More triangulation….. or is it slow
A double page spread in 24 point type at the beginning of this report demands to be quoted in full:
The St Kilda Triangle is a loved seaside place that acknowledges and builds on the local character and place. It is a public place supported by a mix of uses to make it attractive and welcoming. It makes St Kilda a great place.
It's emperor's new clothes stuff, there's no vision there; you don't know whether to laugh or to cry but it certainly won't inspire anyone. Steve MacMillan of the earlier BBC proposal would have claimed, with a totally straight face, that his shopping 'place' absolutely' fitted this vision! And the Triangle garden doesn't need 'to be supported by a mix of uses to make it attractive and welcoming'; in fact it's the exact opposite! Friends have suggested a better line, 'A place to go without your purse!'
'What the vision looks like 'is the most important statement in the report. I had naively thought that the purpose of this report was to decide what should go on the site (a garden and not much else in my opinion) so that a good designer could prepare an imaginative and inspiring 'world class' design. But this isn't a brief, and although it doesn't specifically say so, this Vision Plan is, in reality, an indicative final design for the site. Unlike 'the vision' itself, which is so bland it fits whatever you like, the Vision Plan is essentially quite proscriptive. It even locates 'feature elements' such as public art or water features or feature planting, but isn't completely final; they haven't decided on the types of trees and shrubs yet! It all sound a bit old fashioned, I thought the word 'feature' went out after Robin Boyd made such fun of the word and its use fifty years ago!
Sightlines: The Vision Plan accepts the sightline corridors proposed in the not yet released Visual Impact Analysis. In my opinion the whole of the foreshore should be able to be seen from the whole of the Upper Esplanade as was set down in the original UDF; we're going backwards by restricting the view to corridors. I'll object to this aspect if formal objections are ever allowed (fast forward to pages 9- 11) but I suspect these unnecessary view corridors will end up in the legal Planning Scheme Amendment before I ever get the chance to object.
If this Vision Plan is accepted, it will become a straight jacket for the final design. All the important design decisions will have already been decided on this plan, and the plan will be reinforced by the words that will make it all legally enforceable once they are incorporated in the Planning Scheme Amendment.
The planners will probably deny this intention, although I well remember that the Master Plan for the skateboard site was popped up just like this Vision Plan without real community design input except lots of talk that ended up being taken as agreement. Just a draft for discussion, the planners said, but despite subsequent community input, in the end not a line was altered.
By the time those who weren't invited to the Community Forums get to see this vision plan, I'm afraid it will have been massaged and finalised to the point where, with the imprimatur and approval of 'public consultation at a number of community forums', nothing but cosmetic changes will be possible!
But what if we simply accept for the moment that while it may not be a brilliant design it won't frighten the horses, and accept that you can't expect excellence from the sort of 'lowest common denominator' process that it's been through, but ask instead whether everything else about it is sensible enough? What else can one say about this vision, could it be accepted as the best we're likely to get?
Suggested changes: Although there is no substitute for a creative designer, a few changes and suggestions can be made. The vision plan shows what's described as an 'integrated building within landscape', a triangular shaped building fronting Jacka Boulevard, two storeys high and covered with grass and sloping down toward the north and the 'heart' of the site so that the rooftop and sloping grass bank would be a bit like an amphitheatre. One of the two storey elevations would be hard on the Jacka Boulevard footpath and face the Stokehouse across the busy traffic, and the other side, roughly at right angles to Jacka Boulevard, would face due west towards the sharp corner of the site, with a great view of the oncoming traffic, especially at night.
It isn't at all clear why this awkward looking building has been proposed in the middle of the site, other than getting some of that mix of uses referred to in 'the Vision' into the design. There's a Land Use Table listing the allowable uses for this building which includes such uses as restaurant, art gallery, cinema, market, a function centre, which includes conference centres and reception centres; wow, wedding receptions! I think most of these uses are undesirable, and there is also a list of 'discretionary' uses which includes a cabaret, shops, offices and a tavern, most of which I think are also undesirable. There's also nothing at this stage about how many square metres of floor area any of these uses might be permitted to occupy; shades of the BBC process where an innocuous 'some retail area ' was translated into a regional shopping centre which, in the end, was approved by the council!
There is nothing in the report to justify why these potential uses have been included in this 'vision plan at all; it's not what all those coloured dots called for! In my opinion they don't add anything and there is no justification of the need for any of them or any discussion of their likely impact on existing businesses that might persuade you otherwise. There is already one 'dark' cinema in St Kilda for example, and Fitzroy Street is entering its dormant winter state where a number of the restaurants will go broke and close down.
I just can't see a few shops out on the edge of the cold, windy Triangle site next to 6-lanes of traffic on busy Jacka Boulevard, surviving the first winter; unless they pay no rent like the West Beach Pavilion, in which case one might well ask why are the ratepayers being asked to support their inclusion? Planners must learn that retailing needs to achieve a critical mass or it doesn't work in a commercial sense. Lack of critical size has been the downfall of the Sea Baths, which is only now starting to show signs of life after many long years, and this may not prove to be sustainable in the long run. Councils are not good at making commercial decisions like this. Who would decide on the area and the uses for this building for example; it sounds suspiciously like it's intended to involve a developer?
There is a separate 'food & drink concession' proposed, which is probably on the borderline of being commercially viable as there is already a kiosk close by on the other side of Jacka Boulevard, but in my opinion none of the uses proposed for this triangular building would make the Triangle more desirable or provide something that is lacking in the broader St Kilda context. The building location of course, fits those unnecessary sightline corridors, and becomes a justification for them; there would be no need for them if this building were omitted.
I also object to the proposed broad flight of stairs joining the Upper and Lower Esplanades. This is not considered a major pedestrian route, and Carlo Catani provided meandering, ramped paths that connect these two streets . I see no reason, either practical or aesthetic to change the Catani design; it's part of our heritage.
The proposed 'integrated building in landscape' should be completely eliminated from the Vision Plan, and the Vision Statement revised to leave out reference to 'mixes of uses'. The grassy bank between the Upper and Lower Esplanade should be left untouched.
Car parking: Citizen suggestions that they didn't want to see any parking on the site have been heeded and the vision talks about 'a public car park hidden from view' and one of the drawings shows an 'indicative underground car park for 200 cars. A possible future car parking demand study is proposed to explore possible parking off the Triangle site in order to avoid the need for expensive underground parking. However it is proposed this study should only look at off-site parking 'if council does not proceed with an underground car park on the Triangle site.'
Underground parking costs considerably more than surface parking, as the unreleased Parking Feasibility Study showed. This proposal is putting the cart before the horse, the demand study should come first, and the guiding brief for the parking consultant should require the provision of the minimum parking that is deemed acceptable and that it should all be located off the site if this is possible; see the comments made in 'Response to Triangle Forum Feedback Report. The parking demand study should be commissioned immediately so this vital component can be included in the design brief.
This report is quite suitable as a design brief: The report is full of such attractive examples of good urban design and landscaping that it's hard to see why this report itself (with a few changes like those proposed) couldn't become a simple brief that could be given to a good designer immediately. The unnamed authors of this report are trying too hard to pin everything down, almost as though the designer can't be trusted; it's just not necessary, any good designer would find the best place for a water feature, if indeed one makes sense next to windy Port Phillip Bay!
Solar power is an important omission in the environmental section. Generating sufficient solar power to light the garden at night, and to floodlight the Palais Theatre perhaps (or to have occasional light works as an art form) along with any other necessary power requirements, would be a prudent investment in community sustainability and send an important message to the community that the Council takes sustainability seriously. It will be a design challenge how and where to incorporate the solar arrays, so it must be considered at the earliest design stage! The aim must be to reduce greenhouse gas emissionsandlong-term costs to the ratepayers at the same time.
The Palais Theatre: The Palais Theatre Requirements Study, which also hasn't yet been released for public scrutiny, contains several options for extending the theatre. Some extension such as new toilets and regulation fire stairs (and possibly a new back stage area) are probably desirable, but whether 'complementary facilities' effectively extending the building and loading dock areas right out to Jacka Boulevard is commercially justified is hard to judge in the absence of any needs analysis in a limited market. The report proposes that a separate but parallel process should determine the future of the Palais. Quite right, but in view of the high cost of restoring the theatre, asking consultants to advise on the possible expansion of the building in the absence of any needs study and cost estimates is foolishness.
Whether this problem might have a simple market based solution should be tested before any more consultant work is done. Hopefully a theatre entrepreneur might be found who would be willing to restore the building in return for a long-term lease of the theatre. A canny and experienced 'deal maker' consultant should be engaged to talk informally to the few theatrical entrepreneurs left in Mebourne to suss out the possibilities. This shouldn't be left to the staff whose lamentable failure to find sponsors for the St Kilda Festival this year was to the considerable financial detriment of the ratepayers!
Alternatively, formal Expressions of Interest could be sought in a long-term lease of the theatre with the extent and cost of the renovation work and ground rent being nominated by the experienced theatre person who is tendering rather than a consultant. This only requires an ad in the Age and review of the submissions received. The avenue of a no-cost-to-the-public solution by someone who would actually use the theatre, needs to be explored before anything else is done. The proposed timeline doesn't include the Palais and should be amended to include testing whether a user-restorer-financier for the Palais can be found, as was done successfully with the Regent Theatre after years of neglect.
Potential 'income stream' building behind the Palais: If the area behind the Palais is not all gobbled up by expansion of the theatre, it has been suggested that a commercial entertainment building, similar in bulk and shape to the Nolan building proposed in the BBC scheme, might be built on this part of the site; see 'The Peoples Choice is an Art Garden'. Expressions of Interest should be invited from developers interested in financing, constructing and managing a building with a defined envelope and appropriate uses behind the Palais, in return for a long-term lease and payment of an annual ground rent. The parking required for this building would be provided on its own site, or an equivalent amount should be contributed by the developer towards the cost of parking elsewhere.
What would be appropriate uses needs further discussion. The BBC scheme proposed that the Nolan building should be a boutique hotel to service entertainers and theatre goers and visitors to St Kilda generally (with restaurants and bars open to the public) and this might still be a use that would complement both the Triangle Garden and St Kilda generally and at the same time provide a necessary income stream. But other uses, such as a group of music venues might also reach a commercially critical mass in this larger building, and these and other uses should be explored with the chosen developer when it is proven that there is commercial interest in a building of this type in this location.
Rather than simply going into consolidated revenue, the income should be dedicated to the maintenance and upkeep of the Triangle Gardens in perpetuity. This is not a new idea. When the great mosques of the Ottoman Empire were built in Istanbul, they were always combined with schools, hospitals and other public buildings, and a row of shops was always included so their rents would provide for the long term upkeep of the buildings; this sustainable arrangement has been working well for the last four hundred years! With the environmental measures that are proposed and an income stream to pay for the management and maintenance of the garden, (including collection of wastes and any other costs) a long-term sustainable situation would result.
Engagement of design consultant: Finally, alternatives are proposed for the engagement of a design consultant, but first the Council proposes to write a comprehensive design brief so a concept can be developed. As I've said earlier, the current draft report needs a few acknowledged amendments, but it would be more than adequate as a brief to employ a good design consultant without writing another document. Just hand it over, we don't need another report full of weasel words or a concept, what's needed is a creative person who can take everything in the report on board, and prepare a final design for costing and consideration.
But first a consultant has to be chosen and the alternative of having a limited design competition is mooted. In the first place, I'm not sure why it is assumed that any competition should be limited. An open competition would be less costly (the half dozen chosen to participate in a limited competition are usually paid an honorarium) and an open competition would hold out the ever-present hope of an outstanding design from some as yet unknown brilliant designer.
Limited or open, the competition should be restricted to qualified landscape architects and design professionals. The rules of the relevant professional institutes for participation of their members and the conduct of competitions, would (in both limited and open cases) require a majority of the jury to be design professionals selected by the Institute, the competition would be anonymous and the winner they select would be automatically given the commission to carry out the work. Competitions have both advantages and drawbacks and may not be appropriate for such a relatively small and straight forward project; there are extra costs involved and except for deciding whether to proceed or not, the final design decision would be largely taken out of the hands of both the Council and the community.
On the other hand if the consultant team were selected following submissions from designers followed by interviews of the selected possibles, then the councillors and the officers would remain in full control of the selection and the design process. However the consultant is selected, the final agreed design should be put on exhibition in the normal way and public objections invited. After consideration of any objections, councillors would finally decided whether or not to proceed.
It's not a big site or considered a complex design problem with the possibility of radically different solutions, so I would opt for this simpler way of proceeding with an open selection process. It's very important to select the right person(s), and it shouldn't be left to the officers to simply recommend a name to the councillors. And it would certainly allay public concerns if the councillors had the courage to include several experienced citizens as part of the consultant selection process.
Actions needed: The Vision Plan should be amended to eliminate the 'integrated building within landscape' completely and it would be wise to commission the car parking demand study immediately so any impact of the final parking solution on the garden can be taken into account. Separate Expressions of Interest should also be sought straight away for the leasing and restoration of the Palais, and also for a building of the type described behind the Palais; it is considered important to determine as soon as possible whether either of these are serious options or not as they may affect the final design. And at the same time Expressions of Interest should also be sought from Landscape Architects and other design professionals to prepare a final design for the Triangle site based on an updated version of the current report. Citizens should be included in the consultant selection process.
Time programme and restoration of rights to appeal: In any normal development situation, all this could be completed before the elections in October 2012, but the Council's slow motion timetable extends out past 2014 and the restoration of third party rights to appeal to VCAT is shown on the time program as being done as part of the Planning Scheme Amendment, which in turn is shown as not being finally gazetted by the Department of Planning until 2014; and in the nature of these things, this could well be delayed further.
But adoption of the preferred design by Council is shown in the report as happening at least a year before third party rights might be restored, and no formal exhibition period is provided where citizens could make objections. It is considered important that the BBC fiasco should not be repeated, and that allowance should be made for a proper exhibition period with detailed written objections and legal rights for citizens to appeal, not just more soft 'consultation' that ends up assuming citizen acceptance. As it is, with the sequence of events proposed in this report, no objections or appeals would be possible. The situation that was so objected to with the BBC proposal is being applied to its successor nine years later!
Are the current councillors starting to have the same born to rule mentality as the ones they deposed? How could they even consider this undemocratic situation or allow it to appear in this report? I've always been suspicious of the line that 'don't worry, your rights will be restored once we have a final scheme'. They might be, but by then it will be too late to appeal if the proposed design is not considered satisfactory, and the way it's going, an appeal will probably be necessary!
There are only two options: The time line must be amended to ensure that full third party rights will apply to this project, and if the timing can't be altered as suggested below, then 'final' approval and acceptance of the design and any implementation should be delayed until objections and appeal are possible some time after 2014-15. The way the program is proposed it's not just the final design, we will not even have the possibility of objecting to the proposed sightline controls, the permitted uses on the site etc before they are all rolled into the Planning Scheme amendments and put up to the Department of Planning for final approval and made law.
This is not just about the Triangle, it's an important question of civil liberty; justice delayed is justice denied!
The way the time line been proposed may be the most bureaucratically convenient for the council planners, but I'm not convinced that restoration of our legal rights needs to be tied in with a final design and formal amendments to the planning scheme in the way it has. It may be more work to separate out the rights issue, but I see no reason why the restoration of our rights couldn't proceed forthwith as a completely separate issue. I appreciate that the government has to change the Act, but in view of the circumstances, if this were considered a simple bureaucratic action not a political one, I can't see why it can't be done as a separate exercise. At the moment, here's no imperative for Spring Street to do anything, so the initiative for change rests entirely with Port Phillip Council. It's too convenient to plead that the legalities prevent this happening until 2014; if for some reason it were considered of vital political importance to either the Council or the State government, I'm sure a way would be found somehow.
The alternative course of action is to make it all happen sooner if this is possible. Rather than continue with the current relaxed attitude that it will probably all be OK by 2015, Council should make provision for a formal objection period and take a brave in-principle stand before the elections to accelerate the restoration of our rights, and if necessary, publicly defy the Bailleau government to ignore the issue.
Serious questions for the councillors: At the time none of the seven councillors felt strongly enough about this issue to force a formal vote on the deferral of the restoration of our rights till 2014-5; it was simply agreed on the voices.
The question is whether the councillors made this decision in the full knowledge that citizens would be unable to object to or appeal against the planning controls and the final design as they would have been decided and fixed at least a year before our rights might be restored?
If they didn't know, which of the senior servants of the council should take prime responsibility for proposing such an undemocratic arrangement? What do the councillors propose to do about it now it has been revealed? Will each of the councillors standing for re-election personally answer these questions for the public record. What do you say, councillors? Speak up!
Nothing has changed in the seven years since our rights were removed, and to say residents are fed up is an understatement. Mark my words, this issue will reverberate massively in St Kilda and it's not long till the October elections.
In the absence of any action by the councillors, bit of serious boat rocking by the citizens is what's called for!
May Day 2012