Florence St Richmond. Site of proposed Nightingale development on right; existing The Commons on left
Florence St Brunswick. Site of proposed Nightingale development on right; existing The Commons on left

Parking is arguably the most contentious issue associated with urban consolidation in inner suburban areas.

Existing residents resent the additional demand for on-road space generated by new housing developments and new or expanded businesses.

Never mind that residents of older housing stock like terraces often don’t have on-site parking themselves. Never mind that some of the extra demand is coming from their second and third cars.

They want to see approval of new developments made contingent on provision of enough additional off-street parking to accommodate the demand they generate.

On the other hand, an increasing proportion of new residents don’t want a car. They feel their transport needs can be met by walking, cycling, car-sharing, taking Uber or a taxi, and especially by the generally high standard of public transport on offer in the inner suburbs.

They don’t want to pay extra for a (usually underground) on-site parking space that adds in the region of $20-$30,000 to the cost of constructing a new apartment. (1)

Then there’re Councils in inner suburbs who’re managing the problem of growing traffic congestion and conflicts over on-road parking associated with increasing density. While some might insist on minimum parking provision in new developments, many are keen to encourage buildings that provide reduced or zero car spaces.

One of the most high-profile examples is The Commons, a five storey 24 apartment “green” development in Brunswick in inner suburban Melbourne. It was approved by the City of Moreland with zero parking.

Council was persuaded that the developer’s Green Travel Plan obviated the need for parking. It accepted that provision of parking spaces for bicycles, as well as body corporate levies for car share fees, public transport fares and bicycle repair costs, were an appropriate alternative.

The myriad problems presented by resident parking were highlighted in a decision last month of the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), Chaucer Enterprises vs Moreland City Council.

VCAT over-turned an approval given by the City of Moreland for the proposed 20 apartment Nightingale complex in Florence St Brunswick. The applicant is a commercial rival, Chaucer Enterprises, who is seeking approval to develop the site adjoining Nightingale for apartments.

As was the case with The Commons, Council required no on-site parking. However VCAT took the view that the Florence development would generate some parking and should accommodate it.

That might seem puzzling at first glance because the Nightingale is proposed by the same developer and architect who built the The Commons; in fact the two developments are on opposite sides of Florence St (see exhibit).

VCAT’s decision wasn’t well received. The Age wittily headlined it’s disapproving report, Green building with no parking thrown out for having no parking.

The commenters at Architecture and Design were appalled, one declaring “VCAT, shame, shame, shame”. Another said:

While we know that VCAT and other arbiters of ‘good planning’ are generally conservative, it is still really depressing to see commercially viable, green and affordable innovation thwarted in this way. Trains, trams, bike paths and car shares will do more to ‘future proof’ residential property values AND local vitality than car parks ever could (or ever did). All strength to Breathe, Nightingale and Moreland Council – keep up the great work!

The Decision handed down by VCAT Senior Member, Russell Byard, makes fascinating reading and warrants discussion in more detail another time.

Contrary to much of the misinformation washing around, Mr Byard supports a significant reduction in parking for the Nightingale, but stops short of a complete waiver. VCAT members, including Mr Byard, have approved other apartment proposals with zero parking before and since; it depends on the specific circumstances.

In this particular case, Council didn’t have a valid basis under the Planning Scheme for requiring one development (Chaucer) to provide a minimum of nine car spaces while the immediate neighbour, Nightingale (and The Commons), was given a waiver.

Mr Byard is scathing about the way Council evaluated Nightingale. One of the reasons Council’s planning report gives for its support of the waiver is that “the overall design ethos seeks to achieve leading edge sustainable development.” In response, Mr Byard opines:

It does not strike me that this question of design ethos is actually a relevant consideration, and it does not appear as such in clause 52.06. So far as that clause is concerned it appears that this ‘reason’ is an irrelevant one. It is trite administrative law that an administrative decision maker who takes into account an irrelevant consideration makes an invalid decision.

A particularly telling point for policy is other evidence indicating that residents of The Commons, despite the building’s green credentials, have seven to nine cars.  These vehicles are parked in nearby neighbourhoods where there are no parking restrictions and where they increase demand for the limited number of spaces.

Whatever the commitment of the developer and architect, they can’t control the behaviour of every buyer or tenant, especially in the future as occupancy turns over.

The Nightingale decision highlights a number of important points for policy.

First, councils need to get serious about encouraging developments with zero or significantly reduced parking. You can’t increase car use at the same time as you increase density (and in the inner suburbs you don’t have to).

Second, councils should prepare and enforce ancillary policies to ensure residents of developments with zero or reduced parking can’t “free-ride”.

Third, councils need to review the effectiveness of green travel plans. In too many cases appearances seem to matter more than substance.

Fourth, councils need to be alert to the seductiveness of greenwashing; they should be pursuing real outcomes, not waving flags.

Fifth, councils and state governments need to take a bigger view of parking; one that begins with understanding that residents don’t own on-street parking. It’s more usefully thought of, as parking expert Paul Barter suggests, as a “commons”. (2)

Finally, planners and the media in Victoria should accept that VCAT did what Council was supposed to have done in the first place; apply the law. It’s the job of councils and state governments to get the policy and implementation right.

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  1. As an aside, I note that many of the same observers who argue that higher minimum amenity standards for apartments won’t increase construction costs or selling prices are nevertheless quite happy to argue that minimum parking standards will
  2. This is a big issue worth discussing separately another time. There are some politically difficult issues e.g. how new residents should be dealt with vis a vis existing residents; how demand for parking can be capped/reduced.