The overnight implementation of amendment C262 to the Melbourne Planning Scheme last month, which reintroduced plot ratio restrictions into the CBD, took us all by surprise. For those of us who have been around long enough, the concept of plot ratios was a key feature of development in the Melbourne CBD in the 1990s. Their reintroduction is perhaps a spot of nostalgia for some of us.
The introduction of the control was fast, swift and wide reaching, catching everyone ‘off guard’. Some have complained loudly about the effect of the changes, the lack of consultation, the impact on investment in the CBD and the stifling of innovation.
However, I haven’t heard, either publically or privately, widespread concerns from the planning or architecture professions. I honestly believe this is a consequence of many of us realising the need for an interventionist approach to curtail the density of development and the importance of policy in achieving better built form and amenity outcomes.
This analysis of the block between Swanston, Little Lonsdale Street, Elizabeth Street and A’Beckett Street, previously undertaken by Urban Melbourne, is a good example of the sort of intensity of development currently approved in the central city.
I see the issues regarding heightened development pressure in the central city in recent years as being exacerbated by other factors. Particularly:
We all accept and embrace the important role that the central city plays in providing new housing opportunities. I would also argue that these opportunities and issues of density and building separation should also be considered in the context of development pressures in more suburban locations, from South Yarra to Box Hill.
Lessons learned in the CBD should be transferred to these other emerging high rise precincts.
I consider that the concerns raised regarding the liveability of the CBD, not only apartments but public spaces, is largely a consequence of the lack of leadership on this issue and the failure of planning policy to keep up with the change in market conditions. The success of city living has been on the rise since the success of postcode 3000 some 30 years ago with the rise in ‘super towers’ on the agenda for the past 10 years.
Policy makers have failed to respond to this change in building typology, despite the emergence of high rise residential towers in the central city under Planning Minister Justin Madden 10 year ago. It has only been in recent times that there been sufficient pressure to start the process of introducing clear direction on the development of high rise residential buildings and in particular the issues of building separation and internal amenity.
Clearly the Higher Density Residential Guidelines missed the mark in providing the direction needed. Imagine if we as planners had been more visionary and such documents were being prepared 10 year ago…
Whilst I will be the first to admit the tools utilised in C262 are not perfect, I do agree that something needed to be done to give decisions makers’ time to put this planning framework into place. This seems to be a commonly held opinion with just about every planner and architect I discuss the matter with.
I can understand why the Minister undertook such a change under the cloak of secrecy, preventing what would have inevitably been a rush of poor conceived applications to beat the deadline. Such a rush was exactly what happened as the deadline for the introduction of the Residential Zones approached in mid 2014 and such applications were, in many instances, inappropriately resolved and a drain on public resources and time.
At least the change in the rules has the effect of introducing a level playing field, where all developers must now look to develop sites under the same set of rules and, for the time being at least, consideration will be given to the issues of building separation and liveability of our central city in a more formal sense.
Also for the first time we have a set of planning controls that make it clear that there must be demonstrable broader public amenity benefits if the plot ratio controls are to be exceeded. Perhaps this may be the beginning of the idea of inclusionary zoning that has worked elsewhere in the developed world?
12 months isn’t a long time for such a document to be prepared, with the need for the industry and other stakeholders to be appropriately consulted. The outcome must be a fair and equitable planning framework that takes into account the strategic objectives of intensification of the central city, the need to create liveable, sustainable neighbourhoods and the potential for the inclusion of affordable housing.
I look forward to the draft.
Colleen Peterson is the Managing Director of Ratio Consultants. Follow Colleen on Twitter.