The City Centre GFA rules – What exactly is the point


While the team at MHG generally agrees that the Unitary Plan represents a significant improvement on the previous planning regimes in Auckland, there is one rule in particular that I can’t for the life of me understand why we kept. This being the gross floor area (GFA) controls in the City Centre.


Floor area ratio rules originated out of New York in 1916, and were created as a way to control the bulk of skyscrapers that were popping up across the city. At the time the city had a problem with large, dominating buildings constructed without setbacks or facade variation, which were restricting the provision of daylight to the street. The main culprit in this case was the Equitable Building, constructed in 1915, with a total floor area of 110,000m² over a 4,000m² site.

Figure 1: The Equitable Building in New York

GFA controls are intended to limit the building bulk in relation to the size of the underlying land parcel. For example, a GFA ratio of 10:1 on a 1,000m² site would permit 10,000m² of building bulk. By combining the total vertical and horizontal limits into a single control, the intent of the GFA rules is to control the total building bulk. By encouraging flexible design and building setbacks to allow more daylight to the street and within the building.

However, those familiar with the Unitary Plan will know that we have several controls within the plan already to control building bulk, particularly the tower setback, plan dimension and outlook controls. This makes it virtually impossible to gain approval for bulky, dominating structures. Further, all new buildings in the City Centre require resource consent approval anyway, with dozens of assessment criteria applicable, mostly relating to streetscape and amenity effects. Council expects and requires a good level of design and visual interest as a minimum to gain resource consent.

Figure 2: City Centre Outlook Control

What are the effects?

This brings us back to the main point of the article – what is the point of the GFA rules? In Auckland, the maximum GFA achievable is 13:1, and even this requires extensive and potentially costly GFA bonuses. This artificially limits the maximum height and area possible in the downtown area, when really we should be asking why there should be a limit on height in the heart of the city at all. Artificially constraining the maximum achievable GFA of buildings limits the development potential of many sites in the city, making them harder and less economic to develop.

Further to this point, we are now seeing many consents approved for exceedance of the GFA rules, both within our office and from other consultancies. Not to mention that no GFA rules exist in other zones, such as the Metropolitan Centre, Town Centre or Mixed Use zones, which were removed from the old legacy plans. To my eye, this is an admission by Council that there are no effects directly related to GFA controls, and that the effects of building bulk can be effectively controlled through other means.

So in conclusion, while the intent behind the City Centre GFA rules is understandable, I believe that these rules are now antiquated, and potentially represent an artificial barrier to development in the heart of town.

Harrison Burnard

Intermediate Planner – Mt Hobson Group

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