Crunch time at Waterfront Place?

In February this year I wrote a considered two thousand word response to the proposals put forward in the Port Melbourne Waterfront Urban Design Framework Report: see Another War in Port Melbourne on my website.

In this report the planning officers of Port Phillip Council put forward a guideline proposal for twin 14 storey residential towers on the prime Waterfront Place site opposite Station Pier.  The site has a long and complex planning history having been taken out of local government control as part of the Beacon Cove Development, and planning control of the site has only recently been returned to the City of Port Phillip.

The only justification for not sticking with the current height restriction of 3 storey within this Comprehensive Development Zone (CDZ1) was a bland assertion by the planners that;  The current CDZ1 controls do not reasonably reflect contemporary development factors and expectations'. 

At that time I asked who decides what reasonably reflects whose contemporary expectations (or if they should) but have never been answered?   

After the UDF was tabled, there was the normal community consultation and a public meeting where the Council listened to the community concerns that were aired.  I think it's fair to say that there was a strong public consensus that the buildings were too high and that the site development proposed was too dense, and Council face was saved by the officers being asked to reconsider the situation.

I am unaware of any specific actions taken by the council planners since this all happened, until it was advertised recently that the owners of the Waterfront Place site had lodged a formal application to change the height covenant as the forerunner for a Planning Permit being approved, and that this new proposal could be viewed at the Town Hall.  Citizens have every right to be concerned about this new proposal as the officers made it very clear in the Waterfront UDF that they support a massive redevelopment of this site.   

I subsequently inspected the drawings and reports that have been submitted in support of a request that the existing three storey height covenant over this site should be scrapped. 

The proposal by Fender Katsilidis Architects for 18 and 9 storey towers with a separate 4 storey building attached to the lower tower (a total of 241 apart-ments) far exceeds the covenant height limit of three storeys.  As one might expect from such good architects the design is more elegant and sophisticated than the diagrammatic 14 storey design proposed by council officers in the UDF Report. 

The important point however, is that the detailed architectural design is not really relevant at this stage and should not even be considered until the basic urban design question of the height and the existing covenants are resolved. 

Reports by Urbis Planning Consultants accompany the architectural drawings, but in my opinion there is nothing in these reports that makes any sort of a case as to why the overdevelopment proposed is desirable or justified.  This report largely consists of boosting what good buildings they are from an architectural point of view and what a good thing they would be from a tourism point of view; a doubtful assertion!   The only urban design consideration put forward was the self-serving one that such a wonderful building would form a great 'gateway' to Melbourne.

However, there is a better alternative solution.  A strong urban design case can be made that a gap should be left at Station Pier and only low rise buildings should be allowed on this site.  There are 12 and 14 storey Beacon Cove buildings on one side and the 8 to 10 storey buildings on the side leading down to Bay Street.  The view from the bay, and from tall cruise ships tied up at Station Pier in particular, looking through such a gap towards the CBD is consider-ed an important one, rather than the whole waterfront being fringed by a wall of tall buildings that could be anywhere. 

The drawing submitted on page 32 of the Urbis Waterfront Gateway Concept Report makes my point that this site should be low in order to maintain the vista described above.  It is submitted that this open vista to the city would be more attractive to tourists arriving by ship too!  In support of this urban design viewpoint and the further enlightenment of the Council and the citizens, a photograph of the CBD from the right hand upper deck of one of these cruise liners should be prepared and compared with the same photograph with the proposed 18 storey development accurately montaged onto it by an independent person.

There is no need for Council to consider or make comments on the design proposal submitted; Council should simply decide that the covenant height should be retained.  Covenants have considerable legal power, there is no need to do anything more at this stage!  The owner bought the site in full knowledge of the planning situation no matter what he might have been told by the Minister.

One of the proposed buildings is four storeys higher than the 14 storey twin towers proposed in the UDF report and the other is five storeys shorter. May I respectfully suggest that it's not good enough for the councillors to knock off a few floors in the hope that this would placate citizen opposition; this would not be a Solomon like decision as much as avoiding making a real decision!

If the Council will not accept the urban design view put forward here and maintain the covenant height, then in my opinion this application, a carefully composed group of buildings, should be approved unchanged; it's an either-or situation in my opinion.  It isn't the height that's the problem as much as having such bulky buildings in this particular important spot on the Port Melbourne foreshore.

Finally there is a procedural point that concerns me about the time available for adequate public scrutiny.  I inspected the proposal at the Town Hall on Monday 10th December and the officer on the desk told ne that the public file had only just become available and I was the first person to see it.   The date for public submissions set down was Friday 21st December.  Apart from the short time for the public to respond, deliberately fixing the closing date just before the Christmas holiday period is an old trick done in the hope that the proposal will not attract much attention at this time of year, and that as a result there will be fewer adverse public responses.

The time for public consideration of such an important development should be extended till the end of February at least, and this extension should be well advertised.  The officer's report on this proposed development should also be made available to the public before the Council makes any decision.

In the time available, I don't propose to put in a formal objection; nothing is going to alter the officers' views set down in the UDF and now reinforced by the current submission.  The community has to rely on their elected representatives to cut through the planning verbiage and act on the clear views of the community by adopting a better urban design solution than that proposed by the developer. These words are therefore directed at the newly elected councillors.

 Don Gazzard LFAIA
21st December 2012