Living in the CBD and liveability

By Bill Allan and Mike Faris (WHPAG)

February’s issue of ‘CBD News’ highlighted both that residents love CBD living and that they increasingly want to sustain the conditions that attracted us here in the first place.

The new advocacy group We Live Here, centred in the Docklands, is a welcome addition to existing active city resident groups, Residents 3000 and EastEnders.

The latter two groups, jointly held their regular monthly meetings at the Kelvin Club on February 4, discussed the Residents 3000-commissioned CBD Living Survey and the growing issues that residents face.

The large attendance and enthusiastic discussion gave a strong indication that we want to know more about new development proposals and increase resident participation in discussion of these.

The Hodyl Report released early in 2015, together with the Melbourne Planning Scheme (MPS) Amendment C262 established by the Minister for Planning in September 2015 and a review of the City of Melbourne (CoM) administration initiated by its new CEO, all give promise of constructive change.

Right now, however, residents have to battle hard to get adequate representation or voice in the planning and assessment processes. The present system of assessing building-by-building is an inadequate frame of reference for decision-makers, residents or other stakeholders.

Some important steps are being taken, but major changes are needed to manage development for neighbourhoods consistently with continuing liveability.  Better tools are becoming available, such as geographic information systems (GIS), which can generate 3D graphical illustrations of all proposed developments, and can help assess their collective impact on streetscape, infrastructural requirements, environment, and present amenities.

Our group, the Wesley Historic Precinct Action Group (WHPAG) led by Maureen Capp OAM, which works closely with EastEnders and Residents 3000, has focused particularly on heritage, environmental, and commercial/tourism prospects for the “Little Lon” Heritage Precinct.

In particular, it has recently been involved in continuing discussions with the CoM and the Minister for Planning on heritage and liveability issues arising from three proposed developments on properties adjoining Regency Towers (RT).

An immediate concern is the February 29 VCAT hearing on the CoM’s refusal of a Town Planning Permit Application (TPPA) for the site at 109-11 Little Lonsdale St. In addition to the 109-111 proposal, an adjacent Brady Group development at 113-115 Little Lonsdale has already been given a planning permit by VCAT after an initial CoM refusal.

The third and, by far the largest intrusion to RT’s light and air amenities, however is the 39-storey commercial building that is proposed to be built by Leightons for the Wesley Uniting Church on the eastern border of the Wesley site at 148 Lonsdale St.

This proposal is subject to approval by the Minister for Planning around end-March, but has been recommended for approval to the Minister by the Melbourne City Council. In our view, all three should properly have been assessed in the context of their collective impact.

All will come within around nine metres of the western and northern walls of Regency Towers. A compelling graphic overview is available at the GIS unit of the CoM, but it has not been made available for publication.

The Wesley site proposal, in particular, will reduce air and block out afternoon light from all apartments on the western side of Regency Towers, as well as other buildings on the eastern side of Jones Lane. Were all to go ahead, Regency Towers would be substantially crowded out on its north-western quadrant.

The collective impact of the three developments will cause, not only a major loss of amenities for around 150 apartments and affected residents, but will diminish the streetscape, diminish the heritage value of the Wesley site and the Wesley precinct, reduce green space, and add greatly to city infrastructural and management costs through additional demands on traffic and waste disposal facilities in the Jones Lane/Constitution Lane/Little Lonsdale neighbourhood.

It would have made sense at the outset to consider all three proposals in terms of their collective impact. It should not be too late to reconsider these decisions in light of the overview now available.

Questioning the current situation requires sustained effort from resident groups. WHPAG has had to collect a wide range of information and to lobby hard with a range of key decision-makers and stakeholders.

A number of planning and heritage recommendations have raised doubts about whether the state and city administrations have paid due regard to the threat of such a major loss of amenities.

A particular concern with respect to the Wesley proposal has been the prolonged lack of governance of heritage obligations by the Wesley Church administration (a good video discussion of these issues is on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnfVJmUVA1M&feature=em-share_video_user).

Heritage Victoria’s recommendations to allow construction of a mammoth commercial building seemed influenced mainly by the applicant’s need for finance rather than by its past neglect of architectural and social heritage obligations. The support of the proposed construction by city planners and a majority of councillors is quite difficult to comprehend.  While Heritage Victoria is obliged to consider the financial status of the applicant, Melbourne City Council is not.

Denial of third party objection and appeal rights (TPOAR) for the CBD needs review. At a more general level, but more specifically related to the Brady Group proposals, the lack of TPOAR for CBD developments has meant that VCAT cannot hear resident objections against the 109-111.

Our request to join with the CoM was not granted, but the CoM has been allowed to incorporate relevant resident objections. As a consequence of these efforts, WHPAG has enjoyed a co-operative relationship with CoM officials and been able to engage constructively on the key issues that we face.

We would like to think that this form of engagement will provide a starting point for a better dialogue and closer relationships between city and state planners and decision-makers, and residents and other stakeholders. (Fast-tracking strategies that bypass TPOARs are analysed in the RMIT pdf by Hurley and others http://www.soacconference.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Hurley-Governance.pdf)

Whether we achieve a just recognition of CBD resident rights for our small neighbourhood through the present planning and VCAT process remains to be seen.

At the very least, however, we should expect that the necessity for better engagement between officials, residents, and other stakeholders in the marvellous city of Melbourne will become more clearly recognised.

Inner city amenity expectations may well be less than those of the suburbs, but some minimum level for the CBD should be defined and recognised in the MPS.

We urge neighbours and friends to demonstrate support for CBD resident amenity rights and the need for stronger protection in the MPS by attending the five-day VCAT hearing on the Brady Group refusal for development of the 109-111 Little Lonsdale site commencing on February 29 at VCAT, 55 King St.

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