Guest writer Damien Bonnice argues the developer of this inner city Melbourne project and the planning tribunal rode roughshod over heritage values and good design principles
Guest writer, planner and project manager Damien Bonnice, looks at whether planning courts could do a better job:
I’m prompted to write this piece after recently spending 7 days at a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) hearing concerning an appeal by the Brotherhood of St Laurence against a decision of the City of Yarra. Council had rejected an application by the Brothehood to erect a four storey 116-bed aged person facility on a 2,700 sq m site in Clifton Hill (see Brotherhood of St Laurence v Yarra CC).
An important issue, among many, was the proposed demolition of the 112 year old St Andrew’s Church Hall (listed as contributory under the site’s heritage overlay) to ‘make way’ for the new development.
On this matter the Tribunal relied, inter alia, on The University of Melbourne v Minister for Planning VCAT determination where retention of the heritage-listed Ampol building clashed with the university’s proposed Peter Doherty Institute development. In that case the Tribunal decided there was a greater social benefit from the development of a cancer research centre than retention of the heritage building.
On the face of it the application of the same principle to the Brotherhood’s case sounds reasonable but the Tribunal did not acknowledge a key difference between the two cases – the Ampol building occupied a substantial portion of the site such that there was no scope for integrating it with the new research building.
The converse applied in this case – only 15% of the site was occupied by the heritage building, indicating there was room to integrate the new with the old (not an unusual practice in heritage areas). Some submissions were made on this matter but the Tribunal determined that “we need to assess the proposal that is before us, and not alternative options to develop the site”.
From this ‘anchor’ planning law position the Tribunal then confidently determined:
We find..the proposed demolition of the former church hall, and the construction in its place of a 117 [sic] bed aged care facility for financially disadvantaged persons, will achieve a substantial net community benefit.
Had the Tribunal been able to assess alternative design solutions it would have been advised that the real choice was a between a 102 bed solution plus retention of the heritage building, vs 116 beds and no retention, with the former solution offering superior accommodation standards. I suspect that, had this proposition been assessed, there would have been a different outcome.
The principle that the Tribunal can only assess what is before it clearly has its downsides or, more pointedly, contributes to inferior decision outcomes. Hearing rules need to be reviewed so that we strive to get the best, not the sub-optimal, outcome.
Some may argue that, on this matter, the role of the design expert becomes crucial – in this regard only one design expert (appointed by the [objector] respondents) was engaged to provide evidence. That expert evidence was important bearing in mind the Tribunal acknowledged that there are other design issues with the proposal. To quote from the Tribunal’s determination:
a more successful outcome [would have been achieved] if lower scale built form ….[was] located on one of the more sensitive interfaces on the review site.
the design intent [was] to squeeze a large building on the parts of the review site that abut the most sensitive interfaces.
the proposed development to Gold Street [was] visually dominant and out of character with the street.
the continuous [third level] elevation …will have a dominant appearance when viewed from the [adjoining eastern] private open space.
In the face of these and the heritage issue, the design expert advised the Hearing the design was incapable of being rectified by (to use my words) ‘nip and tuck’ permit conditions.
The Tribunal thought otherwise and proceeded to determine in favour of the applicant, with a host of ‘nip and tuck’ permit conditions (which had the effect of reducing the size of the development to 110 beds). The design expert was ignored in the determination in what appeared to be a pre-determined Tribunal position.
This brings into question the next major issue arising from this Hearing – the use and abuse of expert witnesses. Depending on the Tribunal’s predisposition to the proposal at hand it can choose to ignore or accept expert evidence.
A better use of expert resources might be achieved if they were officially sanctioned by the Tribunal but funded by the parties to the Hearing – perhaps then the Tribunal would avail itself of better and more reliable advice particularly on matters concerned with design.
The planning Tribunal’s decision on the former AMPOL building highlights a couple of issues about preserving significant buildings. In reaching its decision that demolition could proceed, VCAT’s thinking was that ”a greater community benefit for present and future generations will ensue from the establishment of the Peter Doherty Institute than from retention of the former Ampol House”.
I think this highlights a couple of issues over and above what I discussed last time. It implicitly says that what a building is worth is a function of what’s planned to replace it. We now know VCAT doesn’t think the AMPOL building is worth preserving when the alternative use is an immunology and infectious diseases research centre, but what if the alternative were (say) an apartment or office building? Might VCAT have concluded under those circumstances that AMPOL house is in fact worth saving?
It seems to me that if a building truly is worth protecting (a broader ambit than ‘preserving’) on the basis of its architectural and/or historical significance then it is, by definition, worth saving. That value has nothing to do with alternative uses (they’re about the land it’s sitting on, not the building itself). A significant building isn’t any less valuable if the proposed alternative use is something worthy — like a park, social housing, a memorial, a shrine, a research centre — than it is if the alternative is something prosaic, like a car showroom, a shop or apartments.
If planning schemes weren’t muddled with so many “it depends”, there might be less money and time wasted on court battles. If there were a clear statement of what must be protected, councils would have to think a lot more rigorously about what is worth protecting and what isn’t. Developers, owners and the wider community might appreciate clearer guidance.
Another issue the VCAT decision highlights in my view is that understanding the social costs of preservation (or other regulations, like height limits) is too often overlooked. That’s not saying we shouldn’t protect appropriate buildings, but we should know what it’s costing and we should know who’s paying. Continue reading “When is a building worth protecting?”
The key issue arising from the Elizabeth Tower Motor Lodge case isn’t that the building can now be demolished, but rather what’s proposed to replace it.
The former AMPOL headquarters building is noted for its dramatic circular staircase, but its claims to historical significance aren’t compelling. According to the National Trust:
Historically, it is of interest as a building that is designed in a style that appears to belong to the early modernist period of twenty years previously, and is by far the last major building designed in this tradition in Victoria. It is also of interest as the headquarters of one of the major petrol companies in Victoria, which were all undergoing great expansion at that time, and for originally incorporating a petrol station at the ground level.
So, it is the last building designed in a style that was already passé when it was constructed in 1958. And the fact that it was occupied by a major corporation – even a petrol company – shouldn’t be surprising for a building located in the city centre. That’s possibly fascinating, but it’s not the sort of history that justifies preservation when there are alternative uses for the site.
Appearance is always a very subjective topic, but to my eye and, it seems, many others, the staircase is interesting. It’s a sort of melange of Russian Constructivism meets Disney Tomorrowland. Some have labelled it (wrongly) as ‘iconic’. But as visually arresting as it is to the citizens of 2011, it’s neither architecturally nor historically an especially significant staircase.
In fact I suspect it’s much more attractive to contemporary sensibilities that it ever was in its day (would Robin Boyd have labelled the staircase Austerican featurism?). That however is not a compelling reason for preservation because ‘interesting’ looking buildings needn’t be in short supply – we can always build new ones, maybe even more interesting ones.
Stripped of the bunkum about ‘significance’, the streetscape would be no worse off if Elizabeth Tower were replaced by a building that is at least as visually interesting. And that brings us to the core issue – judging by the only picture I could find of it (see picture under fold), the appearance of the proposed replacement building is, to put it nicely, a little bland compared to that dramatic staircase. I’ve no reason to doubt the new building is a tour de force in all other respects and a credit to its designers, but it will inevitably be compared to its predecessor and on that score it appears somewhat underwhelming.