Feb 19, 2018

Should CBD parking be buried?

Melbourne City Council wants to ban above-ground parking in new developments but doesn't have a clue what the wider implications of such a change might be

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The facade of this car park at Brisbane Airport is made up of segments that “ripple” in the wind, creating an ever-changing pattern

The City of Melbourne’s planning committee is set to consider a new policy designed to improve the way private developments relate to the street. A lot of the ideas are good ones (there’re 46 of them!) but it’s very hard to impose “good design” by regulation, so it’s unsurprising that some of the proposed initiatives are problematic.

Last week The Age highlighted a specific proposal to ban above-ground car parking – usually on the levels immediately above the ground floor – in new buildings (Highrise car parks to be banned in drive to improve city streetscapes):

Underground car parking would be the only type allowed in most city apartment and office developments, under new rules being considered by Melbourne City Council. And skyscrapers that cannot have underground parking because of soil conditions would instead have to ensure car spaces built on lower levels had high enough ceilings to later be converted into places for people to live.

The proposal only relates to developments in the extended CBD. Although it’s complicated because the state government is the approval authority for larger developments in this area, it’s worth asking if this is a good idea. Is it good policy?

As usual with the City of Melbourne, Councillors will decide without regard to what the implications might be for development within the City. In particular, they’re given no analysis of the economics of how this change might impact development and hence potentially the supply of new housing and office space. Good design can potentially save money, but the case has to be made.

The rationale is improved appearance of the streetscape and greater passive surveillance of the street from windows on lower floors, but both of these putative benefits are exaggerated.

Given the right incentives, architects and regulators are quite capable of working together to design car park levels with visually interesting facades. It’s not as if every apartment or office tower is automatically rendered beautiful by a uniform curtain of windows and/or balconies from top to bottom! In any event, the proposed policy envisages setting up design panels to improve the overall appearance of buildings, so it’s odd that it abandons all hope in this particular application.

Passive surveillance is arguably the most over-worked concept in urbanism, routinely and reflexively wheeled out without much evidence to justify almost anything and everything (see Is “eyes on the street” straining it?). It’s of limited benefit in cases like this where apartments and offices have double glazing to shut out street noise, aren’t occupied for much of the day, and in many cases are visually separated from the street by awnings and/or trees.

What matters much more is activation at ground floor level; something this policy seeks to strengthen in other proposed provisions. The envisaged changes to parking would only apply in the extended CBD; a very small area where the sheer density of activity in any event means there are often people on the streets for most of the day.

Requiring new above-ground car parks in Southbank to have 3.5-metre-high ceilings so they can potentially be re-purposed as apartments might seem like a sensible idea at first glance because it seemingly enhances future flexibility; but it’s more complex than that.

It will impose higher construction costs, but Council doesn’t know how much. The future is extraordinarily hard to predict; it might be that in the long term the higher cost exceeds the benefit. Perhaps other uses will supplant apartments in this location in the future – potentially making the flexibility redundant –  in the same way they’ve been preferred more recently over office uses.

Or perhaps the car parks will last as long as the life cycle of the building. After all, the City of Melbourne can hardly be described as taking concerted action to diminish car parking within the municipality.

And that’s the key lesson here; Council should be concentrating on assessing why new buildings within the CBD and Southbank require as much parking as they’re currently getting.

This is an extremely small part of Greater Melbourne with exemplary walkability and excellent public transport access both within and from the rest of the metropolitan area. Even the trams are free! Vehicles sterilise an inordinate share of public space in the city centre, hold up pedestrians, pollute the air, and are potentially dangerous to the great majority of street users.

Council should be focusing on a dramatic reduction in car parking, both on-street and associated with new developments. This applies especially in the extended CBD where densities are an order of magnitude higher than the rest of the metropolitan area.

Council should also start analysing fully the short and long-term implications of policy proposals rather than concerning itself only with appearances. It needs to assess rigorously the benefits and costs of ideas like this one before making a decision; put simply, it needs to understand what it’s doing!


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8 thoughts on “Should CBD parking be buried?

  1. Richard

    The arguments used to justify reducing parking appear to conflate 2 separate concepts. If people don’t own or use cars then there isn’t a need for parking, but if we simply want people to drive less, for example only at the times and to the places that governments will not provide public transport, then we’d better provide off-street parking to get them off streets. That means more, not less, parking.

  2. Tom the first and best

    Raising the cost and increasing the convertibility of parking is likely to lead to less of it, where the parking is not compelled by minimums (which are, I believe, low to non-existant in the CBD).

  3. Roger Clifton

    “Future flexibility” for high-rises near the coast may require the parking sites to eventually be relabelled as boat moorings.

  4. Saugoof

    You have a talent of writing articles that often sound like you’re playing devil’s advocate for the hell of it, which often convinces me of the exact opposite opinion. This is the first I’ve heard of this proposal, but it sounds like an excellent idea to me.
    I live and work in an apartment in the Melbourne CBD and right outside my window are two large car parks. One, a very ugly utilitarian one, the other completely invisible because it is entirely underground with the street front instead taken up by shops. I know which one I prefer.

    1. Alan Davies


      There’s nothing contrarian about calling for proper analysis of new policies and evidence-based decisions. It’s boringly conventional.

      This proposal concerns parking associated with new buildings not dedicated car parks, so the opportunity exists to insist the parking levels (usually level one and above) are designed attractively, perhaps more so than the rest of the facade. Note that unlike old dedicated parking structures, new apartment and office buildings have active uses at street level, not car parking.

      While you’d prefer to look at other apartments rather than car parking, the additional cost of undergrounding (or ‘sleeving’) parking might have negative impacts on development viability; at the least, the dimensions of this issue need to be taken into account.

  5. Marcus W

    One possible side effect of enforcing 3.5-metre-high ceilings in above-ground car parks – developers deciding to install car stackers to use the extra vertical space.

    They are occasionally used in Melbourne developments, but usually when a single dwelling is assigned two car parking spaces, to avoid the need for unrelated people to shuffle their cars around as required.

    1. Dudley Horscroft

      Ceilings would have to be higher than 3.5 m. Consider that a suitable frame for the cars on the upper level would be about 300 mm deep, then the available space is reduced to 3.2 m. With half this on each level, the available headroom on each would be 1600 mm= 5′ 3″ in fps units. OK for cars but not suitable for people, except the severely vertically challenged! Minimum headroom on each deck would need to be 1.8 m, double this and add the depth of the frame, comes to 3.9 m. This would be the minimum desirable floor to ceiling distance. 4.0 m looks better.

      But why 3.5 m? Standard pre-war housing was 9′ floor to ceiling, which was, in the UK at least, reduced to 8′ IIRC. These figures equate to 2.74 and 2.43 m respectively. This would be quite adequate for any parking garage intended for eventual possible conversion to an apartment block. Few people, I would suggest, are more than 2 m tall, so this leaves 430 mm available for ventilation ducting where needed. And all other utilities should be able to be placed in 300 mm thick ducts.

      Note that most parking garages seem to come with a headroom limited to 2.1 m ( = 6′ 10.6″).

      But not a word appears about the economics. I believe that the cost of underground parking far exceeds the cost of above ground multi-level parking. True? And by how much? I have a feeling that much underground parking is only plausible because it is necessary to dig down to get to decent sub-soil for good foundations, and having removed the looser top-soil, parking is the only reasonable use of the space thus created. Query, does the MCC require X car spaces to be provided for Y sq m of above ground development? If so, should not these antiquated 19th century rules be repealed?

      1. Amark

        Minimum car stacker height is 3.4m. People don’t stand on the upper level so a non issue.

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