Wellington has long been nicknamed the “mini-Manhattan” for its shimmering high-rises sitting on the edge of the harbour. Recent changes to the District Plan will change that, as with the declaration that the Johnsonville train line is actually Rapid Transit, developers will take advantage of the new height limits, much raised from what they were previously, and Wellington’s suburban skyline is due to change, drastically. Over the next few years, that skyline will get a very large new addition in the suburbs too: developments are already being planned at quiet suburban train stops such as Box Hill and Cashmere Ave, with the end of the line in Johnsonville seeing the most dramatic of changes, an 11-tower development that will Tetrize 6,000 apartments onto just over 4 hectares of land in the heart of leafy suburbia. Once complete, this will be the densest neighbourhood in the capital, providing thousands of homes for Wellingtonians who have long been squeezed between the country’s priciest real estate and some of its lowest vacancy rates.

Artist’s impression

Johnsonville Central is big, ambitious and undeniably urban—and undeniably provocative. It’s being built on reserve land owned by the limping Johnsonville Mall, and it’s spearheaded by the developer itself, in partnership with the private real estate developer Wellbank. Because the project is on reserve land, it’s being developed under fast-track authority, free of Wellington’s zoning rules. Minister of Development Chris Bishop has promised to rubber-stamp its approval immediately it arrives on his desk today. And Central has chosen to build bigger, denser and taller than any development on city property would usually be allowed.

Predictably, not everyone has been happy about it. Critics have included local planners, politicians and, especially, residents of Khandallah, a rarified neighbourhood bordering the Town Belt. And there’s been an extra edge to their critiques that’s gone beyond standard-issue NIMBYism about too-tall buildings and preserving neighbourhood character. There’s also been a persistent sense of disbelief that people from outside the area could be allowed to enter the suburb and settle and even maybe have children.

Johnsonville Station ?

The subtext is as unmissable as a skyscraper: indigenous Khandallah culture and urban life—let alone urban development—don’t mix. That response isn’t confined to just the Johnsonville Line, either. On Wellington’s East side, the Miramar Enterprise —through a joint partnership called MET Development Corp.—are planning a 5-tower development called the Jackson Five.

To Khandallah people themselves, though, these developments mark a decisive moment in the evolution of our rights in this country. The fact is, Kiwis aren’t used to seeing developers occupy places that are socially, economically or geographically valuable, like Johnsonville. After decades of marginalization, the absence seems natural, and the presence of the new somehow unnatural. Something like Central is remarkable not just in terms of its scale and economic value (expected to generate billions in revenue for the developer). It’s remarkable because it’s a restoration of the authority and presence of the developer ethos in the heart of a New Zealand city. No more will suburban automatically mean small scale. No more will an area filled with character automatically resonate with estate agents as a place to laud the leafy qualities of sun-filled views and tennis-playing neighbours. From this day forward, suburbia will mean Rapid Transit and multitudes of people enjoying the compact size of their accommodation and their closeness to neighbours.

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