Sky Rail: a missed opportunity?

Sky Rail: a missed opportunity?
Urban EditorialApril 19, 2016

The Victorian Government’s level crossing removal program will significantly enhance the public transport experience and the efficiency of the road network in the vicinity of each project. It will also provide valuable improvements to local connectivity, including much more convenient access to shops and community services for residents on the opposite side of the rail line.

But what about transit-oriented development?

Denser development is needed around stations (particularly those in activity centres) to offer more places to live or work close to high quality public transport, shops and services.

The Level Crossing Removal Authority (LXRA) is exploring ‘value capture’ development opportunities at the new stations. Yet opportunities immediately alongside stations and along the corridors between them are going begging. In many cases, current zonings do not facilitate more intensive redevelopment.

Taxes that capture land value uplift do not appear to be politically palatable — at least in established urban areas (e.g. Fishermans Bend). So, as it stands, there don’t appear to be any efforts being made to realise a direct financial return from the substantial investment made by the Victorian community in the level crossing removal program. In the meantime, the potential to capitalise on the uplift in land value created by improved accessibility is left to private landowners.

Since the days of the first railway lines, new rail infrastructure has been paid for by developing the land alongside. Why are we missing out on this opportunity to get a return on our massive transport investment?

The plan to build three sections of elevated rail line between Caulfield and Dandenong has created the opportunity to rethink the use of the rail reserve at ground level. The LXRA proposes to use the land to create new connections across the rail corridor, a new shared pedestrian/cycle path along it, and new public open space, community facilities and car parking.

The new connections will provide valuable improvements in local connectivity, including more convenient links to the activity centres and other facilities along the corridor, potentially lessening congestion on the few roads that currently cross the line (although, at this stage, it appears that only pedestrian and cycle links are being considered).

New open space sounds good in principle. But will it be valuable open space?

Much of the rail corridor either side of the Carnegie Activity Centre is narrow and lined with high back fences. This will result in an uninviting and potentially unsafe shared path and open space.

Sky Rail: a missed opportunity?
Carnegie 'Sky Rail' corridor

However, the adjoining properties are presumably included in those subject to the Government’s ‘voluntary purchase scheme’. This presents an opportunity to rethink the broader corridor, including residential land abutting the rail reserve, with the twin aims of creating a consolidated, strategic redevelopment site and a much safer open space corridor through building frontages and more regular access points.

Sky Rail: a missed opportunity?
Potential development alongside Carnegie corridor

Developing land adjacent to the rail line would provide a return on the infrastructure investment, and create more opportunities for people to live close to public transport, shops and services. It would also address concerns raised about impacts on residential properties immediately adjoining the elevated rail line.

Elsewhere along the line, such as between Corrigan Road and the Noble Park Activity Centre, the rail corridor runs alongside a large park, so its use as open space will add little in the way of local access to recreation opportunities. Here, the rail reserve is broad and the proposed viaduct runs along the northern edge, leaving a swathe of land approximately 30 metres wide without a purpose and with little value as open space.

Why not develop this space with new townhouses facing Lightwood Road? This would not only provide more homes close to public transport and other facilities, but it would also lessen the visual impact of the viaduct in views from the south.

Gaps could be left between the townhouses opposite James and George Streets, to provide connections to Ross Reserve. The shared path could be run along Lightwood Road or the park edge.

Sky Rail: a missed opportunity?
Potential development alongside Noble Park corridor

The townhouses along Canterbury Road in St Kilda West, backing onto the former St Kilda rail line, demonstrate the viability of such an approach.

Sky Rail: a missed opportunity?
Townhouses along former St Kilda railway line in Canterbury Road, St Kilda West

This particular opportunity may be ruled out by the need for more rail lines in the future. But it serves to illustrate how a more holistic approach to public infrastructure projects based on integrated land use and transport planning could make a significant contribution to urban consolidation while also improving the public balance sheet.

Mark Sheppard is an urban designer and principal of David Lock Associates.

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