The Age breathlessly headlines the Government’s proposals for the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend as Premier Ted Baillieu’s “inner city housing revolution”. Planning Minister Matthew Guy says the area will evolve as ”Australia’s first inner-city growth corridor”.

Whoa there! I think it might be time for a relaxing cup of tea and a lie down. Let’s put these claims in perspective.

According to Mr Guy, the area under consideration is 200 Ha. That’s quite a bit smaller than the 41,000 Ha expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary approved last year.

Mr Guy also says the area is going to be developed over a 20-30 year time frame. If its total capacity is the 10,000 to 15,000 dwellings estimated by the Chief Executive of the Property Council, Jennifer Cunich, that’s at most 750 additional dwellings per year on average, and as few as 333 per year.

Just to put that in context, 42,509 dwellings were approved in the metropolitan area in the 12 months ending on 30 September 2010. Ms Cunich is quoted as saying even that’s less than we need – she says there’s a shortfall of 6,000 homes per year across the State.

While the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend is important, the claim that it’s a ‘revolution’ is hyperbole.

Likewise, the Minister’s claim that Fishermans Bend will be a ‘growth area’ – a term usually used to refer to massive outer suburban release areas – is more than a trifle exaggerated. Consider that 17,000 new dwellings were approved in Melbourne’s (outer) Growth Area municipalities in the year ending September Qtr 2010.

The Minister’s claim that the project will focus on “more affordable” housing also seems ambitious.

This is a premium location close to the CBD and the beach. Retrofitting infrastructure will be expensive. It’s inevitable the housing will be priced well out of the range of average income earners and the great bulk of first home buyers.

There’s scope for some subsidised housing but there are limits to how much concentration is appropriate for the tenants, how much their owner-occupier neighbours will accept, and how much governments and developers are willing to pay.

However if by ‘affordable’ the Minister means housing that is within the reach of middle class buyers and not solely the preserve of the very rich, then the frequent calls for a low rise development need to be resisted.

Fishermans Bend is a rare opportunity.  Apart from its locational advantages, the large lots mean land assembly will be easier than elsewhere in the inner city and the relatively small numbers of existing residents mean less potential for conflict. This is an argument for more density, not less. It’s an opportunity to make up for the many restrictions on density elsewhere in Melbourne and go for significantly more dwellings that Ms Cunich envisages.

Manhattan streetscape (Chelsea)

Population density should accordingly be maximised – consistent with market conditions and good design practice – so that the best use is made of this precious asset. That might involve a mix of developments at different densities with a range of building heights. It should look more like Manhattan (but without the car vs pedestrian conflict) than Carlton.

The fear that anything other than low-rise will unavoidably end up like Docklands is misplaced. Sure, Docklands provides important lessons, but there is no logical and necessary connection – much less inevitability – between what happens in Fishermans Bend and how Docklands was handled. There are other, more successful higher density projects which are just as relevant. In any event Dockland’s failings aren’t due to excessive density.

There are also a number of issues with Fishermans Bend that will need to be considered carefully, as I pointed out here. They include the value of the area for industry and possible contamination of the land. Obviously there will need to be good infrastructure, services and urban design.

But a key element that so far is missing is the strategic vision for Fishermans Bend. I don’t so much mean what it looks like, I mean how it will fit in with whatever the new Government’s vision is for the entire metropolitan area. What will its role within the entire urban system – the metropolitan economy – be?

Is it, for example, to be predominantly residential (as the term ‘growth area’ might be taken to imply), or is it also to be a major employment centre? If it were, for example, the latter, this could have significant implications for the functioning of activity centres in the suburbs.

It is vital that the Government comes to terms with the ‘bigger picture’ for all of Melbourne before it goes too far down the road with Fishermans Bend.

Update: Here’s a video report by Channel TEN. It indicates the area under consideration is the western end, south of the freeway and north of Williamstown Rd (shown as Port Melbourne on the Melway – see map).

I think this is Port-owned land but I measure it as only around 70 Ha (using GIS software). The video has an animation (presumably prepared by the Government?) of what the development might look like – not really the five or six storey buildings mentioned by the Premier in the report. Lots of emphasis on noise.

Then again, this video by The Age suggests the area under consideration is further to the east, although still south of the freeway (the Minister makes it clear the area north of the freeway is not part of the current proposal).

Some clarification of the general area under consideration would be helpful.