Ivanhoe Activity Centre Framework Plan (proposed maximum building heights added by Save Ivanhoe RAG)

The familiar story of residents pushing back against higher density development hit the press again this week, this time in Ivanhoe, where Banyule Council is seeking feedback on its draft Structure Plan for the Ivanhoe Activity Centre. Council is proposing that some areas be zoned to permit development – largely residential – up to five and six storeys in height and, in two locations, up to eight storeys.

I have a personal interest in this issue because Ivanhoe is my nearest strip shopping centre. Unlike the members of the new Save Ivanhoe resident action group, I’m not personally concerned about potential impacts like loss of views, noise and traffic. I live far enough away from the proposed development areas that I don’t expect to be directly (adversely) affected.

In fact if done right, I see further development of the centre as a way of making me and my family much better off. Increased development has the potential to provide a wider and more diverse range of shops and services and make Ivanhoe a vibrant and exciting place to spend time in. The existing strip has its virtues, but at present it’s a bit dull and lacking in personality – it doesn’t give you enough reasons to stay local rather than drive somewhere more distant.

Higher housing density wouldn’t just benefit me personally, it would also increase the supply of dwellings in a highly accessible area and hence help moderate housing prices. If supported by improvements in supporting infrastructure, Ivanhoe is an obvious location for higher density housing – there are, for example, two closely spaced rail stations within the study area’s boundary and a large base of existing shops, restaurants and community facilities.

Having said that, I sympathise with residents concerned about issues like noise from apartments. It underlines the importance of giving attention to non-physical ways of managing the inevitable conflicts inherent in higher densities. As I’ve discussed before, the law around issues like noise simply hasn’t kept up with the shift to new housing forms.

Council has done itself no favours in the way it’s put together the draft Structure Plan. It’s poorly edited, outdated in places, and inconsistent (as Save Ivanhoe point out). It gives equal weight to the minor and the significant, it mixes physical strategies with process strategies, and it’s weak on the big picture. Unforgivably, consultation with residents has been patchy at best – while it’s hard to credit, it’s almost as if no one anticipated the reaction of residents.

A key failing in my view is that it does not explain and justify the very proposals, like building heights, that worry some residents. Why, for example, does medium density development extend west in that ‘finger’ along Livingstone Street (or perhaps it’s the barrel of a pistol!), rather than expanding on a broader front closer to the existing commercial area? Why is the maximum building height in the southern ‘finger’ around Darebin station six storeys rather than, say, two storeys (or, as I would prefer, eight or more)? And why are residential buildings in this finger required to have a zero setback along both sides of Heidelberg Rd?

I can make a guess at the logic Council is using, but a consultation document needs to be framed with its target audience in mind. It’s not enough to have a few high-level paras at the start of the document about sustainability and Melbourne 2030. Residents need to understand on their own terms why the proposals are a good idea. They need to understand what Council’s purpose and logic is otherwise there’s little chance they’ll be convinced the plan is in their interest.

This highlights another failing of the plan – it doesn’t paint an adequate picture of the benefits of growth and development. There’s no excitement, no tantalising suggestion of what a stimulating, even exhilarating, place the centre could be with more people, more shops, more mixing of land uses, and more density.

While I’m personally broadly happy with what’s proposed, I think the plan has some other deficiencies that, without getting too far into Ivanhoe-specific issues, have implications for activity centre structure planning in general.

One is it doesn’t seriously engage with how the centre is envisaged to function in the future as a retail, services and business node. There’s nothing on the emerging challenges to retailing or what sort of centre it will be. Will it be more of the same, will it have a specific character (e.g. restaurant strip), will it specialise?  What sort of retail formats does Council see within the centre? What are developers’ requirements – if they favour some sort of mall, would there be a place for it? Are the areas set aside for retail suitable? Are they enough? Nor is there anything on how many, or what sort, of new businesses and jobs the centre might hope to host (although we’re told specialist medical will be restricted to Heidelberg).

In short, there’s not a lot of vision in this plan about the very essence of what an activity centre is. There’s plenty of ‘by the book’ stuff on physical planning and design (sometimes in ludicrous detail) but not much on the fundamentals.

This lack of commercial focus (for want of a better term) shows up elsewhere. A substantial proportion of the growth in new retail and mixed use development is envisaged to take place on existing at-grade car parking areas, with replacement parking provided in two level (maximum) basements. Sounds good, but I have no sense that Council understands whether this approach is plausible. Will it make financial sense? What sort of uses will be able to justify the cost of locating parking underground? Are they likely to be the types of uses that would contribute positively to the centre? Parking is the lifeblood of a centre like Ivanhoe – it can’t be left to chance.

Some of the other retail and mixed use expansion is earmarked for locations where there are existing uses. For example, at the lower end of Upper Heidelberg Rd there are a number of buildings that are the epitome of street “deactivation” – they include a self-storage facility, a funeral home, and a church. There’s no evidence that Council has thought analytically about what redevelopment incentive is needed to facilitate these uses being replaced. Will eight storeys on one side and four on the other be enough?

The idea that six storey residential could finance building a platform over the rail line north of Darebin station beggars belief. What’s really troubling about this plan though is that it offers no serious appreciation of the transport implications of the higher densities (both residential and commercial) it envisages. It effectively ignores the issue!

In fact my overall impression is this document is more like a ‘brainstorm’ than a plan for the future. Council doesn’t seem to have any real idea of what will work and what the consequences of the planned actions might be. I’m not saying the plan should do whatever business says – after all, market failure is the justification for planning – but if it doesn’t understand commercial imperatives and systemic connections, then it’s likely to fail. I doubt this is the only structure plan that doesn’t “get” that an activity centre, above all else, is a place of trade and exchange.

So while I like the idea of higher density housing, I don’t really know what sort of commercial centre is being proposed or if it can be achieved. I don’t know because I don’t think Council knows. I favour higher density development in this centre, but the residents who oppose the plan are right when they say Council simply hasn’t done its homework (I have a view on other aspects of the plan but they largely pertain to Ivanhoe per se, so I’ll let them pass).

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