Design review is a tried and tested method of promoting good design and is a cost-effective and efficient way to improve quality. Architect Anthony Vile argues we need more of it in Hawke’s Bay.

Urban Design Panels currently operate in at least ten districts, both metro centres and provincial centres, throughout New Zealand. They have been credited with much success for getting urban design on the agenda nationally and locally, as well as being cost-effective mechanisms for providing independent recommendations to developers and to councils on the appropriateness of projects with significant urban design implications. They have accordingly become part of the urban development process.

The need for design panels has been driven by a culture that has historically placed ‘design’ and heritage issues on the backburner, and the free market and developer margins on the front.

Inspired by their success overseas, professional bodies, academics, enlightened councils and the Ministry for the Environment have lobbied for their inclusion in development processes for a number of years. A turning point in their establishment was the ratification of the NZ Urban Design Protocol in 2000.

The general lack of specific design controls in district plans, combined with the subjective nature of defining what ‘quality’ in the built environment means, has historically left consent planners awash in a sea of uncertainty regarding assessment of design. This is compounded lack of specific training in design or its critical assessment. Consent applications can only be measured against the criteria established in the district plan and ultimately the Resource Management Act. If there are no criteria for assessment of design quality then obviously there is no means for local authorities to establish a base measurement.

Without clear definition in district plans, nor the appropriately trained urban design staff, ‘quality’ at the end of the day is whatever the relationship between a developer and a statutory authority decides it is. This can and has led to piecemeal and variable outcomes. Some developers care; some don’t. Some councils understand; some don’t. It’s as simple as that.

Of course design quality is less of a concern when a project is tucked away on a lifestyle block and is an individual’s prerogative. However, when a project intersects with public space, public good and quality becomes an issue. This then is the activation opportunity for design review panels, to be party to the process of design assessment and to provide assistance to developers in achieving higher amenity outcomes.

Design panels in the Bay

In Hawke’s Bay, local councils have been on and off the design panel wagon for some time now. HDC commendably is a signatory of the Urban Design Protocol and in principle understands the value of good design practice. But where the rubber meets the road, the process seems easily derailed by personalities, politics and lack of rigor.

Various policies and mandates established over the last 15 years have raised awareness in the development community, but not enough. The protocols and terms of reference for an “aesthetic design panel” that have been established, conveniently contain an “as and when deemed appropriate” clause, providing an easy out and leaving the district with no certainty of process or outcome.

The HDC Aesthetic Design Panel (ADP) currently appears to be in a dormant phase. It seems to have fallen out of favour based on providing views contrary to the council’s own regarding projects such as Hastings Opera House, Regional Sports Park, Hastings Farmers store, and the large format retail on the former Nelson park site.

“We believe the council is about to make a grave mistake,” a spokesman for the Panel, said when interviewed by Hawke’s Bay Today regarding the Nelson Park project in November 2007. In an article in 2010 the same paper reporting on the development of Farmers on Heretaunaga Street noted: “The ADP spokesperson, who did not want to be named, said: ‘Our report was already a compromise and while they’ve made a few changes to the plans it’s only half measures’ … ‘The council is quite determined to have Farmers on Heretaunga St, even though it’s a completely inappropriate building for the main street’.”

Two issues are at play here. One is there is no rigor in process behind the ADP. Its very name is misguided in terms of what its role should be. It’s not about ‘aesthetics’; it’s about raising the bar on provincial urban design (see definition above). The other issue is having a limited pool of design professionals to draw on whose critical advice could be misconstrued as negative, as well as the potential for conflict of interest in a small community. As such, there is currently a climate of fear regarding being outspoken on design issues in the design community, symptomatic of the need for systemic change.

Napier has no clear policy regards the use of an urban design panel, but through the district plan and active heritage advocates, such as the Art Deco Trust, the council has exercised much more control over heritage in the Napier CBD than Hastings has in its own. The design panel idea seems to be reserved for use on an ‘as and when needed’ basis. A specific ‘design group’ was established for developments in Ahuriri, but has seemed to be deemed irrelevant elsewhere.

At the regional council, pending Plan Change 4 – Managing the Built Environment – is in essence an urban design policy for the region promoting “more compact well designed and strongly connected urban areas.” The regional policy statement on urban development seeks to promote ideas of urban amenity as a regional issue. It might in fact represent an opportunity to establish a regional panel that could provide consistency in design assessment and quality on a regional basis, simultaneously providing the scale necessary to provide a cost-effective means of doing so.

Does a voluntary approach work?

The question arises whether a voluntary, non-regulatory method of achieving enhanced amenity outcomes works. I would argue it doesn’t. Either design and amenity need to be embedded in the district plans or an independent design panel needs to be established.

Such an instrument would need to be removed from the personal interests and politics of local development. Appointment would be based on qualification to provide professional advice to both the private and public sector as and when certain triggers are activated. It would act in an advisory capacity, with the panel’s report given similar weight as other technical assessments such as engineering reports.

Meanwhile, the region’s focus becomes more urban. HDC states that “requirements for urban design are becoming more responsive to the activities of the development community” (HDC Annual Report, 2011/12), which for all purposes sounds like Auckland in the 80s. If we want greater amenity we should all be concerned that there is no best practice process to ensure just that. Recent plan changes related to both Havelock North and Flaxmere CBD have picked up on the need for specific urban design-related criteria to be utilized, as well as the use of a design review process, but fail to provide the detail in how that might work.

What is quality and why should it be considered different in a provincial setting?

The closest the RMA comes to defining the importance of good design is contained in the definition of amenity value as below:

“Amenity values are those natural or physical qualities and characteristics of an area that contribute to people’s appreciation of its pleasantness, aesthetic coherence, and cultural and recreational attributes.”

It is a definition that closely ties the meaning to people and place. It is an important concept in the world of development, district plans and of course the Environment Court. The search tool (within Adobe Acrobat) counts ‘amenity’ 1,079 times in the current Draft HDC District Plan; the word ‘architecture’ is mentioned a mere six, ‘urban design’ 128, ‘culture’ eight, and ‘community’ 595. So what does that mean and what are the results we can expect?

The district plan is the primary tool for delivering amenity value to the built environment. In Hawke’s Bay, HDC is in the midst of its legally required ten yearly review process. It has already been released as a draft document and been through a preliminary round of consultation and submissions. NCC is simultaneously reviewing some aspects of their district plan in order to align more strategically with Hastings. Some keys changes are afoot that relate to so-called intensification and the ‘compact city’ idea – enabling ‘up and not out’ higher intensity land use in the residential sector.

There has been very little debate or public dialogue around any of the issues contained in the District Plan review. It will be interesting to see as the review progresses if the same degree of NIMBYism occurs as in Auckland (where 29,240 formal submissions were filed on the Draft Unitary Plan). This will be dependent on the manner in which constituents are consulted, what and how proposals and issues are communicated, and what level of interest in the democratic process the average punter has outside of the usual demands of living in the Bay.

As part of this district plan review, perhaps then we should be taking the opportunity to borrow some of the experience from other regions and instigate at a regional level some kind of design review panel process that can add significant value to the region. It is not about adding cost or bureaucracy to the development process as some opponents will suggest. Rather, it is about using experts in their fields to help the region lift its game in a globally competitive market where the perception of amenity in the built environment attracts dollars. Bottom line.

Back in the 80s and 90s when Auckland was running amuck with developers and their shiny beamers, generating the bad rap and JAFFA monicker that has stuck, the then Auckland councils were not yet up to speed on urban design. Any development was good development. A passionate group of academics and professionals alongside a sympathetic Ministry for the Environment put pressure on to establish NZ’s first urban design panel. It has been in existence now for ten years. The quality of public projects and building we see across that region now is largely the result of the work of the panel in changing attitudes within both the council and development communities. The same can be said for Queenstown.

Auckland’s experience suggests that some form of independent review process raises the bar, and that most developers and their design consultants are more than willing to respond to the challenge.

It’s time for Hawke’s Bay to embrace this as a process and a strategic challenge.

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