Meet Charles Ma, the 28-year-old land developer behind a $1 billion Auckland housing project

Jan 28, 2019 | News

Young developer’s fresh take on housing.

A 28-year-old entrepreneur believes his $1 billion south Auckland housing project will be held up as a “blueprint” for future developments.

Land developer Charles Ma, an Auckland-born Kiwi of Chinese descent, through his company Made Group is developing a 2700 section housing project in the Auckland suburb of Drury, 40 kilometres south of the central city.

The civil engineer and business graduate started working on Auranga five years ago with the goal of creating a community that puts people at its centre and creates “a more fulfilling life” for residents.

Charles Ma says he wanted to keep the coast open for residents and visitors to enjoy.

Perched on an 83 hectare block of land on Manukau Harbour’s Pahurehure Inlet, Auranga homes will sell for between $600,000 for three-bedroom homes to about $2m. Once completed up to 7000 people will call Auranga home.

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Ma says he wants Auranga to be unlike any other community in New Zealand. A place where residents are less reliant on cars and have greater access to shared green spaces.

Auranga development to transform Drury

The $1 billion Auranga development will have 2650 homes and house up to 7000 people.

“I think it will become perhaps one of the blueprints that will be used for future communities,” Ma says.

Ma, describes himself as “a classic Aucklander”. He was born and raised in Auckland and was a student at the prestigious school, Auckland Grammar, before attending the University of Auckland. He’s now listed on the university’s 40 under 40 list, outlining its most promising and successful alumni.

The Manukau resident went on to study in Britain and the United States, including Stanford, Harvard, London Business School and soon Oxford.

Auranga will feature 2650 homes once completed.

On returning to New Zealand Ma started working in the property development division of private equity firm Lily Investment Group where within a few years he was promoted to a director role.

He attributes this to his “dying curiosity” and being bilingual. Being the son of Chinese migrants Ma also speaks Mandarin, Cantonese.

Ma is no stranger to property development.

Property developer Charles Ma says Auranga has not been designed with high car use in mind.

He had a portfolio of land development in Flat Bush of about 400 houses while working in private equity.

“I was fairly young at that time but I was managing quite a lot of people’s money,” he says with a laugh.

He was also the former joint managing director of the company behind what will become one of Auckland’s largest, if not the largest, apartment development. The 700-unit development SugarTree on Nelson St is nearing completion.

Auranga houses will range from $600,000 to up to $2m.

But Ma has already moved onto bigger and better things.

“Auranga: You could say 20 or 30 things about it that are quite interesting but to me at its core, I want to connect people into place again, towards a more purposeful way of living.

“This is not my first development but this will be my flagship development.”

The 5km walkway was built on council land but paid for by Ma’s company Made Group.

On the face of it Ma’s ideology sounds like marketing spin, and at first glance Auranga looks like just another of the many large-scale housing projects underway in Auckland.

But as you work your way through the site it becomes clear that Auranga has a little bit of X factor.

The first noticeable different is its roads. They’re narrow and single-laned, with main roads split down the centre by wide centre medians waiting to be planted with rows of oaks trees.

The development is zoned Mixed Housing Urban and Mixed Housing Suburban.

But what’s more striking is that the roads are lined with wide footpaths and dedicated cycleways.

This is land that could have been used for housing, returning millions of dollars more for investors, but that goes against Ma’s philosophy of wanting to create “a place that embodies care for people, care for the environment and care for the futures that will be created here”.

There is also very limited street parking compared to your average Auckland street. Ma did not want the place to be overrun by cars.

For years the the public have not had access to Pahurehure Inlet by land.

“Because of the density we’re putting in we didn’t want to encourage too many cars per house.

“We’re more interested in creating a quality street which allows for different types of transport.”

Then there’s more subtle differences like “rain gardens” around drains to treat stormwater and footpaths that are mixed with aggregate to add more character.

Buyers have different construction firms’ housing designs to choose from.

Details like this all add cost, but Ma says they’re worth it because they affect how people experience a place.

A 5 kilometre long, 3 metre wide paved esplanade, built on council land but paid for by Made Group, wraps around the coast and has been shaped and sculpted to create improved view shafts and more gentle undulations.

Made Group also paid for the 100,000-odd plants that have been planted alongside the waterway.

Made Group chief executive Charles Ma, pictured here in 2016, says Auranaga is not his first housing development, but it will be his flagship development.

Subtle features, like breaks in the footpath at certain points, are incorporated into the overall design to give people visual markers as they are moving through the community, Ma says.

“We’re trying to create intuitive spaces.”

Ma says if he was executing Auranga like a regular housing development he could have completed it within two years.

Cycleways and wide footpaths are a defining feature of Auranga.

“But I took my time to research around the world to find out what I can do differently. It’s taken a bit longer but I trust it will produce a better outcome.”

Perhaps Auranga’s most defining feature is its abundance of parks and open green spaces.

“We mandated every development in our community to have a park edge road.”

A “park edge road” means housing is only built on one side of main roads leaving the remaining side accessible to the public.

This is an inefficient way to plan a housing development because its prime land that’s not being used for housing.

But Ma believes that not building homes on the prime real estate sites, like the coast, and leaving it accessible to the public, will create more value in the long run.

Ma says he wanted to move away from traditional subdivision planning, which focused on maximising return on investment by designing layouts in the most cost effective way.

“Most subdivisions, they are grids. I know because I designed them.”

With Auranga he wanted residents and the wider public to engage with the coast. He did not want to privatise it so a select few could enjoy it.

The development also features a $240m retirement village including a country club and 310 units as well as a 4ha dog park, a village centre, jetty and playgrounds.

Of the 83ha site, about 70ha would be zoned Mixed Housing Urban for higher density housing and the remaining 13ha will be zoned Mixed Housing Suburban – the most widespread residential zone covering many established suburbs.

The master-planned site of Auranga provides for more than 12,000 new dwellings – but that would require more land aquisitions. Ma is also working with the Government to try involve KiwiBuild in Auranga to help deliver affordable housing.

Ma says in designing Auranga he drew some inspiration from Hobsonville Point, a master planned west Auckland community that will feature 4500 homes when complete.

“I’m quite encouraged by Hobsonville. It proved people don’t mind high density living if there’s true amenities around them.”

The valuation of Auranga alone is worth about $400m, including improvements made. Once completed with housing it will have a capital value of about $1b, he says.

Ma says he’s funding the development with private equity investors who he’s worked with on past projects. He has investments of his own in Auranga and Made Group.

“I was very fortunate I already had a decent reputation within the industry.”

Ma founded Made Group in 2016 and counts former mayor Len Brown as a strategic advisor.

Interest in Auranga A, which has 1500 homes, has been strong, Ma says, with 136 of the 163 lots available in stage one being committed to.

The first homes will be completed by the end of the year with buyers choosing from a range of housing designs offered by house builders partnering with Made Group.

Ma’s personal business coach is Katia Verresen, who counsels leaders at Stanford, Twitter, Airbnb and Facebook.

The US-based mentor says when she first met Ma she saw he had “the magic, the drive and the ambition” seen in great world leaders.

“I was instantly struck by his energy,” Verresen says.

“And like many successful entrepreneurs, Charles figured out how to do things his way.”

One of Ma’s first principles is to ask “why not?”, she says.

“This allows him to move fast and create what has not existed before. Which is why at such a young age he leads a successful real estate development group that he created from scratch.”

She says Ma wants to help people find to a sense of belonging in the world.

“Charles fundamentally cares and is passionate about every single person feeling like they belong. Because in his experience when you belong you can thrive.

“So he is starting with homes and townships that are specifically designed to create more belonging.”

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