Response to Triangle Forum Feedback Report

The Project Timeline tabled confirms my earlier feeling that serious consideration of the technical issues, the preparation of a proper brief for the design of the Triangle, selecting a designer and then proceeding to an actual design proposal will not happen until well after the 2012 elections, and the design phase probably not until 2013. 

All suggestions for a more efficient process to arrive at a final design for the site have been ignored.  On the advice of the officers, the councillors have agreed to further on-line and community forums; nothing is being expedited, everything is in slow motion, and they clearly can't chew gum and pat their heads at the same time.  There doesn't seem to be anything we can do about this situation, for all their talk about public consultation they are clearly determined to do it their way without any discussion about the best way to proceed. 

Some of the technical studies they propose for next year are hard to understand.  Why do we need a Views and Vista Analysis? 
In broad terms the UDF has a perfectly acceptable guideline about view lines that has already received total public support. I've been critical that this guideline could be tightened so as to leave no ambiguity but I see no good reason to go over the whole thing again, except to employ yet more consultants and provide work for all those planners.

Likewise is there any need for another Contamination Review? BBC provided a report on contamination of the site that looked quite professional, and this is presumably available to the council.  If the parking ends up underground, this contaminated soil will be removed.  If the site becomes a beautiful art garden, there will be no need to do anything except perhaps build up the soil once the carpark bitumen and base material is removed.  When we proceed to a final design, what needs to be done about contaminated soil, if anything, can be determined then depending on the situation.

The Palais requirements were the subject of detailed investigation by BBC and detailed drawings and cost estimates were prepared. I presume all this material was handed over to the Council as part of the deal with BBC to relinquish the Development Approval. If it wasn't, it should be obtained now, it's the least we can expect for $5M!  I always thought McMillan's estimates sounded very high but we were never shown all the details, it may have included a large contingency sum for example; he clearly had a motive to inflate the costs to justify the amount of retailing space that was proposed. This information should be analysed to determine a practical brief for the renovation of the Palais.  Expressions of interest should be sought from entrepreneurs or developers prepared to renovate the Paais to a specified level in return for a long term lease.  And as this may take some time, the Palais should be regarded as a separate matter that should not delay the design & redevelopment of the Triangle site. Renovation of the State government owned Palais is not the financial responsibility of Port Phillip ratepayers, so this is a good solution to renovate the Palais at no cost to the ratepayer and without waiting for a government grant, which is unlikely in a Labor electorate.

A Parking Study is needed to clarify what is needed but there are two important first steps; a) a consultant has to be selected and
b) a brief of what is required from the consultant has to be prepared.  Normally the officers propose their preferred consultant and their choice is agreed to by the councillors.  I am concerned that whoever is selected should have some initiative and imagination in looking at this problem. I was impressed with the open approach shown by the consultants who advised on parking for the Skate Park and would be satisfied if they were chosen.

The area to be studied should stretch from Shakespeare Grove to the Fitzroy Street side of Albert Square and include the Upper Esplanade and include buildings like the Sea Baths located on the foreshore reserve.   Bearing in mind the unfortunate principle that parking usually expands to fill the space available, I am concerned that the Brief should make it quite clear that, the aims of the exercise is to determine the minimum number of parking spaces needed to service this area.  Many people think we should simply take a stand at the way cars are destroying the peace and quiet of our cities and simply get rid of the current car parking and assume that any existing parking around the site is enough, that people attending the Palais would be like St Kilda residents when we have to decide whether to drive into the city (with all its problems) or take the tram. However although I'm sympathetic to this view I think there could be a potential political problem with the State Government if no extra provision was provided for the Palais to replace that lost.  Also tenderers might be sufficiently concerned about commercial viability if there is no extra parking, that they might  be deterred from involvement.  Properly briefed the real needs of the Palais should come out in the surveys and study by the parking consultant. 

If it is decided that some additional parking is required, I think it is preferable that it should NOT be provided on the actual Triangle site for three reasons;

a) Underground car parks are very expensive, and any attempt to have this provided by a commercial operator would return us to the situation where there would probably be an undesirable development quid pro quo extracted to pay for it;

b) In the not so long term any underground parking in this area will be vulnerable to rises in sea level;

c)  A beautiful art garden will be cheaper, the removal of contaminated soil will probably be avoided, and the garden would grow better and have less problems if it is not on top of a concrete slab.

There are 440 car spaces in the Sea Baths that are never fully utilised (from my intermittent inspections), particularly at night when the Palais is in operation.  It has been stated that this is too far for theatre patrons to walk but at the moment they park on the Upper Esplanade near Albert Square and at the end of the Triangle carpark furthest from the Palais and these are comparable distances.  If there is money to be made by filling their carpark at night, perhaps a shuttle bus could be provided by the Sea Baths.  We need an imaginative consultant aligned with our aspirations to work out where the minimum number of parking spaces could be provided off-site.  For instance decking over the parking in Shakespeare Grove adjacent to Luna Park would double the numbers there and be much cheaper than underground parking and  better located to serve Acland Street during the day. 

More parking could simply be provided in Cavell Street at no cost simply by narrowing the footpaths and re-arranging the parking layout.  Indeed under Cavell Street would be an ideal location if some underground parking were found to be necessary to make up the minimum numbers. It may seem perverse to suggest cars under Cavell Street when I'm against them under the Triangle garden (for good reasons), but it's only as a last resort if there is absolutely no other way of getting the numbers and the hard heads can justify the investment for the 20 or 30 years before the sea rises by a metre or more. In any case a proper investigation is needed, who knows what's under the roadway.

Although I'm all for this study being done now to clear the air and inject some realism into our 'engagement' with the council, the final numbers can't be settled until it's finally decided what IS going on the site.  If my suggestion of an entertainment building behind the Palais were adopted, the parking required for that building should be provided on its own site and paid for by the developer, or else she contributes an equivalent amount towards parking somewhere else?

One of the points made in the last paragraph of the accompanying Capire Report says 'Participants were generally supportive of an underground car park, but some were wary of the cost of this and the trade off necessary to fund this.'  Their wariness is justified of course, but unfortunately the alternative arguments and options suggested above were not canvassed, although they had been set down in earlier material given to the council. The brief for the parking study has to make it of prime importance to solve the insatiable need for parking with the minimum numbers OFF the Triangle site.

The Feedback Report on Community Engagement tabled at the meeting was prepared by the Capire Consulting Group.  A clever name for a consultant ( capire is the Italian verb 'to understand') but their report doesn't lead to that much greater understanding.  I'm pleased of course, that there is a clear public trend preferring a more open 'green' use of the site with much less building.  If the results had been the other way around however, I would have been quick to point out that any conclusions drawn from a random survey like this were a bit suspect.  Being random the sample didn't mirror the composition of the community (only 66% of the respondents lived in St Kilda) and in any case it was capable of manipulation; I put all my dots on the open space photograph for example.  And percentages like '63% Strongly Agree or Agree…' sound far too important and are misleading with such a small sample; indeed the consultants themselves are quick to point out the limitations of their own survey; so why are we doing it, you might well ask?  And many of the words in the report had a motherhood, truth and beauty sound to them that aren't very helpful in arriving at a specific design brief, and too many of the statements had five bob each way qualifications like 'however many people felt….'  Vacuous statements like 'The place we leave behind will be this generation's contribution to St Kilda's history' was asked as a question (and was only agreed to by 62% !) whereas like it or not, it's a simple statement of fact.

I suppose we have to accept all this carry-on as an unavoidable step towards the Prime Minister's friend Mervyn Forde, and continue to participate in this slow dance that seems to me to be largely designed to prove that we are all being consulted to death.  There is an article in a recent Guardian Weekly about Steve Jobs that is pertinent in this situation, where the writer, in analysing Jobs' success says;    

'There is something in the idea that true excellence often requires tight control.  It's the principle that guides the best restaurant kitchens, the best production lines, and even many of the best films, plays, or dance productions.  Jobs would have killed the idea that everything works better if it's open, collaborative and non-judgemental.' 

The council process is a deadening one, not conducive to obtaining excellence.  We are in the grip of a lowest common denominator, bureaucratic process that doesn't appear to be open to discussion.  If we are not vigilant it will end up squeezing all the juice and sweetness out of the possibilities and rather than a world class art garden we could end up with a boring municipal park with a kiddies play-ground, picnic shelter sheds, a few barbie pits and some concrete chess tables  for the oldies!  

At a certain point in the skate park saga, the officers produced a master plan.  The term was misleading, a master plan implies overall controls for the development of a large site over a long time.  This wasn't a master plan but a specific design-plan for this small site, only for discussion the officers said, but despite suggestions for changes, it ended up as the final design without any alteration.   I'm concerned something like this could happen on the Triangle, the officers will select a consultant and a master plan will suddenly be popped up 'for discussion' which, if the skate park is any guide, will then be very hard to alter, especially if our third party rights to appeal are not restored before then. 

All this reinforces my earlier feelings, that we won't get anywhere very positive on the Triangle until our representatives on the council have the numbers to determine priorities, initiate budget changes and cut the bureaucratic delays so we actually get the garden built in my lifetime.  UnChain's immediate priority has to be to find good candidates and prepare for the election. 

Don Gazzard: 15th October 2011