Hostilities have broken out in tree-lined Franklin Road, Ponsonby and may spread throughout the region. New Zealand Herald reporter Bernard Orsman broke the story on July 24 (‘Big names in Franklin Rd fight’). Multi-million property developer, Michael Friedlander, and QC Marie Dyhrberg want the Council’s Unitary Plan to allow the removal of eight villas for more intensive development. Aggrieved residents include media couple, Bill Ralston and Janet Wilson, Arts commentator Hamish Keith and his partner the acclaimed costume designer Ngila Dickinson, and Franklin Road Chief Spokesperson Ross Thorby. The latter figure owns a chandelier installation and restoration business and organises the street’s annual Christmas light display. Their concern is that the top and bottom ends of Franklin Road will be re-zoned from ‘single house residential’ to ‘mixed housing urban’. Bill Ralston states that ‘commercial creep’ will threaten Franklin Rd’s character and community. Hamish Keith opines that ‘he has never lived in a street where there is such a sense of community’. For Michael Friedlander, re-zoning the land for intensified development accords with the Council’s goal to increase housing supply. Marie Dyhrberg notes that the villas in question should be developed as a whole to ‘better serve the property and local community’.
On August 3, Sunday Herald columnist Bernard Hickey threw a grenade at the warring factions (‘Rich and Comfortable Must Make Way for Young and Poor’). He declared that ‘the missing voice in these fights is the voice of the young and poor who are locked out of home ownership in Auckland by the restrictions and infrastructure fees on development – both out and up – that are stifling the drive for more housing consents’. In this regard, Hickey inferred that Franklin Rd’s villa protection faction were NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard) and BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything). At this point, bombs went off everywhere. On Twitter, supporters of Ralston’s position hurled insults at Hickey. On Cameron Salter’s Whale Oil, guest blogger Cactus Kate called Hickey’s piece ‘emotive nonsense’ and proposed her own solution to the housing affordability problem, ‘more homes need to be built in Auckland in areas where land is less expensive and there is more space’. The young and poor should not expect to live in an ‘exclusive inner city suburb that is within walking distance to town’. Those wanting to live close to town at low prices were advised to ‘buy an inner city apartment’ (‘Houses for Everyone – the Continued Delusion of Bernard Hickey’, August 4). At the time of writing, hostilities continue with no end in sight. My own position can be simply put; a plague on all their houses (so to speak). The Friedlander/Dyhrberg and Ralston/Thorby factions, Bernard Hickey and Cactus Kate all miss a larger historical picture.
So… let me start with a few recollections. In 1979, I arrived in Auckland from Christchurch to take up a secondary school teaching position. My first stable residence was 4 Franklin Rd, a large two-storied house near the top with a turret overlooking the Harbour. My ten or so flatmates were a moving assemblage of students, nurses, artists, writers, social workers and the like. A left-liberal bohemian culture prevailed. We belonged to an inner city food co-operative; visitors from Coromandel communes were not uncommon. Large and loud parties at our residence, and at others, affirmed the strong community spirit. I cannot recall any Christmas lighting displays. The turret was a favoured location for hedonistic pastimes and intimate encounters. The Gluepot, on Ponsonby Rd, was a live music mecca – gigs from Hello Sailor, Rick Bryant, Street Talk, The Swingers, Sheerlux, Toy Love, and Midnight Oil remain in the memory. On Easter Monday 1980, our flat migrated to Western Springs for Bob Marley and the Wailers. I also have sad memories of the time; an older Ponsonby culture was dying. Working class pubs disappeared. At the bottom of Franklin Rd, the Rob Roy made way for the Birdcage. The Suffolk on College Hill was eventually replaced by the Cavalier. Downstairs at the Gluepot, the public bars became lounge bars (before the institution itself disappeared). The Unemployed Rights Centre on Ponsonby Rd closed. An older generation of Māori and Polynesian families were slowly pushed out to Otara, Mangere ,and Manurewa by the agents of gentrification – banks, property developers, and upper middle class professionals looking to construct a hip, cosmopolitan valhalla of do-up villas, restaurants, cafes, bars and boutique shopping. Before my Auckland arrival, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn were home territories for the Polynesian Panthers, the Headhunters and the King Cobras. Their sense of community, one imagines, was no less cohesive, than that of their successors.
Since leaving Ponsonby, a new wave of gentrification has swept through. Villas worth two to three hundred thousand in the 1980s now go for seven figures and up. Seller windfalls mean higher entry costs for new buyers. The seriously wealthy are squeezing the upper middle class. Meanwhile, as Auckland’s population grows, city authorities seek to lessen suburban sprawl and intensify residential development closer to the city centre. Low-to-medium rise apartments and improved public transport systems are now imperative. In this environment, overseas investors, developers and their local cohorts are looking to exploit the new Unitary Plan zoning regulations. The likes of Ralston, Wilson, Thorby, Keith and Dickinson thus appear as a beleaguered minority defending community values. Friedlander’s claim that re-zoning allowances will increase Auckland’s housing supply is of course nonsense. His investment priorities are up-scale apartments and commercial amenities. The so-called NIMBYs on Franklin Rd and elsewhere are well-meaning, but blind to the ironies of history. After third wave gentrification, the commercial greed of Unitary Plan manipulation will destroy the fragile aesthetics of Christmas light displays. The sense of community involved is threatened by the same profit-seeking imperatives that displaced earlier communities. Hickey’s position also denies history. When younger and poorer families were, in fact, resident in Ponsonby, Grey Lynn and Freeman’s Bay, there were available jobs nearby; in light manufacturing, on the wharves, at Auckland Hospital and thriving ribbon shopping centres – Symonds St, Newton, Grafton, Karangahape, Ponsonby and Great North Roads, etc (before motorways and shopping malls). In the 1950s and 1960s, rentals were cheap, unions were stronger, and overtime pay rates gave disposable income to multicultural working class families. All of this has now gone. In today’s harsh economic environment, allowing more inner-suburb building consents for low income housing construction will not work in isolation.
The nationwide realities of social inequality and wealth concentration need to be confronted across all policy fronts; taxation, union rights, employment creation, health, education and transport infrastructures. As for Cactus Kate, her solution bespeaks the underlying prejudices of first wave gentrification. The inner city suburbs belong to us, keep the riff-raff in the poor outer suburbs, where they belong.