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Comment: Amendment C262 will stifle design innovation in Central Melbourne

The recent, and very quiet, amendment to the C262 planning amendment by the Minister for Planning, Richard Wynne, which has placed new plot ratio restrictions and increased setbacks for Melbourne CBD buildings, spells disaster for our industry and simply cannot be ignored.

This amendment has far-reaching implications including:

Innovation is now stifled.

If you own a narrow site that is say 15m wide in the CBD, under the new planning amendment your planned development will now be restricted to a 10-storey office building or a 12-storey apartment building, making the project almost certainly unviable to redevelop.

These slim-line sites are difficult to develop but innovation is – or was – possible. Just look at the design-led Phoenix building at 82 Flinders Lane.

This building took an incredibly tight 6.7m frontage and created a refreshing and innovative design-response to the site which has made a positive contribution to the environment in which it sits. The reason this was made possible was due to the ability to utilise most of the tiny site. With the new increased set-back amendment, design responses such as the Phoenix building will become impossible to deliver.

I’m not saying there should be no restrictions on mandatory setbacks as we as architects are seeing the issues caused by the many CBD buildings that were built up to the boundaries in the more lax days of planning in bygone eras. However, I believe that each project should be considered on its own merit, to consider the pros and cons of each individual site and design application.

Only then can we encourage true innovation while still respecting the limitations of each individual site.

This amendment will dramatically reduce development in Melbourne’s CBD. The result will be massive job losses in the construction industry.

In real terms, this amendment removes the opportunity to redevelop a host of C-class office buildings in the city.

Before this amendment, Plus Architecture completed a site analysis for a 13 metre wide site in the CBD. On one side sat a tall office building built right up to the site boundary, the other side was an open space containing a heritage building. Under the previous planning scheme we could have built a 25 storey office building, however because of mandatory setbacks, the site is now limited to 10 storeys.

To a developer, this means the site is worth more as the existing four storey office block and will continue to stand as-is, taking up precious space in our CBD but without any feasible development potential.

Now imagine this scenario across the entire CBD – pretty soon we are going to see a pattern of stagnant urban renewal sites and a stalled development rate. This in turn starts to stifle the economic growth of our city while pushing up prices as supply is literally cut off at the knees.

This new design objective will be the death of affordable apartments and offices.

To provide a high level of internal amenity for building occupants.

C262 Planning Amendment

The term “high level of internal amenity” is not defined in the planning scheme. It goes above and beyond what is acceptable to the majority of occupants.

What does this statement even mean? Luxury apartments? A corner office for every staff member? Maybe a requirement for a pool and gym in every building? The interpretation of this clause lies in the personal opinion of the planning officer. It gives council authority to reject affordable apartments based on the merit of prejudice alone.

This will result in the sole delivery of large, luxury apartments that only the rich can afford, as large luxury apartments will be the only viable product developers will be able to deliver in order to make their money back on the site.

This therefore restricts future diversity of product which will have a vast and long-reaching impact on the future of our commercial and residential real estate industry.

The approval process just got slower and more expensive.

Before this amendment, buildings over 25000sqm were fast-tracked to the Minister’s office for assessment.

Now each applicant needs to liaise with the Minister’s Office, the Victorian Design Review Panel and Melbourne City Council. Each entity has a different agenda. Each requires different presentations and each work to a different timeframe.

Now, under the new planning amendment, once a developer receives a permit from the Minister they are then faced with the risk that Melbourne City Council could take the Minister to VCAT. This is just ridiculous. If the Minister doesn’t want to be the responsible authority he should just hand over all approval rights to council.

This current situation is at risk of creating a real shortage of development opportunities in the CBD which in turn will hinder our economic growth across multiple industries.

If this government is serious about implementing change for the long term, economic viability of this great state, it should consult with the developers and architects whom must work within these guidelines to deliver Melbourne’s future.

With the dollar falling and foreign investment pushing affordability out of reach for many, now is not the time to be further stifling Melbourne’s development opportunities and therefore the delivery of affordable product to the marketplace.

Craig Yelland is a Director of Plus Architecture.

8 comments

Qantas743's picture

No surprises there.

Hopefully a future government will see some sense and reverse these changes.

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Bilby's picture

Other major world cities manage innovation with a much less generous FAR than C262, Craig. What is the basis for your special pleading with regard to Melbourne? There far larger, far denser metropolises than Melbourne with provisions mandating half the plot ratio we have under this amendment. Your argument is a straw man - it only works if we set up the central CBD as the sole determiner of density across the city, and only then in an imaginary world of unlimited development growth, when in reality we face a development situation of ever diminishing returns for so-called "innovation".

How many sites remain for large scale towers in the CBD? And at what point do the so-called benefits of developing increasingly marginal sites in the CBD start to become liabilities for the residents who live there and on the risk side in terms of sliding property prices and capital gains, as amenity - including light, air, solar access and fine grain streetscapes - diminishes?

New York manages with a 10:1 plot ratio. Are you arguing that there is no architectural innovation going on right now in New York? Is development impossible there? No.

I would have thought your time would now be better spent advocating for increased infrastructure and public amenity budgets, in combination with appropriate density and urban design provisions in areas like Fisherman's Bend and on brownfield and non-heritage sensitve infill sites across the inner city. That alone would ensure a huge supply of land in areas where people want to live, close to the CBD, with excellent transport and amenity provisions.

Then we might stand a chance of building a truly cosmopolitan world city, rather than an exemplar of mediocre 20th century style "urban renewal", filled with low-grade, low-amenity apartment stock.

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Riddlz's picture

^^ New York sometimes provides allowances for up to 30:1 FAR so it's disingenuous to suggest that new york manages with only a 10:1 FAR.

I believe that each project should be considered on its own merit, to consider the pros and cons of each individual site and design application.

I think that succinctly encapsulates my opinion on the new scheme, especially in regards to the new overshadowing and setback controls which apparently cannot be amended discretionarily.

You can still have a standard of guidelines that a development should attempt to adhere to but innovation and new designs should allow for flexibility, especially with setbacks, not a one-size-fits-all mandatory control.

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Bilby's picture

I don't believe that is correct, Riddlz. Which parts of New York have an allowable 30:1 FAR, not including bonuses? Lower 5th Ave. Special District has an allowance of 23, which might allow 30 under exceptional circumstances. On average, NY is 10-15 FAR in the highest sections of the city (those not covered by Landmark designation or other special controls).

We had "discretionary" guidelines under the previous government, Riddlz, resulting in many poor outcomes. If they had been effective, we wouldn't need to introduce the current changes, but they were ineffective in mitigating the worst excesses of unlimited plot ratio. Most good architects will tell you that restrictions on sites, whether inherent or policy based, encourage creative and innovative responses. To suggest that we won't be able to have good, interesting and innovative buildings under this new set of controls is ridiculous.

Here's an informative history and analysis of FAR that may be of interest: https://andrewlainton.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/floorspace-area-ratio-mak...

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Riddlz's picture

Lower 5th Ave. Special District has an allowance of 23, which might allow 30 under exceptional circumstances.

Far out, that's exactly what I was referring to. Just disagreeing for the sake of disagreeing...

To suggest that we won't be able to have good, interesting and innovative buildings under this new set of controls is ridiculous.

Read my comments(and for that matter Craig Yelland's article) properly. That's not at all what is being suggested. The scope of innovation has been limited, not innovation itself.

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Craig Yelland's picture

It would be wrong to enter into a debate around comparison of our 24:1 plot ratio against other cities. Here is why. Melbourne plot ratio includes ALL covered areas e.g. car parks + cores + covered balconies + internal areas. Many major cities around the world (no I'm not going to list them) only include net sellable area. They don't include lobbies, services, car parks, lift cores and corridors. If Melbourne did that, 24:1 becomes about 14:1. This is an apples vs pears debate. Let's not even bother.

As to Bilby's other points:

  • We need more trains.
  • We need better infrastructure.

Fisherman's bend needs a tram BEFORE the buildings go up. Many parts of Fisherman's Bend will struggle without it. But don't get too hung up about Fisherman's Bend. It's not the answer to solving our population growth. It's been going for about four years. One project has gone to market. It's a Plus building and has sold out. It is in a great spot - close to the light rail on Montague St. I don't believe you can even buy an apartment in Fisherman's Bend today.

Major brown field sites like Arden Macaulay have been undergoing rezoning for about the last 5 years. We are still waiting.

Plus delivered about 1,200 apartments in New Quay Docklands. This took 15 years. A quick search on realestate.com.au shows there is only one tower selling apartments off the plan in Docklands. Clearly this is not the answer to our population needs.

The city needs to be developed. It's got the infrastructure already.

Director of Plus Architecture
www.plusarchitecture.com.au

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Bilby's picture

At what cost to liveability? We want a good city, not just a densely populated core. Your argument, Craig, smacks of something akin to the attitude of the big Australian miners - dig it up and make a quick profit before the resource runs out.

How about a bigger vision in which we actually build rail to the areas that need it, and then develop them appropriately? We are not a country of imbeciles - if other nations can build infrastructure, so can we. We need not destroy the amenity and attractiveness of our CBD for business and residents in the process - restricting the plot ratios in the city is a great start to encouraging real innovation in the development sector. Of course no one was going to take a risk on Fisherman's Bend while the existing free-for-all planning arrangement were in place. In any case, eventually land supply in the CBD will run out - what then? Eventually this city will need to get serious about transport and design - until then, the new plot ratios will buy us some time in the face of lacklustre, careless development.

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Riddlz's picture

It would be wrong to enter into a debate around comparison of our 24:1 plot ratio against other cities. Here is why. Melbourne plot ratio includes ALL covered areas e.g. car parks + cores + covered balconies + internal areas. Many major cities around the world (no I'm not going to list them) only include net sellable area. They don't include lobbies, services, car parks, lift cores and corridors. If Melbourne did that, 24:1 becomes about 14:1. This is an apples vs pears debate.

That's an important point that I think has been glossed over or ignored with all the fanfare regarding the plot ratio.

It has been commented a few times in discussions I've had with individuals(as well as stated in the media) something along the lines of "New York has a 15:1 plot ratio, Wynne has over-generously given Melbourne a 24:1 plot ratio, that's way too much and needs to be cut back"

Craig, would you by any chance be able to explain your calculations as to how you came to the adjusted 14:1 plot ratio? Additionally, could you mention a few cities that utilize this net-sellable area ratio instead?

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