Waiwera residents want to retain a coastal character village atmosphere which they fear could be threatened by a proposal to allow buildings of around five storeys (18m) in the town. This example shows the potential impact.
New plans for a multi-million dollar development in Waiwera have surfaced, which the developer says will turn the rundown resort back into a national tourism destination.
But the proposal has stirred up opposition, with residents concerned a proposed high-rise hotel could erode the coastal character of the town.
There has been a long string of development plans for Waiwera over the past two decades, but few have eventuated and visitor numbers have plummeted over the past decade.
Waiwera Properties now owns all the main commercial land in the town and plans to invest tens of millions in a range of facilities. The company bought the hotel site in 2007, the Waiwera Thermal Resort site and former Woodies Bar and Grill site in 2009, and the old campground in 2014.
Its parent company, Urban Partners (formerly Retail Holdings), also owns a significant amount of land on the waterfront of Paihia and Mission Bay.
On its website, company executive director Jonny Staples states the company was able to buy key sites in Waiwera following the global financial crisis.
He says Urban Partners has “a deep respect for the special character and history of the area and are undertaking master planning work to ensure that it is returned to its former glory and international appeal”.
“In the longer term, Urban Partners hopes to develop a world-class regional tourism and hospitality precinct at Waiwera. However, it is still very early days and much needs to be done before we can meaningfully progress any planning and design,” Mr Staples says. “The impact of the PAUP [proposed Auckland Unitary Plan] on our properties at Waiwera and the required improvements to Waiwera’s wastewater processing by Watercare are two examples of things that first need to be resolved. Waiwera Properties intends to consult with the community but at this early stage there are too many unknowns and it would be premature to start community engagement now.”
Representatives from the company presented to the Unitary Plan Independent Hearings Panel in Queen Street, Auckland, last month in a push for changes to development restrictions on building height and commercial intensity.
Legal representative Julie Goodyer said that plans potentially include mineral water bathing, mineral water bottling, visitor accommodation, conference facilities, bar and restaurant facilities, a health and wellness spa, permanent residential accommodation, visitor information and community services”.
She said that an intensive development is necessary to make it viable. Visitor numbers to the hot pools have more than halved over the past decade, plunging from 305,000 in 2002 to 180,000 and it is running at a loss.
“The only way it can continue to be developed and made accessible to Auckland tourists is if the PAUP enables development to be attractive and economically viable. If provisions make development too restrictive or creates too many planning restraints this will affect its viability. This will result in the developer selling the land or providing more moderate development which would not create a regional tourism destination.”
The holding costs for the land were also high and any plans could be lost if the planning process becomes too complex.
“The Panel shouldn’t take a middle of the road stance which could be overly restrictive on a hotel and development.
This will perpetuate the lack of development over the last 10 years and the land could be subdivided for private benefit, rather than public benefit.”
The main roadblock was the Waiwera wastewater treatment plant, which is at capacity and requires a $12-15 million upgrade. A proposal to pump wastewater over the hill to the Hatfields Beach pump-station is understood to be years away.
The most contentious part of the proposal is the 18-metre height limit the company is proposing. The company has resource consent for a five-storey, 215-unit hotel, which was first granted in 1989, but was renewed in the Environment Court in 2007. The consent expires in August next year, but, if Waiwera Properties proposal is adopted, the development could go ahead under the new rules regardless.
The developer also wants commercial tenancies of up to 500sqm to be permitted on site.
However, a group of Waiwera residents gathered at the hearing to support Auckland Council’s proposal to restrict development to 12.5m.
The group also wants to ensure the hot pools are restored for the public, the water bottling plant doesn’t expand and the natural values are retained.
Waiwera resident and town planner Raewyn Catlow spoke at the Unitary Plan hearings representing the Waiwera Property Owners’ and Residents’ Association and two other Waiwera submitters. She said elements of Waiwera Properties’ proposal could threaten the character of the town and deter tourists.
“I consider the proposed heights will be visually dominant and compromise values which attract people. The community is not opposed to some residential development, but it should be limited so it does not become a dominant activity at the expense of tourist activities. Waiwera can be an outstanding tourist destination without high rise buildings.”
Ms Catlow is also concerned that the hot pools and commercial plans could be abandoned for an intensive housing development, which could be done without a notified resource consent under the proposed precinct rules.
“We want the pools to be available as a public asset. It would be so easy, if residential housing was permitted, to get rid of pool and develop it as an upmarket spa and it wouldn’t be available to residents.”
Mr Staples points out that the pools are held on a perpetual lease by Waiwera Thermal Resort (directors Leon Fingerhut of Las Vegas and Mikhail Khimich of Auckland).
“This means that Urban Partners as a landlord has no direct input into the planning and development of the pools and any alterations or improvements are at the sole discretion of Waiwera Thermal Resort.”
Waiwera Thermal Resort general manager Victor Serov says plans are at a very early stage but will provide some exciting and modern attractions – but not an amusement park. “We want to base it strongly on the hot water,” he says.
Residents were also concerned that a retirement village could be part of the development as Waiwera Properties requested that multiple healthcare facilities be permitted activities. “A retirement village would totally compromise the tourist focus of the precinct and the character of Waiwera,” Ms Catlow said.
The bottling plant for Waiwera Artesian Water, which adjoins the pools, is also a source of contention. Residents say the plant has been expanding beyond the conditions of its resource consent and noise and disruption from trucks is an issue.
“The ongoing intensification of the bottling plant is a classic example of environmental creep which Council is seeking to perpetuate in the Unitary Plan. Residents don’t want to see an industrial-scale plant in a tourist zone.”
Ms Catlow says it’s important to note that the Waiwera residents she represents are not opposed to development of the town. “It’s been languishing and needs to be developed,” she says. “However, three storey buildings, properly designed, would retain local character and still be economically viable – Noosa in Australia took a similar approach and now has very high value real estate and is popular with tourists.”