We need good design-not more words.

In July 2013 I wrote an article entitled 'What is needed to make Fishermans Bend' (click to read), in which I attempted to set down what's needed to bring about good urban development on the 250 hectares adjacent to the CBD slated for high density redevelopment.  Since then two draft documents have been released:

 The Fishermans Bend Draft Vision outlines the overarching strategic directions and key moves needed to transform the existing industrial area into a thriving inner city environment
The Interim Fishermans Bend Design Guidelines provide guidance to interested developers, architects and planners to encourage good design and provision of adequate public space, facilities and access to public transport.

With the exception of the Lorimer Precinct, which is on the city side of the Freeway, the whole of the Fishermans Bend area is within both the Albert Park electorate of State Labor Member Martin Foley and the Port Phillip City Council. By announcing redevelopment of this large area six months ago before any details were available, the floodgates were opened to developers jumping the gun and land prices have soared.  Fourteen Development Applications varying from 5 to 49 levels that have already been lodged, mostly in the Montague Precinct. As Foley has pointed out, these applications are quite likely to warp the current planning process.  They are awaiting the Minister's sole decision: Port Phillip Council's role has been restricted to small buildings, and there won't be many of them at the high density that is proposed. 

 Densities are to be at an average of 200 dwellings per hectare,'with higher densities around public transport and activity centres and lower densities around open space and interfaces with existing residential areas', but there is no detail of how this would be managed in practice.  A period for public discussion is allowed for submissions before the planning and design controls are finalized but I suspect that although no great changes will be made, a great deal more 'hard' detail will be added, and there's the rub.

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The Vision document is replete with photographs of attractively landscaped spaces, attractive children playing and attractive people drinking coffee under attractive colorful umbrellas, and it's so Mary Anne that there isn't much that one could possibly object to.  Its general air of bland optimism and liberal use of words like liveability, revitalization, and economic sustainability along with the proposed average density of 200 dwellings per hectare, all without any detail definitions, make me feel I'm being conned.  But then these vision documents are always a bit PR-like and one would expect the crucial details to be in the second document.

There are a series of blob maps showing general locations for schools, zones for different building heights, and railway stations with linked to the city loop which are not much more than diagrammatic indications of broad intent one day perhaps, and it's therefore difficult to make any serious suggestions.

 And while the Design Guidelines does have more detail it's still only a broad draft and is subject to the devil in the yet-to-be specified detail.  Funding mechanisms are absent and there is no provision for public rental housing.

There is a subtle change happening in the way these preliminary planning documents lacking detail are being presented for public comment.  Once proposed planning schemes were put on 'public exhibition' with all the final details, serious objections could be made and there was an appeal process.  What we are being given at Fishermans Bend are very general documents lacking all the hard (and crucial) detail, any sort of disagreement with all this motherhood, truth and beauty stuff will of necessity be muted, and all future decisions will be left to the Minister with no rights of appeal.  It's way of consulting when you don't want to consult or deal with any real submissions….BUT we will have been consulted!  

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Along with a density of 200 dwellings per hectare, building heights are listed as four, eight and eighteen storeys. However with the exception of a 4 storey strip along Williamstown Road, 18 storey towers are permitted pretty well everywhere else.

The maximum percentage of one bedroom apartments in each precinct is specified as ranging from 25% in the Montague Precinct to 15 % in Wirraway.  To limit them is probably sensible otherwise they would all be one-bedders.  As well,minimum percentages of three bedroom apartments are set down ranging from 25% in Montague to 50% in the Wirraway Precinct, clearly to encourage larger apartments suitable for children.  No justification is given for the numbers in this bit of social engineering from a government keen on the wisdom of the 'market', and one wonders what market or planning research these percentages are based on? 

Potential complications that may be caused by the third container port at Webb Dock have been pointed out.  This new dock, which is due to be approved by the end of this year, will create some two million extra road freight movements by 2025. The problem is that one of the key roads in and out of the port area will be the Plummer Street Truck By Pass, and this is the same road identified in the Vision as a Grand Boulevard with the commercial/retail centres and a tram route. Whoops!

At the very least the current applications should not be considered further until all the planning controls have been finalized, although I can already hear the talk about delays in providing all the jobs they'll create and how much they are needed to help the economy.

The other problem with all these weasel words is that the design input comes after the words, whereas the design can always change the words and our attitudes.  While this new urban development is only in words, as it is at the moment, people don't know what they think until it's designed and they can see the results, so consultation at this stage isn't effective if you really want considered responses.

The power of good designers to create new realities is important and yet our system effectively decides in essence what shall be designed before it happens.  This is bad enough when it s just another building-in-a- street, but is a pretty crucial lack when it's 250 hectares of development, adjacent to (and as big as) the CBD, AND at such a high density.

A Floor Space Ratio (FSR) of 12 to 1 is also mentioned in one place, that is, gross building areas shall not exceed twelve times the site area.  Twelve to one FSR is probably also too high a density and it seems to me there could be conflict between these different limits.  Which is it, 200 dwellings per hectare or an FSR of 12:1?

And it's not all going to be housing, the PR says that Fishermans Bend is expected to not only become home to 80,000 residents but also to 40,000  jobs over the next 30 to 50 years. As only two thirds of the population will be residents it would be a good idea to separate the Wirraway and Sandridge precincts and give them residential only zonings and less dense planning controls. 

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Whether the way all this has happened was by accident or by intent, it's too late now to make radical changes, so the sooner actual sites for schools, open space and all the other publicly funded activities are acquired the better it will be in terms of creating a real frame-work for urban development and stopping speculation, or at least dampening it down. Since the initial announcement land prices have doubled, good for someone no doubt, but not for keeping the prices of housing down.

I still think a uniform maximum height of 5 storeys would be the most right height to encourage the sort of desirable low-rise high-density housing described in my recent article, and particularly so in view of the objective of maximizing the larger 3 BR units. 

The cries of the development industry that the cost of higher environmental standards will affect 'affordabilty' should be firmly ignored and the opportunity to improve standards should be seized: all buildings without exception should have double glazing and good insulation, sun protection, accessible roof gardens, rainwater storage and solar power as part of a drive for greater sustainability. The Vision after all has the laudable aim of 'establishing an aspiration for zero carbon buildings by 2025'.  Curious wording, which is it, just aspirations by 2025, OR does it really mean, as I hope it does, sustainable buildings by then?

Rather than fixing the density in advance, the design should come first and only then should the upper density limit be confirmed.  Densities are also more usually expressed as people (not dwellings) per nett site hectare,not gross precinct hectares including roads etc as I suspect has been done here. The real people density (and the gross floor area) at 200 dwellings per hectare could vary widely depending on occupancy levels and the proportions of different sized apartments. Density controls based on floor area are obviously easier to control and population controls are more open to manipulation by the unscrupulous.  

However it's calculated, and before any density is decided and embodied in a statutory planning instrument the Minister can hide behind, we need to understand exactly what that the preferred density looks like in built form.  Both two hundred dwellings per gross hectare, and an FSR of 12, sound far too high to me and I fear that with those densities we'll inevitably end up with a landscape of sterile Docklands towers. 

To educate the pollies and the developers as well as all the rest of us, comparative 'demonstration' schemes by different designers at different densities should be prepared (for the Wirraway Precinct say) to help to clarify minds, demonstrate advantages and illustrate the power of creative design to open up new possibilities.  People need to be able to see what the proposed new development will look like, and developers have to realize that the maximum or most dense development isn't always the most profitable.

And the emphasis on the external appearance of buildings and the urban design of neighborhoods, although indisputably important, should be tempered by also ensuring that the actual detail design of the apartments meet rigorous criteria, particularly those 3 BR ones.  It's badly needed, I've seen too many new flats recently with internal bedrooms without natural light or ventilation.

Low-rise high-density development can house as many people as in tall towers, it's cheaper to build and easier to stage, and is better suited for the incorporation of larger 3 BR units. To achieve this the maximum height should be fixed at 5 storeys.

I would also like to see some statutory provision made for low-income rental housing rather than it all being 'for profit' housing, along with some mechanism and commitment on funding.  This could be done either by:

Direct Government acquisition and construction; this is unlikely because of ideology and lack of Federal funding.

Public Private Partnership; undesirable for many the many reasons hammered home by Age journalist Ken Davidson. The  failure of a housing PPP at Bonyrigg in Sydney is a dire warning.

An optional Bonus System where financial incentives are given by way of bonuses if (say) 5% of the flats in each new building were made available for social housing; there are precedents for this option which holds out promise as long as fiascos like negative gearing are avoided. We should be aiming for social as well as environmental sustainability.  Read my earlier 'Can we solve the housing crisis?

On election night I'm sure, that like all politicians, the Premier-elect piously declared that that his party would govern for all Victorians, so this is surely not too much to ask?

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Alas I have absolutely no confidence that any suggestions to amend these very draft planning controls lacking real detail will get anywhere and I suspect that none of the above issues will find favour with this market oriented government.  The Minister will eventually approve these ambit applications, subject to suitable reductions to show that justice has been done, and there's not much we can do about it.

However Fishermans Bend is a very long term project, and there is a State election in 2014, so I'm calling on Martin Foley and the Labor Party to develop specific policies on the density/height/ mix/public housing aspects that I've discussed, and make election promises to revise the planning controls for Fishermans Bend once they regain office.  Till now the Middle Park electorate has been a Labor seat but I'm advised that with the new draft boundaries it could become more marginal in 2014.   Martin Foley has been a good local member so he should take a long-term view for all our sakes as well as his own. 

This is not just a local development, it's 250 hectares right next to the CBD with city centre zoning, an area as big as the present city centre itself, with an importance greater than even it's large area would indicate. In my opinion this first skirmish is all but lost before it starts, so we should be planning to win the long-term war!

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I'd just finished above when PlanMelbourne: Metropolitan Planning Strategy, was released and I thought I should add something about it because it suffers from the same defects as the Fishermans Bend documents.  There has been no serious metropolitan planning in Melbourne since Sir Rupert Hamer and the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works well over thirty years ago, and although this document points to clear needs it doesn't satisfy them. It proposes to set up a Metropolitan Planning Authority that will liaise with local government.  Setting up a new authority is usually the last refuge of desperate governments who don't know what to do; let's hope it's different this time as some certainty is sorely needed. There have already been suggestions that third party rights of appeal to VCAT might be removed 'to smooth out the planning process and avoid planning delays' (for developers?) which doesn't give one great democratic confidence!

Like the earlier FB documents PlanMelbourne is general and lacking in detail, and unfortunately the devil is all in the future detail and the execution.  Lip service is given to linking land use planning and the provision of public transport, an essential issue and rail is even mentioned in passing, but there is no provision for funding and past (and present) actions re roads and tunnels makes one doubt their sincerity.

Michael Buxton, Professor of the Environment and Planning from RMIT, wrote an excoriating attack on this document in the Age:  ' This is not a plan. It is a hoax driven by money… powerful private interests are shaping city development to the detriment of Melbourne…..cities fail when powerful private interests are allowed to determine the future, advantaging a few in the short term at the long-term expense of the many.  This new plan, regrettably, has set Melbourne on the path to failure.' 

 I agree with him in general and in particular on his emphasis on rail public transport and the lack of any ideas of how to promote affordable housing.  
Plus ca change…..  everything changes and everything remains the same!

 Don Gazzard LFAIA  
Mid October 2013