Cowboy Property Development

New Zealand has a great many beautifully preserved character buildings and colonial villas. Ideal locations, in other words, in which to turn a fast profit by demolishing, sub-dividing and replacing them with brown, ‘Nouveau-Tuscan’, leaky townhouses and windowless shoebox apartment blocks.

Kiwis’ love affair with unrestrained development first began in the post-war years. Jealous of all the gaping bomb holes across Europe that governments there were filling with unsightly state housing and drab council offices, and not wanting to miss out, the New Zealand government relaxed laws concerning preservation of nice buildings, allowing any cowboy with a tool belt and access to a veteran’s pension fund to get busy creating an architectural wasteland all of our own. One that would stand proud next to the concrete jungles of East London, Dresden or Coventry.

In the absence of a local economy outside of sheep, this rampant development help kick start the country out of it’s post-war recession, quickly becoming something of a boom industry, such that by the late 80s, New Zealand’s main city centres – once low-rise Georgian brick & stone character buildings – now had all the charm of a strip of meat-packing warehouses in the light-industrial outskirts of Hamilton.

But it was in the late 90s, as the number of good, city centre heritage demolition opportunities dried up and developers moved into the suburbs, that things really took off. Eager to cash in on the property boom at the time, the traditional Kiwi quarter-acre section was carved up for cash returns, by ‘Mom & Pop’ investors backing property finance companies run by ‘nice chaps, with orange tans and white teeth’ that they met down at the Golf Club. Factory line architecture, corner-cutting building practices,, a government stipulation that ‘treated’ (read ‘waterproof’) timbers might cause uncontrollable hypochondria, and should therefore be illegal, plus an incomprehensible appetite – in a country where it rains for 12 weeks solid every winter – for open plan terracotta houses with flat roofs, that reminded middle class buyers of ‘that fabulous holiday we took in Italy in 1992′, all combined together during this period to create a perfect storm of shit housing.

The property bubble, if not quite burst, has since gone flaccid. But the damage is already, permanently, done.

Hobson Street, in Auckland central, now resembles a kind of futuristic, high-density prison. Newmarket looks like a game of Sim City accidentally left on autopilot over the weekend. And suburbs everywhere are draped in scaffolding and tarpaulin, as well-paid re-cladding firms (often formed out of the ashes of those same finance companies and developers who created the mess in the first place) struggle to weatherproof apartment blocks and townhouses before their rotting foundations finally give way.

Ironically, the few turn-of-the-century brick buildings and colonial villas still standing, remain as watertight as an Otter in a Driza-Bone.