Is the 4000-home KiwiBuild project at Unitec do-able?

The good news and the bad news. Phil Twyford responds. Watch Grant Walker's interview with Professor John Tookey.
AUT professor John Tookey says key details are missing in regard to almost every aspect of the project.

It’s still not clear how the first major KiwiBuild project will play out, AUT professor of construction management John Tookey says.

The project involving building up to 4000 homes on land bought from Unitec for an undisclosed sum, was announced on March 25.

There were scant details at the time, and few have emerged since. NBR understands some of the stakeholders had two hours’ notice of the announcement, which was possibly timed to fit into the coalition’s first 100 days.

Professor Tookey says key details are missing in regard to almost every aspect of the project, from the configuration of the homes to the mix of developers to handling the required upgrades to roads, public transport, waste water, sewerage and other infrastructure (his comments mirror his wider questions about KiwiBuild).

The Unitec project does seem snug. It has been compared to the public-private project at Hobsonville Point, overseen by the Crown-owned HLC (formerly the Hobsonville Land Company, now Homes Land and Community in a nod to its expanding brief). The company is running a major Housing NZ redevelopment in Owairaka and another in Northcote and could be involved at Unitec.

Prof Tookey says it could be done. Low-rise apartments running from a tiny 70sqm to 120sqm would provide the targeted number of dwellings.

The AUT academic says that’s the sort of development New Zealand will have to accept if it's going to get to the 100,000 KiwiBuild target

The “how” remains up in the air, he says.

Twyford responds
At Hobsonville Point, which is already years under way, there will ultimately be 4500 homes on a 167ha site. Most Kiwis would regard that as dense.

On the Unitec site, the 3000-4000 homes will be built on 29.3ha, or a fraction the size of Hobsonville.

So what’s happening with the Unitec site?

Aerial photo and topological views of the Unitec land, in the central-west Auckland suburb of Mt Albert.

Housing Minister Phil Twyford offers NBR a broad update but he also adds a complication, or perhaps a potential source of capital, not covered by Prof Tookey: iwi.

“We’re doing a lot of work on the Unitec project at the moment,” Mr Twyford says.

“We’re talking to Auckland iwi under the terms of the Tamaki treaty settlement. They have options to be involved in the development and we’re working through exactly how we might structure that,” Mr Twyford says.

“And we’ve made some really good progress on that. So I think it’s highly likely we’re going to be working together on that development with some of the Auckland iwi.

It’s notable that the Hobsonville Point development includes several hundred homes being built by a number of contract builders for Waikato-based Ngāi Tahu Property. The iwi has invested in one apartment tower with its own funds, and a second with surrounding terraced housing in partnership with the Super Fund.

The Housing Minister continues: “There’s work going on on the masterplan. There was already quite a bit of work done by the Wairaka Land Company [a Unitec-owned company that planned a 2675-home home development; Unitec owned] so we’re updating that. And we’re looking at all of the practical steps that will allow us to build on that site as soon as possible.”

Mr Twyford has mused that the Unitec project could work with three or four-story walk-up apartments (that is, no lifts, to cut costs). He’s also raised the possibility that Auckland’s Council’s Unitary Plan could be altered to eliminate the need for car parks, which would also help squeeze 4000 homes on to the tiny site. There has also been talk that the development could fill more than 63% of the site, meaning it could potentially have far fewer of the shared public green spaces that are one of Hobsonville Point's biggest features.

A slice of the public-private project at Hobsonville Point.

'Roll up our sleeves'
More broadly, Prof Tookey has questioned whether the 100,000 KiwiBuild target is achievable, and whether Mr Twyford is taking a realistic view of capacity constraints and other barriers given it took a decade from the global financial crisis to get from 3000 new homes a year to 2017’s 6800. How can 10,000 more a year be added in quick time? (Earlier this week, he also offered some constructive suggestions.)

His questions criticisms echoed what other experts, developers and builders have told NBR.

Mr Twyford brushes the criticism aside.

“I don’t accept that. I’ve spoken to almost all the developers and builders that you have spoken to, and the capacity constraints for firms and workforces are there. But there are lots of builders at the moment – because the market has cooled, in Auckland, particularly – there are builders around who are looking for work and can take more on,” he says.

“We’re not going to sit around and wring our hands and say that because there are constraints in the construction industry [because] the last government didn’t invest in the workforce; we’re not going to use that as an alibi to do nothing. Do you think the first Labour government did that in the thirties and forties and said ‘We’ve come out of a depression, there are no decent firms around, there’s no capacity in the industry, therefore we’re not going to build tens of thousands of houses’?

"No, they got on, they rolled up their sleeves, they invested in the workforce, they worked with construction firms and they built thousands of extra houses That is what we’re going to do.”

Stirring words. But the finer details, or any almost any hard details, remain elusive.

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