Laneway vs square. ©  Woods Bagot + ShOp

The Laneway and the Square: the 447 Collins Street debate

Early last year I wrote an article which investigated a possible development scenario for 447 Collins Street, on the basis that the existing 1960's structure were to be demolished.

Fast forward to last week and we were afforded our first glimpse of Woods Bagot + ShOp's schemes for the site, each with varying provisions of public space. The scheme titled 'Bridge' would consist of dual towers of 160 + 190m with a north south laneway bisecting the site and a small pocket of public space to the north-east corner. The alternative scheme title 'Spire' (architecture notwithstanding) bares a strong resemblance, in particular from an urban master planning point of view, to what I had considered a year earlier.

Spire + Bridge. Square v Laneway. © Woods Bagot + ShOp

While two schemes were investigated in my initial piece, ultimately I was convinced that ISPT (now CBUS) and their architects would favour a dual tower scheme with a north-south laneway similar to the their previous CBW project. The sort of scheme I was looking at, while not without substance was more pie in the sky stuff (300m to be exact). It was intended to generate debate as to just what we value as Melburnians from a public domain point of view.

Would we accept overshadowing of Southbank promenade in exchange for a large public space in the heart of the city? Many people have raised the fact that such a space currently exists on site as we speak. My questions to them are: Is it actually a quality public space? Does it make a positive contribution to the street and city? Is it a desirable space to dwell in or a memorable space?

I would answer most of those questions in the negative. The most positive aspect of the current site configuration is its northerly aspect, meaning it should be afforded a generous amount of natural sunlight during the day. Additionally CBUS are only required to provide/retain 480sqm of public space, so to provide close to five times that requirement for public benefit while not eroding the commercial programme is quite the challenge.

On face value the 300m Spire scheme provides the greater benefit to the public domain: there are far more people living, working and visiting the traditional CBD grid. Obviously further interrogation and detailed design is required before an educated judgment can be made with any degree of certainty and confidence but the positives for mine, far outweigh the negatives.

By locating the public space to the eastern side of the site and consuming part of Market Street this allows for solar penetration to Flinders Lane while also creating a new vista to the historically significant beaux-arts former Port Authority building to the south. Planning scheme controls aside the big question that needs to be asked is what does Melbourne really need? Another 21st century quasi-laneway experience? Or perhaps a public space with a bit more substance?

This man's interpretation of a revamped 447 Collins public space

Now I don't for a second doubt the combined capabilities of Woods Bagot and ShOp in delivering a quality public space, whether it takes the form of a 4,000sqm public square or a more intimate laneway experience.

The other point that needs to be raised is the Yarra itself with the exception a few nodes here and there is a largely transient body of water, it is not intended for static activities. It is overshadowed everyday of the year by the numerous networks of bridges which connect north and south. The Southbank promenade on the other hand is itself a largely homogenous experience, overshadowing part of its 1.2km length will not destroy the area and send people running away in droves.

The detriment to the south of the Yarra is more than balanced out by the gain to the north.

There's an argument that supporting such a proposal would set a precedent. Now if that precedent happened to be a tower with +2,000sqm of public space at ground level in exchange for some overshadowing of Southbank promenade in winter, I would take it every day of the week. Realistically sites like 447 Collins don't really exist anymore and the likelihood of a developer consolidating multiple sites is highly unlikely.

My opinion on the matter will likely prove unpopular but while the provisions of the planning scheme exist to protect the amenity of our streets, parks and public domain in general, these should not be at the expense of innovation. Rather than discouraging the development of alternative solutions which may not fully comply with requirements, the planning scheme should encourage more creative responses and design solutions to the issues which we are faced with today. We have previously seen the City of Melbourne commend another project in 97 Franklin Street for thinking outside the square (literally).

In finishing, I have never been one to see the world in strictly black and white terms. There are plenty of shades of grey out there and I believe these have the potential to offer the most interesting outcomes.


Purple Dawn's picture

With you all the way, Laurence. Given the disproportionate emphasis placed on overshadowing (this isn't the French Riviera), and the holy-grail status conferred upon it, this seems like the quintessential red-herring - which is invoked to stop pro-development (and good development at that).

It is really only Bravo Sierra in the extreme.

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Matthew Barresi's picture

I actually think that block should be entirely used as public space, it would create some space for solace that is sorely lacking in our CBD. I'm leaning towards more park based urban design than public square. But this is a unique block with streets on all 4 sides, lets do the opposite of what we've been doing lately and open up the CBD a bit? (I wish the government were proactive here and bought the land off the developer to make this a reality)

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

The site was purchased last year for $91 million. The City of Melbourne or the state government would not be able to justify spending that amount of money on providing additional open space in the CBD.

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Andrew's picture

Yes, the public would be calling for their heads if the land was purchased for a similar price 'just for a park' Why not let the private industry provide the public space in their designs and the city can work with them in narrowing Market Street. As long as the public space is well thought out it can accododate a number of uses with retail fronting a square built into the base of the commercial/residential development on the rest of the land.

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johnproctor's picture

I'm not sure how much solace you would recieve surrounded by William, Collins, Market and Flinders Lane?

in any case a park of a quarter or half the size of the block would be better htan the full size. big enough to have space but small enough to feel alive with the number of people likely to use it (like the new smaller city square works better than the older bigger one). those that want bigger spaces can walk down to the Yarra River (between King and Spencer), Flagstaff Gardens, Docklands linear park (let alone the huge parks and gardens a little further away).

One thing I see as an opportunity for more public space is where Little Collins Street is particularly wide behind St James plaza between William and King. Plenty of space in street view below to make one of the footpaths 5-8m wider and put in some seats, bike racks, planter boxes, coffee cart etc.

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Daniel Loudon's picture

Is it possible for the government to partner with developers to design the site with tall buildings, with the government maintaining control of the "lower floors"? If the brief is to make a hybrid of a park and a high rise development there's surely a great design to be made. The Eiffel tower is a tall building over public space that the public adores, par exemple.

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Rohan Storey's picture

Sadly Council originally owned the site, and it was leased to National Mutual in 1961 with the stipulation that they provide the forecourt, though not that it be anything more than lightly landscaped open space. Then in 1992 during the time of the commissioners, the freehold was sold with no protection over the open space. Oops.

So now we find ourselves with this developer led artificial dichotomy, shadow the southbank in return for a new plaza, or have a full block building with a 'laneway' open space.

Im a great supporter of sticking to rules when you have them, and keeping the long, popular open space of the southbank promenade free of shadows is one of the few that have been stuck to. There really should be no exceptions no matter the offer, because as soon as there's one, then there's another (and the Minister has already allowed 555 collins to overshadow, only on the basis that the city needs a new office tower it seems), and pretty soon there will be more, and there will be many 'fast moving' shadows chasing each other across the cafe tables of the southbank.

And the more I think about it, the less it seems that a large open space here is all that necessary, or would definitely be as well used and attractive as the city square / state lib forecourt, even if its the same size. It would all depend on how it feels and what opens onto it, and also how sunny.

Firstly that part of the city nowhere near as busy (except at lunchtimes) as swanston street, and not likely to be even with more apt towers - its the most officey end of town.

Second, it would need a public function like a library or gallery to attract users another than passers by, office users or residents - if its all cafes, then its really a food court.

Third, there's no protection of sun access - it would be overshadowed progressively after 2pm by the new building anyway, and in winter only the back half would get direct sunlight since the 10 storey buildings to the north already overshadow almost all the existing plaza in winter, and there's no controls (now or proposed) to prevent further overshadowing by new tall buildings to the north. So it could end up unattractive in winter anyway.

Whereas, a well designed laneway / atrium, with lots of retail and sunny only at lunchtimes like all the north-south laneways in the CBD could be very attractive.

(and lets not forget that the laneway option just happens not to include the use of market street, so there is a third design that uses that space too, which could be a pocket park, with more retail facing onto it, albeit one that would only be sunny at luchtimes, and only the back half in winter).

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