Ivan Rijavec on a question of urban character

Ivan Rijavec on a question of urban character
Ivan Rijavec on a question of urban character

South Fitzroy has never been short of character or characters for that matter. Everyone from Mary McKillop to Squizzy Taylor has been part of its social history and despite its recent gentrification it still has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in Australia. It doesn’t surprise therefore that its urbanism also has an equally diverse character.

In The Fitzroy Historical Society’s terms South Fitzroy’s “compatible mix of light industry and residential housing”, was developed progressively over time in tune with its cultural and economic history. On the other hand Robin Boyd’s broader fulmination of Melbourne’s inner suburbs as “a dressmakers floor strewn with the snippings of style”, suggests a cacophony of tasteless ignorance.

Both descriptions paint the picture of a diverse urban character, though from diametrically opposite points of view. The operative interpretation used by Yarracity Planning however is based on the South Fitzroy Conservation Study which describes the precinct as one of Melbourne's most historically intact and of a “predominantly nineteenth century character”. This implies a consistency of urban form South Fitzroy simply doesn’t have. The diversity of its nineteenth century character which manifests a broad variety of different styles, building types and scales is all but ignored. Nor does it acknowledge the post war industrial architecture or the subsequent modern expressions that pepper its fabric with increasing regularity as one ventures north. Alas this conservation study which favors a consistency of urban form has been used as the basis for Neighbourhood Character regulation in the precinct.

Having practiced there for twenty five years and conducted urban character studies for numerous projects over that period, my view was that its character is a form of “urban sampling” or “jazz”, where streetscapes are expressed in syncopated rhythms of different architectures and scales. To me its urbanism read as a authentic register of the cultural and socio economic forces that shaped it. Its syncopation was in my view the essential aspect of its character because it reflected the rhythms of a uniquely Australian urbanism, not the shrill of “the violence of artistic conflict”, and the abject lack of taste this Boyd phrase implies.

This was (until the planning profession got hold of it), an honest urbanism unaffected by the dress code of the comparatively refined European urban preferences which planners have increasingly been regulating for since the early nineties. Their preference for more regular rhythms with gradual transitions is as much a nostalgia for European urbanism as it is the denial of Australian identity. Effectively urban character regulation amounts to a form of urban averaging which splits the difference between adjoining heights and set backs for infill development. Streetscapes that have been shaped by in this way read as a form of urban correctness, with upper floor setbacks and chamfers that is neither European nor Australian. The result is twee.

Aside from the differences in aesthetic preference embodied in the urban character interpretations above it is important to note that they predominantly recognise urban diversity as the essential common factor. It is remiss therefore that conservation and urban character studies focus on establishing urban similarities and consistency to determine a particular urban character and it is unfortunate these regulations have been used as a basis for the new Residential Zones gazetted in Victoria on July 1st 2013.

Sceptics could assert all of the above interpretations are on a par with reading tea leaves since they rely more on the bias of the observer than on the observed. They would be correct in reasoning the dilemmas in determining tendencies of either urban similarity or diversity is akin to questions of “is the cup half empty or half full”, since the adjudicator’s preferences rather than accurate measurement determines these answers. It is important to note however that assuming our cities survive the next millennium urban diversity will obviously be impossible to avoid.

The political expediency of the new residential zones which endorse NIMBY activism to limit both densities and heights in inner suburbs whilst promoting them in areas where there are few residents, like Fishermens Bend, Docklands and E gate, for example, could not be more transparent. It concentrates heights and densities where opposition is limited and limits them where opposition is great. This NIMBY legislation is being sold on the basis of democratic principles, and planning innovation. The truth is that Victoria’s planning policy is NIMBY inspired.

Ivan Rijavec on a question of urban character
The Artist

Here democracy has been used as the decoy for a lack in political leadership, since the city’s liveability and its cultural and social prosperity depends on its function as a whole, not on the political clout of inner city lobby groups. Ironically it has been the greens who have lead the charge on limiting inner city heights and densities, contradicting their platform on carbon reduction.

These questions of character and how they are determined has prompted the following summary on “NKYA”, akka “The Cheesegrater”, now “The Artist”, dubbed the test case for Labour’s new planning policy 2030 back in 2002, when it made headlines. Then NKYA successfully challenged neighbourhood character regulation which will now become entrenched, gaining substantial legislative force when Residential Zones are implemented in Victoria on July 1st 2014.

In 2002 when the planning application was lodged, Neighborhood Character Policy in Yarracity had been in operation for the best part of seven years and the bulk of proposed medium density projects in the inner suburbs, (irrespective of their compliance or otherwise), were vigorously objected to on the grounds of breaching character guidelines.

In expectation of a massive backlash, I completed a comprehensive urban character study immediately surrounding the site also incorporating large tracts of South Fitzroy.

The study comprised a bound volume of several hundreds of photograph’s and a preface that reinterpreted South Fitzroy’s Neighborhood Character as one of diversity. It rejected both the south Fitzroy conservation study and Boyd’s “Australian Ugliness”, proposing an affirmative interpretation of Australian urbanism.

The planning process that followed was punctuated by a succession of name calling that served as a sardonic echo of the contradictions inherent in the administration of the planning process. “NKYA” was chosen in demurral of the status envy branding that real estate advertising revels in. Composed of the first letters of the streets surrounding the site, Napier,Kerr, Young and Argyle, the acronym expressed a neutrality that rebutted the hollow marketing of real estate hype that sells the sizzle and forgets the sausage.

Ivan Rijavec on a question of urban character
The Artist

Objectors responded with “The Cheesegrater” which prevailed, until “The Artist” was coined by a new development consortium. This prompted objectors to insert “Bullshit” between adjective and noun on the numerous advertising billboards surrounding the site proclaiming it “The Bullshit Artist”. I would like to think this obvious reflex was in contempt of the expert witness evidence presented at the eight day VCAT hearings where heritage, planning, traffic and architectural witnesses diametrically opposed one another’s views on professional grounds.

The quasi legalese of the VCAT system belies the inherent hypocrisy of the process where experts contradict each others evidence with panache. In this case, against the councils refusal, the wishes of three thousand objectors and the contrary arguments of opposing expert witnesses supporting the South Fitzroy Conservation Study, the panel members were persuaded by the notion of Urban Sampling or Jazz. Controversially, they granted a permit justifying their decision in terms of the supporting neighborhood character study and because in their view, NKYA was an exemplary design.

In 2011 I revisited the ironies of the experience in an exhibition titled “Boyd’s Error Planning’s Curse” expanding on my observations with an essay illustrated with collaged photographs of three kilometers of Fitzroy’s primary streetscapes. The exhibition expanded on the original neighborhood character study with an analysis by comparative reference.

It consisted of three rows of images mounted one above the other. The bottom row speculated on what may have become had contemporary planning regulations prevailed from the genesis of South Fitzroy, thereby promoting greater consistency of period, scale and character. The middle row illustrated the 2011 streetscape current at that time and the top row speculated on what might become if the regulations were relaxed and broadened to embrace the future.

The exhibition audience was then invited to choose between the three rows and on the evidence of their reactions, the overwhelming majority preferred the top row. Obviously, exercising preferences to simulations of theoretical pasts and futures in a gallery is one thing, and deciding on whether to object to a multi storey development next door, entirely another.

This contradiction of human behavior encapsulates the ironies of NIMBY urbanism which has become the subtext of Victoria’s planning regulation. When the democratic process fails in this way it is a sure sign that the system is in need of review. It is unfortunate that our most respected professional institutions, urban theorists and commentators are seldom listened to by government since heir recommendations measured against the weight of public opinion have virtually no political clout.

It doesn’t help that the political prism through which urban affairs reporters project their gaze on the public, makes urban planning policy look like a frightened rabbit in full flight as it dodges hounds from lobby groups on every side of politics zig zagging over the different political terrain of their vested interests. Making this important urban debate look like an intriguing battle between humble residents and ethically bereft developers sells newspapers and though it gives voice to respected urban commentators they remain voices in the wilderness, serving no other purpose than preserving the notion of free speech.

The consequences can be appalling. In this case planning delays were responsible for NKYA’s 30% price hike by the time it was sold off the plan in 2009. The delays were in part consequent of the 2004 housing downturn that spiraled after the spectacular collapse of Henry Kaye’s 120 company property spruiking empire.

Ivan Rijavec on a question of urban character
The Artist

If the prolonged planning process had not ensued, apartments could have been sold a year prior avoiding the downturn. As a consequence NKYA was shelved until 2006 when a revised development consortium submitted new designs which VCAT refused. Several aborted re-submissions of the new design followed eventually prompting the new consortium to restrict their amendments to the internal courtyard and interiors. Maintaining the integrity of the original street facades they successfully submitted these revisions as an amendment to the originally approved planning permit.

Planning consultant, Tim Biles, described the final outcome as being “so similar to the original as to be considered practically identical”. By this he meant that “the ordinary man or woman in the street” would not be able to tell the difference.

It wasn’t until late 2011 that the construction of its upper levels were completed, marking the tenth anniversary of the year in which its design had begun. By the time sales commenced, inner city apartment prices had risen from six thousand dollars per metre to between eight and ten thousand dollars per metre, a cost that would be borne by the public. To this we can add the substantial taxpayer funded administrative costs of VCAT and Yarra City Council plus their consultant fees paid to opposing planners, heritage architects, barristers and other consultants representing objectors.

If NKYA, the Cheesegrater, the Artist or Bullshit Artist whatever else you may be inclined to call it, was an exception rather than the rule, then the planning process it was subjected to would be no less hypocritical or an outrageous waste of time and money. The tragedy is that minor two storey additions often suffer the same fate.

Postscript

In asking a former Yarracity mayor who lead the opposition against NKYA what he thought of “The Cheesegrater” a decade on:

My views of the Cheesegrater are that I think it takes time to bring a community around to accepting change, and that it rarely occurs within the timeframe of any particular individual project.

Councilor Geoff Barbour

The three hundred or so residents who now live at “The Artist”, have formed a strong community, they love it, however if something of the same height was to obscure their views next door, they would all of course passionately object.

Ivan Rijavec on a question of urban character
The Artist

Ivan Rijavec is an acclaimed Australian Architectural and Urban Designer and managing director of Rijavec Architects and Citiniche. He has received numerous Merit Awards and been widely published in numerous books, journals and web platforms. He is fellow of the Australian Institute of Architects and is a sessional tutor at RMIT.

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Fitzroy Urban Affairs

Comments (10)

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nwharr
The case study in the article highlights the impact that the current planning system has on urban character. That impact on character is not derived from the controls themselves but from a system that makes it so difficult to develop anything that does not fit the mold of what the local residents find acceptable. This means that development in these areas is far too risky for most developers.

What are relatively low building heights and how do you decide what the arbitrarily cut off point between culturally and economically diverse development ends and up-market pragmatic development begins?

The most significant remaining source of cultural and economic diversity in Fitzroy is the high rise public housing. I fail to see any link between building heights and the likelihood of cultural and economic diversity in an area.

Due to the locational and other advantages that Fitzroy benefits from any development is likely to be up-market accommodation that erases diversity and provides space for the new gentry whether it is million dollar townhouses or $500,000 two bedroom apartments.
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Ian Woodcock
The Atherton Gardens estate accommodates 'cultural and economic diversity' because it is public housing, not because it is high rise. Rent-controlled housing (aka 'affordable' housing), whatever form it takes, is the best way to accommodate people for whom the private market fails. It's true, the height of buildings has little to do with it, but then again, if it has little to do with it, it won't matter if there are low height limits, either. After all, land value for the private market is not just about location, it is also about yield, and raising height limits in high-amenity locations raises the land value. Social housing isn't developed to make a profit (by definition), and therefore, as the primary source of 'cultural and economic diversity' (if that is what matters, rather than making a profit), its design could be regulated by different parameters than those that govern the private market. Maybe there should be different planning controls for market and non-market housing - higher for social housing, lower for private developments. In South Fitzroy, research indicates that because of the cultural value of Atherton Gardens, residents are happy to leave the towers there. But at the same time, they will vehemently object to dramatic increases in building height for private market housing developments, partly because of the deleterious effects on local cultural and economic diversity. At present, there are no planning policies that mandate or even encourage social ('affordable') housing - perhaps it's time for some: density bonuses, inclusionary zoning etc. Along with design rules that disallow the spatial segregation of the 'social/affordable' components from the private market parts. That might result in some innovation, perhaps?
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IvanRijavec
I agree Ian. The planning system operates as a regulatory authority rather than a creative agent.
My position is one of connoisseurship, which recognises different architectural and urban qualities as ingredients that can be combined in a range of different tasty urban recipes. Instead of dividing Docklands into large allotments which which were left open to competing consortia who underpinned their bids with pre sales to international investors I would have commissioned an Urban Chef. His ingredients would have included, fine grain on the ground floors, a threshold of owner occupiers, infrastructures such as child care, schools, open space that was more focussed on recreation, etc etc…I would invite you to build the recipe which might include vertical farms and villages and multiple ground planes for example.

The objectives for this "urban brew", would be to provide for a diversity of both urban experiences and housing and building types that cover the full spectrum of affordability. Though focussed on individual developments rather than urban precincts, citiniche.com.au begins with people and involves them in a process where they can play a role in shaping their communities and spaces. The website launched earlier this year encourages people to start new niches that will suit new urban conditions and lifestyles. Crowd sourced people powered modes of urban delivery are becoming more and more popular in delivering projects such as the Rotterdam crowd sourced bridge for example, http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/most-popular/rotterdam-wooden-pedestrian-bridge-was-crowdfunded.htm

Citiniche's objective is to start at the creative end, creating communities as well as new forms of architecture and urbanism that responds directly to individual needs and preferences. It is a far cry from the traditional development model which assumes everyone wants either a one, two or three bedroom apartment in a couple of alternative colour schemes and finishes. There is no such thing as an average Australian, however the continued prescription of standardised housing units for the next few decades might result in a battery hen version.

Ivan Rijavec

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Ian Woodcock
Ivan, to what extent does current planning legislation impact on urban character per se, beyond preferences for height, setback and building spacing (if indeed, we ever do get to that level of built-form control in the interests of internal amenity ...)? The Burra Charter frames practice when working with heritage-protected sites - and that specifically requires that new structures be of their time, not pastiche, and distinguishable from the existing structures. Apart from a few isolated examples of 'Neighbourhood Character Overlays' that attempt to enforce conformity with a past that never existed, most planning schemes in Victoria are entirely contestable via VCAT, highlighting the heart of the thesis that urban character emerges from the interplay of social, cultural and economic forces. While the argument for formal diversity to mirror social diversity is not at issue, this is achievable within relatively low building heights (which can also accommodate relatively high densities) - there are many, many examples of formal inventiveness, as well as programmatic innovation at modest scales and heights. It's likely that constraining the height of development may foster more of this kind of diversity, linked to social, cultural and economic diversity, than declaring open-slather on height, which would encourage site consolidation and the concentration of new development in ways not so far demonstrated to be productive of genuinely multicultural urbanism. Yes, many large developments may have all kinds of architectural (read: formal) inventiveness and delight, but economically and programmatically, they're usually more of the same kind of up-market accommodation that erases diversity and provides space for the new gentry (who are not only those occupying renovated terraces - after all, there are only so many to go around).
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IvanRijavec
Ian,

The following quote from an online Urbis article answers your question.

"We consider that the proposed changes sought to 80% of residential land within Boroondara will severely limit the opportunity to provide a range of housing types and diversity of housing stock in this established area, particularly where a site’s surrounding context would clearly indicate that a range of housing forms are acceptable. In addition to this, the variations to ResCode have the potential to stifle innovative and site responsive design and constrain development yields."

For the full article, read further below.

"New Neighbourhood Residential Zoning – City of Boroondara
Following the recent introduction of the new residential zones across the Glen Eira municipality through a ‘fast track’ Ministerial amendment, the City of Boroondara is seeking to follow suit and expedite the introduction of the new residential zones into its planning scheme.

On 16 September 2013, the Council endorsed the introduction of the new residential zones to implement the municipality’s Neighbourhood Character Study. They will now be requesting the Minister for Planning to prepare and approve an amendment to the Boroondara Planning Scheme (Amendment C190).

The new zoning, if approved by the Minister for Planning, will see approximately 80% of residential land within Boroondara covered by the Neighbourhood Residential Zone – Schedule 1 or 2 (NRZ 1 or 2).

City of Boroondara

Unlike Glen Eira, Boroondara is seeking to introduce schedules to this zone which will not only limit the number of dwellings able to be provided on a lot (i.e. 2 maximum) but also restrict the area allowed to be subdivided. In addition to this, the schedules to the NRZ include variations to the ResCode Standards which will apply to all planning applications for single dwellings and multi-dwelling developments requiring planning permission.

We consider that the proposed changes sought to 80% of residential land within Boroondara will severely limit the opportunity to provide a range of housing types and diversity of housing stock in this established area, particularly where a site’s surrounding context would clearly indicate that a range of housing forms are acceptable. In addition to this, the variations to ResCode have the potential to stifle innovative and site responsive design and constrain development yields.

All other remaining residential zoned land within Boroondara will either be included within the General Residential Zone – Schedules 1-4 (19% of residential land) or a Residential Growth zone (1% of residential land).

A review of these zones indicates that within the General Residential Zone, Council is seeking to limit new development to a mandatory height of 9 metres (for GRZ Schedules 1 and 2) and 10.5 metres (for Schedule 3). A small proportion of land within the municipality which is to be rezoned to a General Residential Zone 4 will have a discretionary height limit of 9 metres.

With only 1% of all residential land proposed to be included in the Growth Zone and Council’s intentions to limit the height of development within its commercial areas, the opportunities for more compact and diverse housing products to be developed within Boroondara are likely to be significantly restricted.

The Council have released an ‘interactive map’ on its website which highlights how each parcel of residential land will be affected by the proposed new zoning provisions. A link to the map is provided below for your information.

- See more at: http://www.urbis.com.au/planning_changes/new-neighbourhood-residential-zoning-city-of-boroondara#sthash.NMzq60fu.dpuf

From what I have heard from planners advising councils, their regulations will reflect similar outcomes.
I trust that helps.

Ivan Rijavec

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