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Colleen Peterson on amendment C262

The overnight implementation of amendment C262 to the Melbourne Planning Scheme last month, which reintroduced plot ratio restrictions into the CBD, took us all by surprise. For those of us who have been around long enough, the concept of plot ratios was a key feature of development in the Melbourne CBD in the 1990s. Their reintroduction is perhaps a spot of nostalgia for some of us.

The introduction of the control was fast, swift and wide reaching, catching everyone ‘off guard’. Some have complained loudly about the effect of the changes, the lack of consultation, the impact on investment in the CBD and the stifling of innovation.

However, I haven’t heard, either publically or privately, widespread concerns from the planning or architecture professions. I honestly believe this is a consequence of many of us realising the need for an interventionist approach to curtail the density of development and the importance of policy in achieving better built form and amenity outcomes.

This analysis of the block between Swanston, Little Lonsdale Street, Elizabeth Street and A’Beckett Street, previously undertaken by Urban Melbourne, is a good example of the sort of intensity of development currently approved in the central city.

A case study on City of Melbourne's amendment C262. Image Laurence Dragomir

I see the issues regarding heightened development pressure in the central city in recent years as being exacerbated by other factors. Particularly:

  • The widespread implementation of the Neighbourhood Residential Zone, particularly in the Cities of Moreland, Yarra, Boroondara and Bayside, which has effectively placed greater pressure on activity centres and the central city in meeting housing demand for Melbourne.
  • The lack of direction and certainty regarding the design of apartments, with continued delays and inaction on the issue of ‘Apartment Design Guidelines’ over a number of years.

We all accept and embrace the important role that the central city plays in providing new housing opportunities. I would also argue that these opportunities and issues of density and building separation should also be considered in the context of development pressures in more suburban locations, from South Yarra to Box Hill.

Lessons learned in the CBD should be transferred to these other emerging high rise precincts.

I consider that the concerns raised regarding the liveability of the CBD, not only apartments but public spaces, is largely a consequence of the lack of leadership on this issue and the failure of planning policy to keep up with the change in market conditions. The success of city living has been on the rise since the success of postcode 3000 some 30 years ago with the rise in ‘super towers’ on the agenda for the past 10 years.

Policy makers have failed to respond to this change in building typology, despite the emergence of high rise residential towers in the central city under Planning Minister Justin Madden 10 year ago. It has only been in recent times that there been sufficient pressure to start the process of introducing clear direction on the development of high rise residential buildings and in particular the issues of building separation and internal amenity.

Clearly the Higher Density Residential Guidelines missed the mark in providing the direction needed. Imagine if we as planners had been more visionary and such documents were being prepared 10 year ago…

Whilst I will be the first to admit the tools utilised in C262 are not perfect, I do agree that something needed to be done to give decisions makers’ time to put this planning framework into place. This seems to be a commonly held opinion with just about every planner and architect I discuss the matter with.

I can understand why the Minister undertook such a change under the cloak of secrecy, preventing what would have inevitably been a rush of poor conceived applications to beat the deadline. Such a rush was exactly what happened as the deadline for the introduction of the Residential Zones approached in mid 2014 and such applications were, in many instances, inappropriately resolved and a drain on public resources and time.

At least the change in the rules has the effect of introducing a level playing field, where all developers must now look to develop sites under the same set of rules and, for the time being at least, consideration will be given to the issues of building separation and liveability of our central city in a more formal sense.

Also for the first time we have a set of planning controls that make it clear that there must be demonstrable broader public amenity benefits if the plot ratio controls are to be exceeded. Perhaps this may be the beginning of the idea of inclusionary zoning that has worked elsewhere in the developed world?

12 months isn’t a long time for such a document to be prepared, with the need for the industry and other stakeholders to be appropriately consulted. The outcome must be a fair and equitable planning framework that takes into account the strategic objectives of intensification of the central city, the need to create liveable, sustainable neighbourhoods and the potential for the inclusion of affordable housing.

I look forward to the draft.

Colleen Peterson is the Managing Director of Ratio Consultants. Follow Colleen on Twitter.

4 comments

Matt J's picture

Well put Colleen

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Bilby's picture

It's remarkable that such a clearly articulated and original piece would receive little to no further comment on Urban Melbourne. I've been holding off to see how others would respond - but on the whole, there has been no response to one of the most salient industry pieces on this site for some time:

I see the issues regarding heightened development pressure in the central city in recent years as being exacerbated by other factors. Particularly:

The widespread implementation of the Neighbourhood Residential Zone, particularly in the Cities of Moreland, Yarra, Boroondara and Bayside, which has effectively placed greater pressure on activity centres and the central city in meeting housing demand for Melbourne.

Surely this policy is, by and large, responsible for much of the rush we have seen in recent years to go high in the CBD and build up on our historic strip shopping areas, sacrificing urban amenity in the process. Some of the most important, but previously undervalued aspects of Melbourne's amenity have already been lost or badly damaged in this rush to build in these heavily constrained precincts, while all the while, the vast swathes of Melbourne's suburbia go untouched by the development so sorely needed there.

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Nicholas Harrison's picture

Because that view has already been put forward strongly on this site and by many members of the planning profession in general over the past couple of years.

The creep of very restrictive planning controls has not just been in the residential zones but also some activity centers adjacent to tram routes and railway stations across Melbourne which have often been limited to only 3 levels.

This has pushed development to the CBD and the few remaining suburban centers that do not have restrictive height controls.

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Mark Sheppard's picture

We do need clearer controls about building separation. But plot ratios are a dumb measure that doesn't allow consideration of the individual circumstances of each site. There's a reason why they went out of favour!
My other concern is the ability to have proper consideration of the proposed permanent controls (which haven't even been exhibited yet) in time to get them gazetted before the interim controls expire. The timeframe suggests the govt isn't really interested in industry views.

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