 48 Central Area Review

Subject: Statutory Central Area Design Guide implemented in conjunction with the objectives and policies contained in chapter 12 and the rules contained in chapter 13 of the Wellington District Plan

Location: Wellington City Council, Central Area

Purpose: General guidance for new buildings, and significant additions and modifications to existing buildings in the Central Area

Format: Specific and detailed design objectives are set out in each section, followed by generic guidelines

Website link: http://www.wellington.govt.nz

Case study researcher: Jeremy Blake, Senior Policy Advisor, Planning Policy Wellington City Council

Introduction

Wellington City Council (the Council) has included design guides in the Wellington District Plan (the District Plan) since the late 1980s. The first design guide was developed in response to the poor quality of many of the buildings that were being built during the property boom of the mid-to-late 1980s. When the Resource Management Act was introduced in 1991, the design guide approach was maintained and expanded because it was seen as a natural fit for the ‘effects-based’ planning regime introduced by the new legislation. Each building could be assessed on a site-by-site basis, rather than through the blanket application of rule-based planning tools such as plot ratios and mandatory building setbacks.

The first design guide covered office development in the Central Area zone, which encompassed the majority of the central business district of Wellington from the port land to the north, through to the Basin Reserve in the south. This was quickly followed by two special character area design guides covering Cuba Street and Courtenay Place within the Central Area. By 2005, the District Plan contained no less than 15 design guides, with five applying within the Central Area.

The design guides were implemented through the District Plan as Controlled Activities. This activity status was chosen to provide a degree of certainty to applicants (Controlled Activities cannot be declined, the Council can only impose conditions) and to help gain acceptance of the approach.

In 2005, the Council began a comprehensive review of the Central Area chapters of the District Plan. The review gave the Council the opportunity to reassess the appropriateness of the urban design controls that applied to the Central Area in light of recent development trends, changes in legislation, evolving case law and the District Plan effectiveness monitoring that had already been undertaken.

Wellington’s central area is the commercial and business heart of the city.

Wellington's central area is characterised by a ‘High City’ and a ‘Low City’.

Monitoring the effectiveness of the design guides

The Council began monitoring the effectiveness and efficiency of its district plan in 2003. Given the importance of design guides in the District Plan, assessing the effectiveness of the guides was a key component of the District Plan monitoring programme.

The Anticipated Environmental Results (AERs) for the Central Area’s design-based objectives and policies provided the benchmark to test whether those policies and objectives had been achieved. The AERs for the Central Area were:

  • buildings have design qualities that create a positive relationship to public spaces and the wider city setting; and

  • special qualities of identified character areas are maintained and enhanced.

From the AERs, a series of questions was developed by the Council to analyse if the design guides and rules to implement them were:

  • achieving their stated aims

  • improving design outcomes

  • efficient and effective tools for achieving quality design outcomes

  • promoting innovation and creative built environment solutions.

To answer the questions, a selection of approved resource consent applications (that involved an urban design review) were assessed and monitored by an independent Auckland-based urban designer (Barry Rae, Transurban) to understand if the guides created quality building outcomes. It was considered important to engage an urban designer who was not overly familiar with the local development market or involved in the development of the guidelines, thereby helping to ensure that the monitoring results would be free from bias.

Between July 2000 (the operative date of the District Plan) and December 2004, the Council processed 213 resource consent applications for additions and alterations to Central Area buildings or the construction of new buildings (under Rule 13.2.1 of the District Plan). Because of financial constraints, only 20 buildings within three of the six most commonly used Central Area design guides were monitored (these were the Central Area Design Guide, the Courtenay Character Design Guide and the Cuba Character Design Guide).

Barry Rae viewed each consent file, visited the site and spoke with the designer of each development. The purpose of these discussions was to elicit views about the effectiveness of the design guides from a user’s perspective.

Monitoring results

The main finding of the monitoring was that, of the 20 developments assessed, 60 percent achieved an urban design rating better than average. With 35 percent of the developments rated as good or exemplary.

This meant that 40 percent of the buildings studied did not obtain favourable design outcome assessments. Because of this, the monitoring report concluded that the design guides were not achieving their stated aims as well as they should be. However, the report was clear in stating that the design guides had a positive influence on urban design quality compared with the likely results of not having guidelines in place.

We have found no evidence of the design guides stifling innovation and creativity. The remainder of the developments would have benefited from a more creative approach, the lack of which was not caused by the design guides. In fact, the poorer design outcomes suggest the need for stronger and more effective design guidance.

The monitoring also identified that there was frustration within the development community relating to the design guides. Prior to the monitoring study, staff within the Council had already recognised that the content of some of the design guides was out of date. The monitoring report identified that this concern was shared by members of the development community.

Many of the designers of the selected developments did not find the guidelines particularly helpful for the reasons that they are obsolete, vague, arbitrary or inapplicable to a specific situation. Further, many of the designers expressed frustration with the pre-application process because of personal views, conservative opinions and conflicting interpretations.

The monitoring report also revealed that some applicants were frustrated at the lack of consistency in advice received from the multiple disciplines within the Council involved in assessing resource consent applications:

Conflicting opinions were generally created by the differing approaches of different disciplines within Council, namely traffic engineering, wind engineering, heritage conservation, urban design and planning, to design elements of common interest.

The monitoring identified several issues with the design guides. These were:

  • some of the content was out of date with a focus on 1980s and 1990s large office blocks rather than the mixture of uses and building typologies that had emerged in recent years, such as rooftop additions, balconies, residential apartments and street level alterations

  • the guides were not effective when implemented by way of a Controlled Activity rule because of the fact that applications could not be declined and the Council was limited in the scope of design-related conditions it could impose

  • the limitations of the Controlled Activity status were often exacerbated by the relaxed bulk and location standards applying in the Central Area and the application of ‘permitted baseline’ scenarios to new developments

  • Council design staff were often not involved early enough in the design process to integrate positive urban design elements into the proposal

  • the District Plan did not deal well with conflicting issues (such as design, building height, heritage protection, pedestrian wind effects and signage) and needed a holistic approach to stop poor design outcomes

  • the character areas were poorly defined (including large parts that did not share the characteristic features of the area) affecting the relevancy of the character guidelines to sites located outside the ‘core’ of the area.

The monitoring recognised that Wellington was generally seeing improved design outcomes because of the existence of the design guides, and the approach taken (to use design guides in the District Plan) was good. However, the guides and their implementation were not as effective as they should be, and the policies, rules, and guidelines needed to be updated to keep them relevant and improve their effectiveness. The Council’s own internal processes required further refinement to ensure that the effectiveness of the design guides was not undermined by process issues.

In addition to issues raised by the monitoring, the Council was aware of several other matters that needed to be resolved. These were the operative District Plan allowing for 100 percent of a site being able to be built up to the maximum height, leading to:

  • apartments being built with principal windows located on the boundary wall

  • apartments being reliant on neighbouring properties remaining vacant to retain daylight and outlook

  • new buildings with poor relationships to listed heritage buildings, with substantially larger buildings being developed immediately adjacent to a listed heritage item.

New buildings with poor relationships to a listed heritage building.

Design process

Central Area review (Plan Change 48)

In 2005, the Council began work on the full review of the Central Area chapters of the District Plan (eventually notified as Plan Change 48). Commitment to achieving high-quality urban design in the Central Area through the District Plan provisions was a key aspect of the review, and supported by councillors and key stakeholders in workshops held prior to notification.

Prior to Plan Change 48, the focus for development fell largely on compliance with the rules regarding height, site coverage, wind and servicing, with issues of context and design coming (an often distant) second. The challenge for the Council was to reverse this mindset so that new buildings were designed in response to their setting, rather than just to the bulk and location rules in the District Plan.

Urban design issues

The Council had an established history of design control on which to build when it reviewed the Central Area chapters of the District Plan. The challenge for the review was how to work smarter and ensure that the District Plan provisions were as effective as possible. The project team for the review included: from the Council Gerald Blunt (urban designer), Barbara Fill (heritage advisor), Jeremy Blake, Elizabeth Moncreiff, Marian Smith (planning advisors) and consultant Graeme McIndoe (architect and urban designer). A key task for the team was to better integrate the wide range of district plan provisions that contributed to the built form of the central city. The three major areas identified as influencing built outcomes in the Central Area were building height, design criteria and heritage protection. Other design factors that influenced built outcomes included active frontages, management of wind effects, vehicle access restrictions, sunlight, access to parks and the creation of vacant lots.

In terms of the management of new buildings and their impact on the quality of public spaces, the Central Area review made the following changes:

  • a complete review of the content of all Central Area design guides, to update them and direct the focus to key urban design principles

  • the design guides were restructured to remove duplication, with a single Central Area Design Guide and appendices being developed for heritage areas or specific design issues

  • the design guides were applied as a Discretionary Activity (Restricted) with the Council’s discretion limited to design, external appearance and siting, and the location of building mass

  • a building mass provision of 75 percent was included to ensure that new buildings provided amenity, adequate daylight onsite and were able to manage adverse effects on the public environment

  • new policies were developed to provide guidance as to when it may be appropriate to develop over-height buildings in the Central Area, with a specific policy on the need for design excellence of extraordinary tall buildings

  • eight new tightly defined heritage areas were proposed around significant clusters of heritage buildings and important public spaces to ensure areas with unique character and heritage values were retained

  • within the heritage areas, building height limits were lowered to accurately reflect the scale of existing buildings in each area and as a starting point for new building applications

  • new buildings that seek to exceed the building height limit in heritage areas must demonstrate that they will make a positive contribution to their heritage neighbours and the character of the area for the Council to have discretion to grant consent

  • where possible, rules, rather than design guides, are used to achieve key urban form outcomes, for example, active street edges, a building’s relationship to the street and sunlight to public spaces.

Example of active edge design at night in Courtney Place.

Example of building defining public space.

Example of building defining public space, and articulation of form and facade to give visual interest.

Parking located behind a veneer of activity, maintaining an active edge to the street.

Evaluation of urban design principles

Context

Ensuring that new buildings respect their context is an important element of the Council’s approach to urban design. This message is clearly articulated in the Central Area Urban Design Guide, and a policy has been added to the District Plan to the effect that the Council will require high-quality building design that acknowledges, and responds to, the context of the site and the surrounding environment.

Character

The Central Area plan change deals with character on several different levels. At the macro level, the Council is seeking to preserve the ‘high city/low city’ model of urban form that is so important in defining the character of the central city. At the neighbourhood level, the identification of eight heritage areas is a reflection of the Council’s commitment to maintaining and enhancing the sense of place, heritage values and character that these unique precincts provide to the city.

Choice

The Central Area provisions allow significant land use flexibility and choice to users and occupants of the Central Area. The Central Area is covered by a single zone, where almost all land use activities are permitted, allowing the conversion of existing buildings for new uses and contributing to the vitality and vibrancy of the Central Area.

The bulk and location controls also provide for a wide range of design responses. The building mass provision, in particular, does not predetermine any specific built typology, and allows building form to be manipulated to suit the requirements of the project and characteristics of the site.

Connections

While the Central Area provisions do not create barriers for people wishing to enhance connectivity, neither do they work to actively encourage it. Specifically, the decision on the Central Area plan change recognised the need to undertake further work to identify options for the retention and expansion of informal pedestrian links throughout the central city.

The Central Area plan change provides guidance on active street edges and connections between the building front and the street. Servicing and car parking guidance is also given on street edge connections and entrance ways.

Creativity

In managing the urban design outcomes in the central city, the Council has always sought to encourage innovative responses to the site, context and requirements of the development. No specific design solutions are contained in the design guide, and the bulk and location rules have been drafted to avoid provisions such as setbacks or plot ratios that can impact on design options. Accordingly, the provisions allow for an almost infinite range of massing configurations for new buildings to suit the requirements of the setting and project. Initial indications are that the new 75 percent building mass requirement is resulting in further variation in the design of new buildings, because utilisation of 100 percent mass is no longer available as the starting point for new developments.

Custodianship

At present, the Central Area provisions seek to encourage the incorporation of sustainable design features through policy guidance. The science and policy around the development of green buildings and sustainable spaces is advancing rapidly, and it is likely that the Council will investigate further measures to facilitate the uptake of sustainable building construction.

The Central Area Design Guide also includes key elements of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) to help ensure that new buildings do not reduce the safety or comfort of adjacent public spaces.

Collaboration

Collaboration across the Council is required to reduce the possibility that applicants receive conflicting advice from different parts of Council during the pre-application and consent processes. Mixed messages can lead to confusion and frustration for applicants and undermine the achievement of quality urban design outcomes.

 

Lessons learnt

Before embarking down the design guide path, councils need to be satisfied that they have access to the appropriate resources and expertise to write effective design guides, and to assess and consider consent applications. Design guides require suitably qualified professionals to undertake assessments. Wellington City Council is fortunate in that it has an in-house team of skilled urban designers, and access to a pool of consultants from the lecturers at Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture during periods of high demand. For the Council, being able to provide consistent, timely feedback and advice on proposed designs is key to successful design guidance.

When preparing urban design guides, councils need to:

  • avoid content that is likely to date over the life of the design guide – that is, guides based on a specific development style or phase of development, such as office blocks as opposed to apartments or entertainment

  • consider flexible approaches to accommodate changes over time due to changes in fashion, market forces and/or legislation

  • consider how future design guides will be incorporated into the document structure, because the number of design guides tends to multiply over time

  • future proof the design guides by placing high-level generic guidelines in an overarching ‘master’ design guide with scope to add area- or issue-specific guidelines as appendices

  • phrase guidelines so that they cannot be taken as literal design solutions, with ‘approved elements’ being incorporated into the building design leading to a poor design outcome because the building is an assemblage of parts rather than a coherent design.

When implementing design guides, councils should:

  • focus their energy on the pre-application stage of the consent process where the greatest gains can be made in terms of influencing building design and location to deliver quality urban design outcomes

  • be honest when necessary – if the design is bad, they should say so as early as possible

  • make sure their internal processes provide transparent, consistent advice on consent applications

  • make provision for independent design review so that their urban designers are not accused of bias or imposing architectural preferences when the applicant has reached an impasse on key urban design issues that can not be resolved

  • provide training and explanatory material for their officers, applicants and the community.

Do design guides need to be included in the District Plan?

The question of whether design guides should be located inside or outside the District Plan was discussed during the Central Area review. Those in favour of retaining the design guides in the District Plan felt that they carried increased weight and would be less open to legal challenge if they were included. Supporters also noted that it was easier to encourage clients into changing designs if they could be shown that the design guides were part of the District Plan.

The principle advantage of locating design guides outside the District Plan was that they could be updated without having to go through the plan change process. The question was asked whether, in reality, they would be updated any more frequently even if outside the District Plan. If a design guide is located outside the District Plan, it was agreed there would need to be strong policies that set a clear direction for the management of urban design rules and assessment criteria.

The Council decided that the benefits of including the design guides in the District Plan in terms of weighting significantly outweighed the negatives in terms of the time required to update the content of the design guides.

Does the Environment Court recognise design guides?

The legitimacy of utilising design guides as a planning tool has not been questioned by the Environment Court. Indeed, in the Council’s experience, the Court has often found design guides useful in helping to assess whether a proposed development is appropriate and consistent with council policy. On two separate occasions, the Environment Court has directed the Council to prepare design guides for specific locations as part of a package to resolve appeals.

Do design guides need to be included in the District Plan?

The question of whether design guides should be located inside or outside the District Plan was discussed during the Central Area review. Those in favour of retaining the design guides in the District Plan felt that they carried increased weight and would be less open to legal challenge if they were included. Supporters also noted that it was easier to encourage clients into changing designs if they could be shown that the design guides were part of the District Plan.

The principle advantage of locating design guides outside the District Plan was that they could be updated without having to go through the plan change process. The question was asked whether, in reality, they would be updated any more frequently even if outside the District Plan. If a design guide is located outside the District Plan, it was agreed there would need to be strong policies that set a clear direction for the management of urban design rules and assessment criteria.

The Council decided that the benefits of including the design guides in the District Plan in terms of weighting significantly outweighed the negatives in terms of the time required to update the content of the design guides.

Does the Environment Court recognise design guides?

The legitimacy of utilising design guides as a planning tool has not been questioned by the Environment Court. Indeed, in the Council’s experience, the Court has often found design guides useful in helping to assess whether a proposed development is appropriate and consistent with council policy. On two separate occasions, the Environment Court has directed the Council to prepare design guides for specific locations as part of a package to resolve appeals.

Value gained

Urban design assessments

The urban design assessment process, while not perfect, has resulted in the construction of better quality buildings than the Council could otherwise have expected. Monitoring of the consent process indicated the urban design quality of buildings improved as a result of the urban design process. Improvements were particularly apparent for proposals that were at the lower end of the quality spectrum when they were first lodged with the Council.

Design guides

The design guide documents, if prepared correctly and implemented consistently, can be a useful source of advice for applicants. They can also be used by architects and designers to influence the design briefs that they receive from clients.

The design guides are also important because they provide a structure for discussions between the Council and applicants. If there is a significant disagreement between the Council and applicant on aspects of a development proposal, the design guides provide an important framework for negotiations.

Urban design assessments

The urban design assessment process, while not perfect, has resulted in the construction of better quality buildings than the Council could otherwise have expected. Monitoring of the consent process indicated the urban design quality of buildings improved as a result of the urban design process. Improvements were particularly apparent for proposals that were at the lower end of the quality spectrum when they were first lodged with the Council.

Design guides

The design guide documents, if prepared correctly and implemented consistently, can be a useful source of advice for applicants. They can also be used by architects and designers to influence the design briefs that they receive from clients.

The design guides are also important because they provide a structure for discussions between the Council and applicants. If there is a significant disagreement between the Council and applicant on aspects of a development proposal, the design guides provide an important framework for negotiations.

Conclusion

The application of design guides has led to an improvement in the quality of buildings being constructed in the Wellington central city area, particularly for buildings where the initial resource consent applications were of poor design quality. The first generation of design guides have helped the Council to achieve at least satisfactory design as the bottom line for central city buildings. A recent change to the Central Area Design Guide has been implemented to further improve building design in the central city.

It is important not to underestimate the ongoing cost and effort required to implement design guides. Their preparation and incorporation into the District Plan is only the start. The effectiveness of the design guides is principally determined by the Council’s ability to provide high-quality design advice in a consistent and timely manner.

The Council’s experience has been that demand for urban design controls increases over time. As the public’s expectations and awareness of urban design matters grow, so does demand to apply design controls more widely. This usually results in an increase in the number of consents that are subject to an urban design assessment and the workload for those who provide urban design advice.