Opinion: Is Dunedin starting a new hotel trend?

One of the media's roles is to analyse and, where necessary, critique things which affect our lives. As such, much of what ends up in the media can be negative.

One of those oft-criticised aspects of New Zealand life, and one as relevant in our region as it is anywhere, is how we regulate and enforce town planning. While there are numerous examples of under-regulation leading to problems, over the last few decades an increase in rules, regulations and enforcement has led to significant critique.

Much of that critique has centred on one fundamental tension: that restricting what people can do with property restricts progress, be it increased wealth, increased employment, better efficiency or reduced costs.

Often, it can be argued planning rules are too restrictive, too generic or too dogmatically adhered to, especially in a growing region like ours. But as well as critiquing such things, it is also incumbent upon the media, and by extension those who consume it, to acknowledge when town planning succeeds.

The report in the Otago Daily Times on Monday - that plans for a 24-room boutique hotel in Dunedin's Lower Stuart St are taking shape - demands such acknowledgment.

The planned hotel would occupy two floors of the Allbell Chambers building, a large and attractive heritage building in one of the city's most prominent streets. Currently, the building has multiple uses, including offices and a recreational facility. It is just a few steps from the Octagon, is surrounded by restaurants, bars, cafes, shops and cultural attractions, and is a short stroll from the railway station.

Its conversion into a hotel would place guests in the heart of the city's vibrant hospitality zone - as has happened in a similar building a few doors down. Those guests would be staying inside the heritage they are marvelling at, helping the building pay its keep while ensuring it remains maintained and presented in its glory. The city's pressing need for visitor beds would be reduced - albeit by only a small amount - without major changes to roads, neighbourhoods or aesthetics.

Guests would not need to cross several roads to walk to the city's centre and would presumably use cars or taxis less. They would add to an area already humming - rewarding those who have and continue to invest in surrounding businesses.

No-one's existing views would be ruined and there would be no shading issues.

Perhaps most importantly, Dunedin would continue to build on its strengths and invest in what few other cities in the country can compete with - our built heritage. A city chock full of small hotels in restored heritage buildings right in the heart of a vibrant centre sounds like a selling feature - and a good one at that. Experienced travellers complain most hotels often appear depressingly monotonous. If Dunedin can offer something different and attractive, that can surely only be a positive.

All of this will presumably happen without consenting struggles. How? Because the developers have married together an idea and a site which, when sifted through the city's planning guidelines, don't jar. The cost, vitriol, division and debate which follow development proposals outside planning guidelines is completely avoided.

One example of a good idea working within existing guidelines does not mean the guidelines are beyond critique. Nor does it mean great ideas shouldn't be progressed simply because they weren't thought of when the guidelines were drawn up.

It shows there are positives of restrictive planning, too. Dunedin is slowly adapting to its new role as a tourism destination. It is redeveloping itself in its own way and, in instances like that proposed for Allbell Chambers, is doing so while maintaining the character many would argue set it apart from its competition.

That is a victory for town planning deserving of acknowledgement.

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