Melbourne City Councillor Nick Reece has called for an improvement in the overall standard of the city’s new buildings during this current construction boom. At Balance Architecture we wholeheartedly agree with him. There are some wonderful new buildings completed and very exciting projects still in the pipeline. But it would appear, especially with many of the earlier developments of this new millennium, that there has been no uniform application of standards applied to such new developments and constructions. Often there are attempts to crowd far too much infrastructure onto minuscule plots of land, or to appease heritage values in a grand fashion, yet with little real appreciation of the true heritage value of a building or location.
Or particular concern to our team and many others is the lip service, paid to some heritage CBD sites, known as ‘corner sites’. The Developers purchase a land parcel that eventually includes these corner locations and proceeds to develop major towers behind or on top of the important corner properties. Known as the ‘80m on corners’ rule, this fairy obvious flaw in the planning regulations will see a 27 storey high tower built atop of one of Melbourne’s last remaining pubs. The tower will be perched above the remaining facade of the old Metropolitan Hotel on the corner of Williams St and Little Lonsdale St, thus acknowledging its historical value – (not!).
The critique from Melbourne Heritage Action explains in detail this anomaly.
Planning rules target historic corner buildings
In June, the last CBD pub that didn’t have heritage protection, the 1925 Metropolitan Hotel on the corner of William Street and Little Lonsdale, became the latest place threatened by the little known ‘80m on corners’ rule.
A development proposal would see just the external walls retained, and a 27 storey ‘as of right’ tower above, perched on legs through the roof. This has fortunately been put on hold while the City of Melbourne moves to heritage-list the site as one of the few pubs left in the CBD, though this may not prevent something like it going ahead. Listed buildings in the CBD and South Carlton have been allowed to have towers-on-legs above retained facades despite the obviously poor heritage outcomes. The Elms Family Hotel on Spring Street and the former Bank of Australasia on the Haymarket are two examples currently under construction. A worse version, without legs, is happening to the (non-heritage listed) gold-rush era Great Western Hotel on King Street, where the facades will be stuck the base of a 27 storey tower, allowed thanks to the 80m rule.
The Great Western and the Metropolitan have come under this kind of pressure because of a clause first mooted in April 2016 as part of new rules about how much you can build on any one site. These rules included a mandatory setback of 5m from any street or lane above a pedestrian-scaled podium of 20 to 40m (5 to 10 storeys), EXCEPT if it was on a corner, in which case you could go up to 80m (27 floors). This clause means corner sites are more valuable, and sure enough both hotels were sold in mid 2016 at higher than expected yields. The reasons for this peculiar situation, which will mean a pedestrian scale for one site and a sheer tower next door, were never fully explained, and its clear it particularly affects historic buildings.
Other corners in the CBD that are now under more pressure include a number of ex pubs, such as the 1872 Alexandra Hotel on the Russell and Little Lonsdale, which was only sold this month. The 1913 Kilkenny Inn on King and Lonsdale, has been rumoured to be for sale for some time, and the Art Nouveau Charles Hotham Hotel on Spencer Street was sold a year ago. Other buildings are at risk, such as the 1923 bank, now a hotel, on the corner of Collins and Spencer, the 1869 shops on the corner of Queen and Little Bourke, and currently unlisted places like the 1913 warehouse on King Street cnr of Little Bourke.
MHA believes that this 80m-corners rule was a mistake that should be rectified, but this seems unlikely. In the meantime, we can only hope that improved heritage rules, under way at the moment, will prevent the kind of terrible compromises created by pitting heritage against high development potential.
An anomaly such as this cannot be corrected in the future. This and other issues simply reflecting the need for good design in the ‘most liveable city in the world’ have concerned the City of Melbourne where its legislative process is trumped by the State Government’s Planning Department’s overview and extensive powers. In his article published in the Age, dated July 1st 2018, Councillor Reece is quoted as saying:
“We have let too much crap be built”
Councillor Reece is the chair of Melbourne City Council’s Planning Department.
The article continues…
New city design rules to target bad – and good – building plans
Now, the council wants current Planning Minister Richard Wynne to help it raise the bar: by giving city planners new rules to discourage developers turning streets into unpleasant places to be.
It wants Mr Wynne to hand them more power to negotiate with architects and developers over how their buildings impact on city streets.
This week, Mr Wynne released for consultation the council’s Central Melbourne Design Guide – the biggest rewrite of the city’s urban design policies since the 1990s.
The guide attempts to improve building designs by encouraging some types of design, and provides a raft of directions on what developers must avoid.
It wants developers to learn from some of the lessons of the worst buildings of the past decade.
What Melbourne City Council wants to see less of:
“We want to see more buildings that give back to the public realm,” says Cr Reece, who argues that while Melbourne is by far Australia’s most attractive and interesting city, it has been degraded by recent bad architecture and design.
He nominates the 46-year-old former BHP House, on the corner of William and Bourke streets, as evidence that “good design holds up and continues to shine over time”.
He also points to buildings such as the postage stamp sized Monaco House in Ridgway Place, the Riverland bar on the Yarra, Federation Square and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre in Parkville as examples of the city’s modern design excellence.
But while these were shining beacons, they are being weighed down by other, terrible examples, he says.
“We are seeing low-quality design outcomes,” says the Labor councillor, who served in senior positions with both ex-Victorian premier John Brumby and former prime minister Julia Gillard.
The council’s proposed design policy wants fewer service doors and outlets to electricity substations, fire equipment and gas outlets placed on footpaths.
Their proliferation, caused by a competition for space on the street, sees developers build on tiny plots and opt for the easiest solution: placing essential services on the ground floor.
The Age photographed Cr Reece this week on just such a street: Literature Lane, at the back of the new A’Beckett Tower.
“A long row of services along the lane way has cruelled … this gem of a laneway,” Cr Reece says.
The council’s policy also targets the damage done to city streets from parking.
It wants to see huge vehicle entrances to underground car parks on major streets wound back and also proposes banning above-ground car parks in the CBD.
The policy attempts to push developers to design better street frontages and avoid street walls or podiums that present a continuous monotonous facade.
Cr Reece cites Spencer Street’s discount outlet, next to the award-winning Southern Cross railway station, as just such a building: “A scar on Melbourne [blocking] the connection between the city and Docklands”.
And the policy tries to dissuade developers from using highly reflective glass that both obscures views and causes dangerous reflections for drivers.
The Prima Pearl tower in Southbank was in many ways an “elegant tall tower”, Cr Reece said. But he argues its highly reflective materials “cause unacceptable levels of glare”.
Recently retired planning academic Michael Buxton is a vocal critic of Melbourne’s recently built skyscrapers and has lambasted successive planning ministers for not standing up to developers.
He said the city council’s new design rules were “minor window dressing” that would help if approved.
“But the really big issues – height and bulk and apartment size – the state government just isn’t interested in,” Professor Buxton says.
With more tall towers on their way to Melbourne’s city centre, though, Cr Reece hopes Mr Wynne will approve his council’s new policy so developers and building designers know precisely what will be supported.
“It makes economic sense to create great streets,” he says.
Cr Reece’s examples of excellence
“We need to be more sophisticated than thinking everything built before 1900 was beautiful and everything since 1960 is ugly. We all love Town Hall, The Exhibition Building and Manchester Unity Building. But there has also been some amazing buildings built this millennium that we should acknowledge and celebrate. We have many beautiful buildings, designed by contemporary architects.”
- Eureka Tower (2006) – Fender Katsalidis
- Monaco House – Ridgway Place, city (2008) – McBride Charles Ryan
- Federation Square (2002) – Lab Architecture Studio and Bates Smart
- ACCA – Sturt Street, Southbank (2002) – Wood Marsh
- AAMI Park (2011) – Cox Architecture
- Riverland (2006) Six Degrees and Arbory Bar and Restaurant (2015)
- Jackson Clements Burrows – Yarra Edge, Federation Square and Flinders St Station.
- VCCC – Parkville (2017) – Silver Thomas Hanley and Design inc (STHDI) and McBride Charles Ryan (MCR)
- Peel Street Developments – Collingwood (2017) – DKO and Jackson Clement Burrows
- Urban Workshop – Lonsdale Street (2006) – NH Architecture, Hassell Architects and John Wardle Architects
At Balance Architecture we have some sympathy for Councillor Reece’s position, as well as being in agreement with recently retired Planning Academic Michael Buxton’s comments. For some time now we have suggested that all planning authorities – State, Municipal and Federal, combined with Heritage Victoria and the Heritage Council of Victoria must work towards a uniform policy on design and development that acknowledges our city’s rich and diverse architecture yet provides an educated and meaningful platform for development.
And if this doesn’t happen, unfortunately there will be further Corkman Pub style debacles tied up in legal debate for years to come – when finally it’s too late – the horse has bolted. There must be planning laws that apply across the board on construction and development agreed to by these separate agencies empowered to enforce planning law. Currently it simply requires an application to VCAT to overrule many such planning directions.
In any case, from our perspective this initiative from Councillor Reece and the City of Melbourne is a sound direction for the future. With the consideration given by planning Minister Wynne and his department to projects like the Queen Victoria Market, Southbank’s new Art Precinct and other developments we may well be turning a very significant corner.
What we don’t want is unplanned chaos as was the likely outcome of the previous Government’s Fisherman’s Bend debacle. Strong planning directions as evidenced by Wynne’s decision to fully investigate all requirements for that project prior to any commencement of building is a major step in the right direction. Lets hope this is the beginning of sensible planning, development and design for our great city, and the vision of its founders realised with great beauty, functionality and liveability.
As John Batman said, “This will be the place for a village”