The case for 447 Collins Street

The case for 447 Collins Street
Laurence DragomirMarch 29, 2016

Following on from Mark's article on Planning Minister Wynne's rejection of Cbus Property's proposal for 477 Collins Street, I have decided to look at the case for the contentious Woods Bagot + SHoP designed scheme and add my two cents to the debate.

Firstly it's worth noting that the scheme as presented - albeit with some adjustments to setbacks - was ready to be submitted for assessment the week just after Planning Minister Wynne introduced interim planning controls for the Central City under the guise of Amendment C262. The previous proposal for a 297 metre single tower had already been knocked back by former Minister for Planning Matthew Guy under the former planning regime, sending CBUS and their design team back to the drawing board.

This despite the City of Melbourne providing support for the project on the grounds that it would introduce significant public space into the heart of the CBD, an extremely rare opportunity. Council acknowledged that they were unable to compete with developers in a bid to acquire land for much-needed CBD public space. It would cost council in the vicinity of $20 million just to purchase the site.

The importance of the Yarra River as a key natural feature of Melbourne is acknowledged in State planning policy, the Melbourne Planning Scheme and the Planning Schemes of other relevant municipalities. The only basis upon which an exemption to the prohibition could possibly be contemplated is if there was a demonstrated public benefit which would outweigh such an impact on a natural asset of state significance.

City of Melbourne

Following the Minister's refusal on the grounds of overshadowing Southbank, and in particular Queensbridge Square, the design team worked on developing the alternate scheme that had been presented as Option B, in parallel to the 297m Option A and addressed the concerns.

The case for 447 Collins Street
Alternative Spire (left) and Bridge concept designs (right). Image courtesy SHoP / Woods Bagot

This took on the form of dual mixed use towers of 47-storeys and 165m linked by a skybridge not too dissimilar to the Option B design pictured above. The main point of difference being the relocation of the skybridge to the top of the two towers. Additionally the revised scheme provided 259 hotel suites and 315 apartments in addition to 68,364sqm of office space, 500sqm of retail space, and basement parking for 487 vehicles and 501 bicycles.

At ground level, a 2,000 sqm public space featuring a tree grove, promenade and an amphitheatre would greet pedestrians. It also no longer overshadowed Southbank between the key times of 11.00 am and 2.00 pm 22nd June.

The main point of contention this time around is Point 7 within Schedule 1 of the Capital City Zone, which following the introduction of the interim planning controls states:

The construction of buildings and works which would cast any additional shadow across the north bank of the Yarra, 15 metres north from its edge… between 11.00 am and 2.00 pm from 22 March to 22 September is prohibited.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne has previously stated that his powers on planning matters are discretionary and that developers could request exemptions to the interim rules if they could demonstrate their project would benefit the community. The development team had requested dispensation in order to facilitate the uniquely shaped development, with the hope of the project being the first proposal to receive a Ministerial waiver since the September implementation of the revised planning controls.

For mine 447 Collins Street stands out as a site to which these discretionary powers should be applied. The site occupies an entire city block in the heart of the Melbourne CBD, arguably characteristics of a "site of state significance" and one which should be exempt from the controls.

The proposal also would have complied with the previous planning controls and when coupled with the fact the scheme was ready to be lodged within days of the interim planning controls being introduced and considering there was no consultation or deadline enforced prior to the introduction it seems like a relatively unfair way to force a redesign.

An amnesty period of two weeks from the announcement should have been in place to allow developers and their design teams to complete and submit their applications.

In my opinion the benefit to the city of a new quality green space activated by retail and surrounding buildings far outweighs the negative impact of shadow to a stretch of Northbank which is generally undesirable and underutilised, largely as a result of the rail viaducts and bridges which cross the Yarra.

In addition to this I consider the architecture and form of the scheme to be of a high design standard particularly when considering the two offices which collaborated to produce the design. It's also worth remembering that Cbus Property undertook an invited design competition before appointing the architects, a clear appreciation of the importance of the site.

The $1 billion cost associated with the project also suggests this would have been anything but a standard run of the mill development.

The City of Melbourne's Future (Planning Committee) have also previously supported the revised scheme citing design merit and public space as the key factors towards approval:

The key issues in relation to this amendment are built form, provision of publicly accessible space and overshadowing. The amendment enables the development of the site with a unique building that is generally acceptable in terms of its architecture, height, setbacks, tower separation, internal amenity and façade activation.

A significant amount of publicly accessible space is to be provided within the site which has good access to sunlight, will achieve comfortable wind conditions, incorporate (where applicable) landscaping with deep soil planting and provide true public street connections.

The proposal did comply with the sunlight to public spaces requirements prior to Amendment C262. The amendment is now prohibited because it casts additional shadow across the north bank of the Yarra (15 metres north from the Yarra River’s edge). The application documentation shadow analysis shows that the extent (length) of shadow is significantly reduced when compared with the previous amendment.

City of Melbourne Future Committee

One of the biggest arguments I hear against the 447 Collins Street proposal is that it would set a precedent for other such proposals. For starters there aren't any other entire city blocks available for redevelopment along that stretch of Collins Street that could accommodate a large commercial and residential development and still provide a city park. If a developer is somehow able to consolidate a number of sites to do so and if a proposal demonstrates strong architectural merit then I don't consider that too big of an issue.

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has also previously commented on this noting that "each (application) will have to be considered on its merits and, in fact, once you get one or two like this, it gets much harder in the future to argue that you should get an exemption." The key point here being that while planning controls are in place for a reason each application must be judged on its merits.

What implications the Minister's refusal of the scheme have for the site remain to be seen, but I hazard a guess the public open space may now possibly take on the form of a north-south laneway as a reduction in height will possibly mean greater building footprints. Perhaps a topic for another article…

Laurence Dragomir

Laurence Dragomir is one of the co-founders of Urban Melbourne. Laurence has developed a wealth of knowledge and experience working in both the private and public sector specialising in architecture, urban design and planning. He also has a keen interest in the built environment, cities and Star Wars.

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