The case for 447 Collins Street

Following on from Mark's article on Planning Minister Wynne's rejection of CBUS Property's proposal for 477 Collins Street, I have decided to look at the case for the contentious Woods Bagot + SHoP designed scheme and add my two cents to the debate.

Firstly it's worth noting that the scheme as presented - albeit with some adjustments to setbacks - was ready to be submitted for assessment the week just after Planning Minister Wynne introduced interim planning controls for the Central City under the guise of Amendment C262. The previous proposal for a 297 metre single tower had already been knocked back by former Minister for Planning Matthew Guy under the former planning regime, sending CBUS and their design team back to the drawing board.

This despite the City of Melbourne providing support for the project on the grounds that it would introduce significant public space into the heart of the CBD, an extremely rare opportunity. Council acknowledged that they were unable to compete with developers in a bid to acquire land for much-needed CBD public space. It would cost council in the vicinity of $20 million just to purchase the site.

The importance of the Yarra River as a key natural feature of Melbourne is acknowledged in State planning policy, the Melbourne Planning Scheme and the Planning Schemes of other relevant municipalities. The only basis upon which an exemption to the prohibition could possibly be contemplated is if there was a demonstrated public benefit which would outweigh such an impact on a natural asset of state significance.

City of Melbourne

Following the Minister's refusal on the grounds of overshadowing Southbank, and in particular Queensbridge Square, the design team worked on developing the alternate scheme that had been presented as Option B, in parallel to the 297m Option A and addressed the concerns.

Alternative Spire (left) and Bridge concept designs (right). Image courtesy SHoP / Woods Bagot

This took on the form of dual mixed use towers of 47-storeys and 165m linked by a skybridge not too dissimilar to the Option B design pictured above. The main point of difference being the relocation of the skybridge to the top of the two towers. Additionally the revised scheme provided 259 hotel suites and 315 apartments in addition to 68,364sqm of office space, 500sqm of retail space, and basement parking for 487 vehicles and 501 bicycles.

At ground level, a 2,000 sqm public space featuring a tree grove, promenade and an amphitheatre would greet pedestrians. It also no longer overshadowed Southbank between the key times of 11.00 am and 2.00 pm 22nd June.

The main point of contention this time around is Point 7 within Schedule 1 of the Capital City Zone, which following the introduction of the interim planning controls states:

The construction of buildings and works which would cast any additional shadow across the north bank of the Yarra, 15 metres north from its edge… between 11.00 am and 2.00 pm from 22 March to 22 September is prohibited.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne has previously stated that his powers on planning matters are discretionary and that developers could request exemptions to the interim rules if they could demonstrate their project would benefit the community. The development team had requested dispensation in order to facilitate the uniquely shaped development, with the hope of the project being the first proposal to receive a Ministerial waiver since the September implementation of the revised planning controls.

For mine 447 Collins Street stands out as a site to which these discretionary powers should be applied. The site occupies an entire city block in the heart of the Melbourne CBD, arguably characteristics of a "site of state significance" and one which should be exempt from the controls.

The proposal also would have complied with the previous planning controls and when coupled with the fact the scheme was ready to be lodged within days of the interim planning controls being introduced and considering there was no consultation or deadline enforced prior to the introduction it seems like a relatively unfair way to force a redesign.

An amnesty period of two weeks from the announcement should have been in place to allow developers and their design teams to complete and submit their applications.

In my opinion the benefit to the city of a new quality green space activated by retail and surrounding buildings far outweighs the negative impact of shadow to a stretch of Northbank which is generally undesirable and underutilised, largely as a result of the rail viaducts and bridges which cross the Yarra.

In addition to this I consider the architecture and form of the scheme to be of a high design standard particularly when considering the two offices which collaborated to produce the design. It's also worth remembering that CBUS Property undertook an invited design competition before appointing the architects, a clear appreciation of the importance of the site.

The $1 billion cost associated with the project also suggests this would have been anything but a standard run of the mill development.

The City of Melbourne's Future (Planning Committee) have also previously supported the revised scheme citing design merit and public space as the key factors towards approval:

The key issues in relation to this amendment are built form, provision of publicly accessible space and overshadowing. The amendment enables the development of the site with a unique building that is generally acceptable in terms of its architecture, height, setbacks, tower separation, internal amenity and façade activation.

A significant amount of publicly accessible space is to be provided within the site which has good access to sunlight, will achieve comfortable wind conditions, incorporate (where applicable) landscaping with deep soil planting and provide true public street connections.

The proposal did comply with the sunlight to public spaces requirements prior to Amendment C262. The amendment is now prohibited because it casts additional shadow across the north bank of the Yarra (15 metres north from the Yarra River’s edge). The application documentation shadow analysis shows that the extent (length) of shadow is significantly reduced when compared with the previous amendment.

City of Melbourne Future Committee

One of the biggest arguments I hear against the 447 Collins Street proposal is that it would set a precedent for other such proposals. For starters there aren't any other entire city blocks available for redevelopment along that stretch of Collins Street that could accommodate a large commercial and residential development and still provide a city park. If a developer is somehow able to consolidate a number of sites to do so and if a proposal demonstrates strong architectural merit then I don't consider that too big of an issue.

Lord Mayor Robert Doyle has also previously commented on this noting that "each (application) will have to be considered on its merits and, in fact, once you get one or two like this, it gets much harder in the future to argue that you should get an exemption." The key point here being that while planning controls are in place for a reason each application must be judged on its merits.

What implications the Minister's refusal of the scheme have for the site remain to be seen, but I hazard a guess the public open space may now possibly take on the form of a north-south laneway as a reduction in height will possibly mean greater building footprints. Perhaps a topic for another article…


Michael Berquez's picture

Well written. All makes sense.

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Peter Maltezos's picture

Thank you Laurence, well written!

I hope the Planning Minister reads it.

A unique built form for Melbourne missed already.

I collect, therefore I am.

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johnproctor's picture

I didn't realise it was refused because of overshadowing the NORTH bank of the yarra!

seems very strange to me. Presumably this decision gives a very strong indication that the permanent controls will maintain the stricter overshadowing requirements included in C262 (which has been hinted within the industry) and that the discretion will be placed more around setbacks and plot ratio.

I really can't believe this was refused. If ever there was a project to get 'special' treatment its this. firstly a different/iconic design. secondly genuinely mixed use development. thirdly provision of significant public open space as an offset. fouthly (but really secondly to the previous) is that its a whole city block.

This decision basically closes redevelopment of any building on Collins west of Market St. why would a developer bother knocking down an existing building (like 555 collins or the former Transport House) if they can't build anything much taller than what is there already.

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Riddlz's picture

Tightening up of the Northbank overshadowing restrictions and the subsequent rejection of this development have tarnished the otherwise good cause of Amendment C262.

I hate to sound defeatist but what chance is there that this is going to change or result in a compromise? Wynne has now made it very clear that he takes a hard-line approach to overshadowing concerns by rejecting this, of all developments.

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Reddie's picture

Does anyone know where we could access the the overshadowing drawings considered by the minister?

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Ian Woodcock's picture

A few more facts would help the discussion. For example, how does the total floor area of the 'pantscraper' scheme compare with the original tower? Secondly, how much shorter would the pantscraper need to be to not overshadow the outermost 15 metres of Northbank? And then, given these two numbers - what situation actually arises in terms of allowable developable volume? What ways are there of meeting the planning requirements?

Without these facts, and some images to illustrate them, the discussion is severely constrained to the usual tropes in planning in Melbourne. For example, the case for the proposal is being made on the following grounds, none of which are about how the actual planning constraints can be satisfied, viz:

A) Its designers are high calibre. (Yes, but why should that make any difference? What if the proposal met the planning criteria but was designed by low-rent unknown operators no-one has ever heard of. Would that be grounds for rejecting it, or approving it? If you want 'design quality' - i.e. the track record of the designers to be a planning consideration, then surely it should count as part of the planning criteria to be met, not an excuse for breaking the planning rules!).

B) Northbank is a crap public space anyway, so let's just overshadow it and re-instate a public space on Collins St that is about 10-15% smaller than what used to be there. (This is to give up on the possibility that Northbank could be much better than it is. Just imagine: buildings get developed that overshadow Northbank, and then, circumstances change and Northbank's fortunes change, except that it's now in shadow in winter ... there are a lot of reasons why Northbank is underutilised, and they are not all to do with the rail viaduct. Like all public spaces, the edge conditions are what have the biggest effect on how well they are used. An analysis of the area will show that there are a lot more issues that the rail viaduct. After all, there is plenty of life beneath the viaducts at Circular Quay or those in Paris and other urban centres with such structures. However, at Northbank, the edge conditions make use of the park less popular than it could be.

Furthermore, this does, like it or not, create a precedent. Land ownership can change very fast - what's to stop the sites on the northern side of Collins St being redeveloped and overshadowing the public space at 447? Maybe some savvy developer will hire Koolhass, Gehry, Foster, or Calatrava or some other global starchitect to add their imprimatur to justify overshadowing both 447 and Northbank and even, Queensbridge Square?

Where does this logic end? If public open space is lacking in central Melbourne, surely we don't improve the situation by sacrificing parts of it for no gain - there was a larger plaza at 447 in the past than is being proposed; and this proposal would have reduced the quality of a larger area on the northbank of the river! How can that be a good thing?)

C) The sky will fall in for the development industry if this doesn't go ahead. (So, the only reason developers do anything is to make bigger and taller buildings? What about raising the utility, sustainability and quality of what's already there, through retrofitting? Large amounts of central Melbourne have been redeveloped this way. Sure, maybe there's less money to be made, but really, is that ultimately what this should all be about?)

Real creativity and innovation in design is about finding ways to satisfy developers needs to make profits without breaking planning rules that are there to protect the long term amenity of the public realm. I am surprised that a blog that is committed to all things urban is prepared so easily to argue for the sacrifice of public space.

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SYmlb's picture

Hmmm. I would have to say the more I read on the reasons for it being rejected the more I think this should be approved.

The articles from The Age stated it was due to overshadowing of Southbank and not Northbank. For that, I would see this tower being significant enough to warrant approval due to it providing a better and more logical park on Collins St versus the derelict stretch of Northbank.

Would like to see a shadow diagram to show what kind of shadows this would cause, that would really help clear things up further.

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Melbourne_Fragments's picture

^ it's won't be a park, itll a privately owned plaza

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SYmlb's picture

^ Point being whatever ends up there is better than what is at Northbank now and will be of a greater value to the city than Northbank can offer.

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Steve Raider's picture

They could build it elsewhere, up north somewhere, but it would have looked very good from Southbank.

Here's an idea. Level Fed Square and build it there. Such an iconic building needs a prominent position. Plus, Fed Square sucks imho.

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Melbourne_Fragments's picture

You want a public square with buildings full of art and cultural institutions demolished for an office building?

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Alastair Taylor's picture

Media release from Planning Minister:

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Ian Woodcock's picture

There you go. So, how much will that reduce the shadows cast on Northbank? Some facts would be good. The height of the building only matters in terms of the shadow it casts ...

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