Summary and thoughts on the community forum for Fishermans Bend

Late last week we were alerted via our Facebook page to the community forum on Fishermans Bend, "The future of our inner suburbs?" presented by the Community Alliance of Port Phillip. The following is a summary of what was said (feel free to correct me if I have misquoted) and my thoughts after attending it. I was tweeting madly from the event - I was using it as my notepad actually - and you can see the whole series (started just before 2pm Sunday 7/7/13) of tweets if you go to our Twitter feed.  

Forum organiser: Gerry McLoughlin

The Moderator: Peter Mares - former ABC journalist/broadcaster and independent writer and researcher.

The Panelists:

Dr Rory Hyde, special co-host on RRR's The Architects

Rory Hyde kicked off proceedings and focused much of his 10 minutes on what Fishermans Bend currently is and some of the proposals his students have come up with for the redevelopment zone.  He spotlighted the varying uses of land in Fishermans Bend at present, with a focus on the Globe Headquarters and Matilda Bay Brewing Company, and he quipped, beautifully, with the following: "hipsters brewing beer and making skateboards".  Rory Hyde also flashed up a few slides of his student's work - I have offered to give them a wider audience by publishing some of it on and I'll keep everyone updated if I get a positive response.

Dr Kate Shaw, Future Fellow - Urban Planning & Geography at the University of Melbourne

Kate Shaw also continued on with looking at the current land uses in Fishermans Bend, highlighting how we have strict planning regulations which ensure there are wide exclusion zones around sites such as the cement works and other industry in Fishermans Bend.  Flipping to the next slide, we saw the cement works on Granville Island in Vancouver and how different the same type of exclusion zone policy is interpreted in Canada. Best of all, Kate Shaw portrayed Docklands for what it is: big buildings with a big underutilised public realm, flipping back to a Vancouver example, we were presented with imagery of Vancouver's trademark forest of condo towers (something not mentioned at the forum: Vancouver has a forest of high-rises with near identical heights owing to strict height limits) and then immediately afterwards we were shown large underutilised urban spaces in amongst the downtown Vancouver urban forest.  

The point?  Big buildings - whether they are the groundscrapers of Docklands ('groundscraper' = speak for very large low-mid rise buildings) or the high-rise forests of Vancouver, the result can be the same: big buildings can create a poor public realm.

Francis Grey, founder and Senior Economist at Economists at Large

Francis Grey's segment saw the forum trend toward the discussion of community engagement (or lack thereof) in the overall planning process.  Francis came out strongly with the opinion that government <-> community engagement is poor because of the nature in the way the public service implements policy:  bureaucrats are smashed with the orders from above (their boss: the Minister) and community engagement is on the back foot from the beginning.

Renee Riley, from TwoSchoolsNow

Renee Riley's segment focused on education. The presentation provided a fascinating insight into what's happening to schools in North Melbourne, Port Melbourne & Albert Park: the primary school catchment areas where kids growing up in Southbank and Docklands are going to school. The data presented debunked the myth of Southbank and Docklands residents solely consisting of empty-nesters, young 20 and 30-somethings and international students. Albert Park College was highlighted in the segment; by 2016 it is likely to be at maximum enrollment capacity and with many more developments in Southbank and Docklands to come, let alone Fishermans Bend, the situation will be dire for families who embrace high-density living.

Organisations like TwoSchoolsNow are going to be paramount in the community engagement process, not just for Fishermans Bend, but like as the forum organiser Gerry McLoughlin said right at the end: the whole inner city.  We'll be watching.

Robert Pradolin, the General Manager (Residential) for Victoria at Australand.  

Updated: 8/7/13 12:30pm with more succinct summary from Robert himself.

Robert Pradolin made a short and sharp presentation focusing primarily on differentiating development companies who actually go through a public process and develop a site under the required normal financial metrics. This is usually after all the rules for the development have been put in place and an underlying value for the site is already fundamentally determined. This differs completely from speculators who thrive on risk taking and will speculate on achieving something (a planning permit) that creates a significant uplift in value based on the rules not being totally clear and therefore the underlying land value had not yet been established. He also talked about how the one thing developers want the most is certainty and that it is a common goal with many community interests.

There was praise for the concept of betterment levies on landowners/developers - to give a portion of the money earned by and uplift in value caused purely by the rezoning process - back to the community in ways such as contributing to the funding of schools, public realm and other community focused infrastructure. At the start of the forum it was said invitations were sent out to multiple developers, however Robert was the sole representative and should be commended for wishing to engage in the way he did.

Dr Darragh O'Brien, Principal of the Architectural Research Consultancy

With Darragh O'Brien's presentation we switched back to a planning-centric discussion.  One of the most memorable quotes:

With a humourous look at how many Docklands development renders depicted many people milling around the precincts and then contrasting them with reality, we got the distinct impression Darragh O'Brien's central point is that no matter how 'good' you perceive a master or structure plan to be, key to its success is flexibility & adaptive plans as community needs change over time.  This sparked interesting back-and-forth discussion amongst panelists in the Q and A session which followed the main panelist presentation session.

Helen Kuchel, Chairperson of Port People

Helen gave the shortest of presentations on the panel and talked about her history of living in the area and the community campaigns she is involved with - primarily through Port People.  As the last person to speak, the primary topic she discussed: the need for a larger more united grass-roots community campaign to force government engagement with the community, played a large part of the Q and A session.

My Thoughts:

It was a fantastic 3 hour long session, 95% full of intelligent discussion on the future of our city. I now realise that I was naive to believe it was going to be a largely NIMBY-centric forum (only 5% of it was) where community members might get up and hurl rotten tomatoes at anyone from the NIMBY-perceived evil development companies or government (maybe I'm reading too many North American centric urban sites where this is regularly reported!).  I will note however there was no input from any State Government representatives and the local state opposition ALP member Martin Foley was present and did make a contribution toward the end of the forum.

Engaging the community to project an image of how we wish our city to grow is what myself, my co-director Mark Baljak and two other individual shareholders are passionate about. After the forum ended, I approached Helen Kuchel to introduce myself and she asked me quite directly "what is your motivation?" and I'll repeat what I said for the public record: We want to see less Lakeside Pakenham's, Craigieburn's and Werribee's and more Fitzroy's, Brunswick's, Kensington's, Footscray's, Richmond's and yes high-rise Southbank's - urban, not suburban! Infill & brownfields redevelopment right across the metropolitan area on suitable sites, less greenfields development.  

Mid-way through the Q and A session, this was what came to my mind when attempting to analyse the discussion between audience and panelists. In actual fact, rather than a registered political party, I think this is where this forum and future one's like it are headed (final slide shown at the forum):

I completely understand the motivation behind forming an alliance of community associations all around the inner-city after listening to each speaker and audience member, and I believe it could be very effective in forcing greater community involvement in the strategic direction our city is going. However, and this is a big caveat: with sympathy to the residents living directly to the south of Fishermans Bend who are quite literally on the front line of dealing with the impacts felt from such a massive redevelopment zone, the alliance must not go overboard and become stacked with negativity and opposition to even moderate change.

Melbourne is growing and as our the city's motto suggests, we gather strength as we go (or more importantly: grow).  Even if migrant intake was cut off, Melbourne would still be growing by 40,000-50,000 people via natural increase every year and that would not alter my belief that future growth must focus on increasing densities in appropriate established areas backed up with increased public transport infrastructure spending and a major focus on incentives to allow people to use even more sustainable transport modes like walking and cycling to go about their every day business.  

Paris was cited as an example of cities we all admire for its beauty and ability to house its population in such high densities in low-rise and mid-rise buildings. The questioner seemed to negate his previous praise for Paris as he attempted to emotionally charge the question, directed at Robert Pradolin, by quoting existing suburban densities (60 people a hectare), Montague Structure plan densities (in the 300-400 people a hectare range) and then go on to say some of the buildings which are being speculatively proposed in Fishermans Bend are around the 1000 people a hectare level.  

If you simply look at the population densities of the 20 Arrondissements of Paris (the area we all admire), you will note 100-250 people a hectare population densities. This glosses over instances where population density in Paris will have very high peaks (certain building types) and low troughs (open space areas) - no-one wants 1000 people a hectare to be the benchmark for the entire Fishermans Bend area, and no-one wants to ultimately fail at attempting to create a new Paris overnight either.  

Built form (and therefore height) needs to be diverse and as the Montague Structure plan illustrated succinctly - from the City Road transitional precinct to the high-rise precinct in the north: you can achieve density targets (if that is the goal) with a wide-range of building type. Even having, for argument's sake, 3 x 300+m towers spread out across the southern bank of the Yarra (dispersed, not in a cluster) and 10 x 150-200m towers nearby with shorter buildings progressively making their way down toward the transitional areas in City and Williamstown Road - that's not likely to skew the people per hectare statistic above what was envisioned in the Montague Structure Plan.

There appeared to be some resistance with regards to the Montague Structure plan (borne out of a lack of City of Port Phillip engagement perhaps?) and I admit I'm not across all the ins and outs on how it was drawn up, however on paper the entire plan comes across one of the most detailed and favourable structure plans I've seen in my 10 years of observing Melbourne's development. I hope this thinly-veiled resistance does not manifest itself in a way where people's natural resistance to change snowballs into an all out anti-redevelopment conservative movement city-wide. That will create problems because I don't accept no or little change as an option (i.e housing everyone on the fringe and not taking advantage of key sites to enhance Melbourne's global profile) - and with the utmost respect, I, no doubt along with many in my generation, especially don't accept the argument we should curtail population growth when older generations have benefited from the positives which come along with it in decades past.  

Until such time as a well resourced anti-development movement unwilling to accept change happens, if it happens, I'm more than happy to have as a key platform in the larger debate where we can discuss our city's growth in a constructive and rational manner.

Francis Grey called on more developers to be as open as Australand's representative Robert Pradolin was and I completely agree. The perceived, no matter how right or wrong, stigma on developers from certain sectors of the community is on the same level as the notion that Dandenong is not well placed to take full advantage of redevelopment opportunities for the better: these stigmas and mindsets are not helpful and Sunday's forum was a small but important step in destroying the barriers which hold back robust discussion & engagement.

Balancing the shareholder and community-focused interests is not an easy task, but it is a familiar one: we have to do it on (refer here).  

I speak for myself and not any other individual shareholder in the company which operates this site nor any individual mentioned below when I say: I loosely frame my own political beliefs around the principles of social capitalism - the market is inherently good as long as there is sufficient regulation to ensure no-one is left behind. To my mind, in the context of Sunday's forum, the same principles were regularly brought up:

  • Kate Shaw's points of requiring developers to have a certain percentage of the units for sale in any development to aid in housing affordability,
  • Darragh O'Brien's discussion about the trade-off between where developers pay a higher rate or percentage in 'betterment levies' to enable the height of their development to exceed preferred height limits,  
  • Excluding developers from donating to political parties or individual candidates' election campaigns (especially in light of what's happening with Eddie Obeid in New South Wales) and,
  • Robert Pradolin's point that developers and community want certainty and with every change of State Government there shouldn't be a whole heap of uncertainty thrown in like a cat amongst the pigeons.

The overarching theme is compromise and Renee Riley's presentation outlined how important it is to have data. The entire forum was informative, lively and inclusive and I came out of it with my own drive even more focused on the need for to continue on our mission of enhancing community and urban industry interaction for the mutual benefit of a future Urban Melbourne. For more than a decade I have had an interest in the data on Melbourne's development - that's what this site is all about: doing something which hasn't been done before - tracking the type of development myself and my colleagues believe is the right way for our city to grow.

On that note: if any of the panelists believe I have misquoted them I am happy to update this article and make any changes transparent in highlighting where I may have erred. Similarly, I know I haven't covered every topic each panelists discussed in detail so I offer an open invitation to all the panelists who participated in Sunday's forum to write a more in-depth piece on the views they expressed at the forum and we will publish with full features in the interests of continuing the flow of information and debate. Please contact me at [email protected].

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