By John Subritzky
Avondale town centre development really started to gather momentum in 2020, with several large apartment projects announced. Progress is also being made on the new library and community centre. A key project is the Aroha development by Ockham, right at Avondale’s front door. It is bounded by Ash Street, Peace Park and Great North Road. Having a highly regarded developer involved is a real win for the rejuvenation of the town. Marcus Amosa, Chair of the Avondale Business Association (ABA), is thrilled that these developments are finally starting to take shape, after enduring the vacant ex 3 Guys site for two decades, right in the heart of the shopping area.
But then in a stunning own goal, Ockham pushed Auckland City for non-notified consent to fell an approximately 120-year-old scheduled macrocarpa. The tree is right on the boundary and is partly owned by Auckland City and AT. As owners, the Council had to give permission before the macrocarpa could be felled. Submitting to threats of legal action, Auckland Council chief executive Jim Stabback issued the consent on December 23rd, just before Christmas.
In his report, Stabback noted “There is also a financial risk to council if council does not grant this application, as the developer has threatened legal action. The developer has indicated that it may seek to recover costs from council incurred as a result of delay by council in granting this application, or as a result of council declining this application.”
Reaction from tree protection protesters was rapid and took Ockham’s plan to speedily fell the tree, head on. Protesters arrived on site and stopped a massive mobile crane from deconstructing the tree between Christmas and New Year. Now there is a standoff between Ockham, widely regarded as a quality developer, and Mana Rakau, New Zealand’s most experienced tree protesters. The Mana Rakau protest at Canal Road is the longest tree occupation ever in New Zealand.
Mark Todd, Ockham owner and managing director, went high level in an extensive article in the media. He says that they are only doing what is right and in alignment with the Auckland Council Unitary Plan to address climate change, public transport, urban living, provision of Kiwibuild and partnership with Marutūāhu iwi. Some of the shine comes off though, when you realise that the public were shut out of the process by threats of legal action against the Council.
It is the principles that have been violated, almost more than the tree itself, that is really stirring up opposition. If it takes public consultation to get a notable tree scheduled, then it should take public consultation to get the same tree removed from the schedule so it can be felled. There have been trees that have been speedily felled without consultation when they have been deemed by professionals to be a danger to people. This seems to be the first time that a tree that is not dangerous has been treated this way.
Dr Mels Barton of The Tree Council has not seen this sort of non-notified consent happen before. She says “The Tree Council is informed about every scheduled tree application and we submit on all the publicly notified ones. Usually, the only ones that are non-notified are because the tree has a serious health issue. That's why the Avondale mac is such an unusual situation.”
Arborist Zane Wedding agrees “Non notified consents in my experience are almost always issued under the guise of health/hazard issues. This is exactly why the mac is so important. It is such a slippery slope once you start issuing non notified consents for healthy scheduled trees.”
In the Avondale-Waterview Historical Journal (Volume 20, Issue 116), local historian Lisa Truttman, expresses concern about the wider significance of this decision on other heritage assets. She says, “My personal opinion is that, when anything like a tree, a building, an object, or a site is included on a protection schedule such as those kept by Auckland Council under the Unitary Plan, there should always be a publicly notified process when it comes to resource consent applications for alteration or removal of those trees, buildings, objects or sites. That such are included on a schedule in the first place, by definition, means that they have some form of importance to the public, in degrees from a local community to the country as a whole — and so the public should have an opportunity to express their opinion, yes or no, on any change, deletion or removal.
“I don’t think the decision to take something off a protection schedule should be done in this way. We’ve already seen the St Andrews Sunday school hall in New Lynn bowled in next to no time, a scheduled heritage building. I worry as to what will come next.”
There is real irony here that the tree is partly on a council park, not private land. With the minimal tree protection currently existing, Council has agreed to fell a scheduled tree that is on its own land. Council has also decided against scheduling any further trees blaming an estimated cost of $1,500 per tree to do so. Instead, Council is pushing Government for Resource Management Act reform to protect all trees, but the question is, could they do a better job of tree protection in the Whau?
A sense of belonging and identity for me was created and nurtured at the address 1817 Great North Road - beneath the shadow of this Macrocarpa.
Our tree was a constant in my childhood… shelter in the summertime while we waited patiently for our hangi/umu to cook. In autumn you could smell the dry decay of fallen leaves, and in spring the pungent smell of new growth. I remember fondly we would climb up the tree, as we made it our treehouse sitting deep in the bosom of its large branches.
Our tree had seen it all, the experiences of a young Pacific/Māori family growing up in working class Avondale after being through the tumultuous 1980s New Zealand. It offered sanctuary from the tornado that would visit home and leave again.
Artist's impressions of the new Ockham development, Aroha