Port Melbourne politics……

 Current misconceptions about what's being proposed in Beacon Cove, and by who, probably stem from its history outside the normal council planning system.  Planning control of the area between the two piers called Beacon Cove was taken over by the planning minister of the day in the 1980's before Kennett's brave reform amalgamating local councils, and thirty years later planning control is only just being passed to Port Phillip Council where it belongs.  Mirvac developed most of Beacon Cove in the Eighties, but two sites that were left over are now attracting developers, and covenants on these sites, fixed when Beacon Cove was built more than twenty years ago, restrict building height to 3 storeys. 

Before the Victorian State election in 2010 a proposal was made to the Planning Minister Justin Madden to ignore this height restriction and approve a glassy 28 storey hotel and retail complex on the main site that is known as Waterfront Place.  A wealthy Saudi Prince was reputedly behind the Development Application, and local people were naturally apprehensive that this decision was quite legally in the hands of a Minister who was pro-development and prone to ignore community concerns.  The project was designed by Nonda Katsalidis, a good architect, but for whatever reasons this wasn't one of his better designs in my opinion, and in any case whatever the quality of the architecture, it was too high for this site.   Rumour at the time had it that the Minister was set to approve this building but was holding off announcing it until after the elections in order to avoid any backlash that might hinder the re-election of local member Martin Foley.  And it's on the record that I wrote an intemperate flyer at the time objecting to this proposal.

Well it's history that Labor lost the election, its cavalier attitude in planning matters like the Windsor Hotel didn't help, Martin Foley was returned and not before time, the Liberal Baillieu government finalised moves to pass planning control of the Beacon Cove area to Port Phillip Council. The council did what it should have done years before, and after community consultation to decide on the obligatory 'vision statement', finalised a planning study for the waterfront area last December.   

The draft Port Melbourne Waterfront Urban Design Framework  is a 93 page document with some great photographs and elegant drawings.  It's written in that cumbersome managerial style but isn't as bad as some planning documents that I've had to read, and on the whole the urban design, traffic, pedestrian and landscaping proposals for the area between Bay Street and Princes Pier are sensible if unexceptional and should be supported. 

 The hub of the area is opposite Station Pier and includes the terminus for the 109 tram and the two remaining development sites.  Two overall plan concepts are proposed to improve this area;  I prefer concept 1 but there's not much difference and either of them would be a great improvement.  One of the aims of the UDF is to set down planning controls for the bulk and height of new buildings to try and ensure that appropriate development eventuates; any development should be of human scale, it states somewhere in the report! 

The smaller site at 103 Beach Street is seen by the planners as a 3 storey building with a maximum height of 11 metres, and community, office and retail uses are proposed. 

The much larger site at 1-7 Waterfront Place next to the tram terminus, was the site of the earlier 28 storey Saudi number.   Twin residential (or hotel) towers are proposed for this site, sitting on a three storey podium containing some retail but mainly car parking for the buildings above.  The planners are coy about the heights of these twin towers and on page 56 there are views from the far end of Station Pier and from a boat out in the Bay that show them as more or less the same height as the Beacon Cove buildings.  The caption explains that: 'The forms tested in these views attempt to find a mediating position between those of the 12 and 14 level bulky forms of Beacon Cove and the lower and more slender forms along Beach Street,'and goes on to qualify that 'this is only one design approach to achieve built form aspirations for the site.'

 Nowhere is there any discussion or rationale about why it is proposed to abandon the earlier 'built form aspiration' of a 3 storey height limit.  Even in their own terms of the overall vista of Port Melbourne as seen from an approaching cruise ship, it would be a quite legitimate urban design suggestion that a gap should be left opposite Station Pier.  There might even be vistas of the CBD from the top of one of those monster cruise ships through such a gap.  The Beacon Cove buildings are not so much individual towers as a wall of buildings, and there won't be many other chances to breach what bids fair to be a continuous ring of high buildings around this part of the Bay. Why isn't this option canvassed and an alternative drawing prepared so comparisons could be made?

And why aren't there accurate perspective drawings in the report from pedestrian eye level that would enable us to compare the visual impact of 14 storey and 3 storey buildings as seen from this new pedestrian place between Station Pier and Waterfront Place?  In my opinion a real visual comparison would clinch the decision; perhaps that's why they aren't there!

 The diagrammatic plans and sections of the draft development proposed for these 14 storey twin towers are all very proper and show the setbacks proposed, there are overshadowing diagrams showing the impact of buildings of the shape and height proposed between 11am and 3pm at the Equinox and the Winter Solstice, and there is even a patronising asterisk on the plan for something that is designated as an 'opportunity for a key architectural gesture'  whatever that is; a clock tower?  If you accept the basic premise that the site should be developed to a 14 storey height there isn't much you can say about all this.  It's all a bit big brother, but how else do you restrain those grasping developers and guide their architects.  These controls can't guarantee they would be great buildings of course; we can only hope.

In general I'm in favour of higher densities in our cities for a whole lot of sustainable reasons, but every particular site and design has to be considered on its visual merits.  For example I don't get much sense of the bulk of the tall buildings when walking along Bay Street, they seem to me to be reasonable and the orientation of Bay Street means overshadowing isn't a real problem.  But I'm absolutely convinced in this case that two 14 storey towers sitting on a parking podium as the focal point of a major open space area next to the Station Pier point of arrival or departure, is not anything like as visually acceptable or desirable as a lower, 3 storey building.

 The fine print is important in these matters, and I had to read to the end of the report, and then on into an Appendix to find out that the Waterfront Place site is currently within a Comprehensive Development Zone (CDZ1) and the planners blandly assert that 'the current CDZ1 controls do not reasonably reflect contemporary development factors and expectations'.  

This sound bite from the spokesperson for the Port Melbourne Development Association put my hackles up!  Who decides what reasonably reflects what expectations, and by whom?  It goes on to state that a new planning framework is required, and with growing apprehension I read that a new planning framework will need to deliver, among other things, 'A transparent process for planning discretion and third party notice and review rights.'  Transparent it must be, but planning discretion, what's that? Are these jargon words I don't understand, discretion for who to do what?  What are 'review rights,' will the normal rights to appeal to VCAT still apply?  In the light of the current procrastination and stalemate about reinstating the appeal rights removed from the St Kilda Triangle seven years ago, this is naturally of grave concern.

 Then (finally) there is a statement that 'Amendment C73 proposes a planning framework for the residential part of Beacon Cove affected by the CDZ1, and is currently with the Minister of Planning for approval', but there's no indication what this comprises or whether it includes the Waterfront Place site and whether it pins down the heights of the twin towers.   Why isn't this document in an appendix as it seems to contain relevant information that citizens should know if they are to respond in full possession of all the facts?  Was any of this revealed during the much vaunted consultation process?  If not why not?  Is this a de facto admission that there is no real rationale for such large buildings, except the planners' opinions, that caused this statement to be buried in an appendix where it wouldn't attract much attention?  Are there some hidden political factors we don't know about?  Perhaps the records should be searched to determine who has donated what to which political parties so that any potential influences are out in the open?

 Thank you for staying with me so far; I've only gone on at such length to illustrate how involved it is simply to understand and winkle out the true intention of the planners who wrote this document, and to appreciate the important lack of any discussion about other possible options that should have been considered. 

 So, finally, where do I stand?  While twin towers at the same height as the Beacon Cove buildings are clearly to be preferred to the earlier 28 storey Saudi ambit claim, it's simply not a good enough solution for this important site.  

After consideration of all the options, it is my considered professional view that 'urban design and built form aspirations' at pedestrian level would be much better served by 3 storey buildings facing what could be a wonderful, sunny waterfront pedestrian space adjacent to Station Pier. 

And this ground level decision is reinforced by my view that overall macro urban design aspirations would also be better served by leaving a gap, with no tall buildings in front of Station Pier, and that therefore the original 3 storey height covenant for any development of the Waterfront Place site should be maintained.

I therefore urge you to look it up on www.portphillip.vic.gov.au/haveyoursay and do just that before 9th March or your views may not get considered.  
It doesn't have to be long winded and you can do it on line; just say you want 3 storey buildings.  The standard response of the Mayor to criticisms of the twin towers is to reply that no formal application has been lodged for the site yet, and that the UDF is only a draft and no decisions have been made yet.  This is true, but don't hold your breath.  I understand that the planners' proposals are supported by ward Councillor Janet Bolitho and other Labor Party councillors and they have the numbers; what is it about the Labor Party and tall buildings! 

 And if you do have the patience to wade through the report you'll get a giggle out of the Vision Statement; no one could possibly object to such resonant Motherhood, Truth and Beauty stuff, but it isn't much help of course, when it comes to making the important decision about the height of Waterfront Place!


Don Gazzard LFAIA / February 2012.