Unlocking the public interest

In January a review by former police commissioner Neil Comrie found that the Melbourne Youth Justice Centre (MYJC) in Parkville was no longer fit for purpose. The facility which first opened at the site in 1955 has now reached the end of its useful life as a juvenile detention centre. With the Victorian government now planning a new purpose built facility in Werribee, the future use of the site has become uncertain.

For those unfamiliar with the area, the centre is located on the corner of Park and Manningham Street’s in Parkville West. This land was originally part of Royal Park when it was set aside by Governor Charles La Trobe in 1854. To the North of the site is the now largely residential suburb of West Brunswick, which is undergoing rapid residential development.

To the East and South of the site are health & technology facilities (CSL) and the Royal Park branch of the Royal Melbourne Hospital.  To the West sits the residential area created for the 2006 Commonwealth Games Village.

So what could be done with this sizable piece of government owned land, roughly the size of the flagstaff gardens and less than 4 kilometres from the CBD?  Here are four different scenarios to consider.

Scenario one – Commonwealth Games atonement

Making amends for past transgressions against the public realm, the government decides for the site to have a permanent return to public parklands. A design competition is run by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (AILA) to attract the best ideas for the site. This might include the provision of new grassed ovals or active recreation spaces, which could then allow for equivalent facilities in Royal Park to be reclaimed for urban forest.

This scenario also supports the mitigation of climate change impacts by enhancing our vegetation infrastructure in the inner city. As Brunswick and Parkville continue to densify, the provision of green open space nearby gives these places nearby public open space, in lieu of private backyards.

Ultimately a good outcome would be to replicate the quality of space achieved at the opposite corner of Royal Park in the project ‘Return to Royal Park’. This is not to say that we should replicate the design, just that this is the quality benchmark we should aim for. Given the child friendly nature of ‘Return to Royal Park’, perhaps the new intervention could be targeted towards a different demographic such as teenagers.

Opportunities to create or expand public parkland are few and far between. For the State to acquire land and turn it into parkland is rarely done due to the expense. Serious consideration should be given to this option as component of future proofing the city live-ability of the inner North.

Scenario two – The strategic long game

Whilst the juvenile detention centre is nearby to the existing Royal Park boundaries, it is also in close proximity to our high-tech medical research precinct. Under the State Governments big picture planning document Plan Melbourne, this is defined as a National employment and innovation cluster (NEIC). This city cluster is rapidly pushing ahead with recent new buildings such as the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre. Central to the success of this precinct is the dense grouping of research labs, university facilities, hospitals and other medical technology facilities.

“Each cluster needs to be investment-ready for knowledge-intensive firms and jobs. To support the development of clusters, effective governance arrangements—including key stakeholders and landowners—are required.” Plan Melbourne

So the question becomes, how could the MYJC site support the continued growth of this precinct?

One such method would be to execute a long term strategy to guarantee available land to upgrade medical technology facilities within the precinct. Under this strategy the MYJC site would be returned to basic parkland in the short term, but set aside for a medical research facility recycling program.

Before existing facilities become obsolete, organisations such as CSL or the Royal Melbourne Hospital, could have a new purpose built facility placed on the MYJC site. Once the new facility is constructed they would then decommission their existing site and return it to parkland. New facilities can be designed and built whilst the existing facilities are still operating. This avoids the need to relocate outside the precinct once their facility has come to the end of its useful lifespan. It also would limit the temptation to take further parkland from Royal Park in the future.

Scenario three – Homes of the future.

Politicians at all levels have woken up to the fact that we are currently experiencing a housing affordability crisis. The temptation will be great for the State to move quickly to sell off the MYJC site under the guise of providing more housing (see option 4 real estate rampage below). However this site, although it is large, will not make a substantial difference to housing affordability on its own. For meaningful impact, the site needs to be leveraged into a roadmap for best practice medium density housing on many other sites.

To achieve this, the State Government could look to forge a partnership with Nightingale Housing to create an ambitious, design led, inner city housing precinct. The Government would use its buying power to support the latest innovations in sustainable building technologies, such as structurally insulated panels, cross laminated timber and prefabrication.

Importantly it would be an opportunity for the government to turbocharge the innovations that Nightingale Housing have developed, enabling them to deliver substantial change in the provision of homes for the 21st century. Given the size of the project and the investment of public funds, the project could also have the benefit of design review from the Office of the Victorian Government Architect.

This approach would also unlock funds from the site upon the sale of the apartments. It would also offer an investment opportunity for the government to borrow funds with a low interest rate and reap the 15% profits offered to Nightingale ethical investors. Given the very high demand for Nightingale apartments (they currently have a waiting list of 2360) and the lower than usual planning risks this might even be the most financially lucrative of the options.

With the right level of ambition and forethought this site could be everything that the Commonwealth Games Village lacked.

Scenario four – Real Estate rampage.

Sold to the highest bidder, no strings attached! No ambition, no strategy, just show us the money. Turn this prime piece of land into a line on a spreadsheet.

Under this scenario the public interest is limited the benefit of a financial transaction. A single once off payment that will have virtually zero longer term public benefits. If this scenario eventuates watch for the political spin doctoring. “A $100 Million dollar economic bonanza!”, “Five hundred (temporary) jobs will be created”.

Once the land is sold and subdivided into hundreds of owners, the opportunities for this site are rapidly expunged. To reverse this process and return it to a single parcel of land is politically impossible. This is precisely why, the future of this site must be thoroughly considered now. It is a currently a public asset, let’s make sure the public gets the greatest benefit.

Architecture is for everyone.


Michael Smith is a Principal at Ateiler Red+Black. This article originally appeared on the Red and Black website.


johnproctor's picture

In scenario 3 if I replaced "Nightingale" with "Lend Lease" or "Mirvac" you wouldn't think that was at all acceptable. And yet we are supposed to suspend all due process and just hand this land over to the Nightingale team because what they do is 'good'.

While I might agree with the above proposition (that they are 'good') I just don't see how that could be considered to pass any sort of probity test for commercial agreements by government.

Option 3 is effectively Government as developer in partnership with a private developer. If Nightingale won a competitive tender for that great. Just don't suggest forgoing any process at all in selecting them or that they are the only ones capable of doing a sustainable (TBL) development of a site like this.

With respect to Scenario 2 I do not think this site really would be 'strategic' in the context of Parkville Precinct. A more logical strategic extension of the Parkville Precinct would be the Arden Precinct which will soon be 2 minutes by train from Parkville. This land is probably 15 minutes by tram to Parkville proper.

It makes sense as housing. ~500-800m from Royal Park station, the tram line and great bike links for CBD commuter access - but all probably just too far away to be really useful from a business perspective.

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theboynoodle's picture

Scenario 4 rather neglects the positive impact of creating housing in at a good location. Developers and agents aren't the only ones who benefit from building new homes. People get to live in them. We like living in homes, we people.

And John Proctor is right.. pretending that residential development is one thing when one company does it, and another when a different company does it, is disingenuous. If the government wants a certain type of development then it's free to sell the site with conditions, or partner up with any developer with a compelling vision. I'm a fan of the Nightingale model and I'd love to see it be successful and grow... but those guys are a long way from earning preferential status on big (potential) government projects.

I don't know the site/area... but it looks like a terrific location and a great opportunity. It would be nice to keep it in public ownership, but make good use of it to provide much-needed housing. Mid-density social housing sounds good to me.

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George D's picture

This area - Royal Park and its associated amenities - lacks activation and coherence. I'd like to see something that works with the space and makes use of it, rather than standing apart.

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