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Surprise development proposals shouldn’t come as a surprise

By 2 March 2013 24

Do you know the height restrictions for buildings in your street? The proposal by Geocon for a 35 storey residential building in Belconnen has forced many enjoying suburban bliss to focus on the reality of increasing densification in Canberra. Most Canberrans are completely unaware of the zoning regulations that apply to their home. A developer once told me that he knew that the home he lived in could one day be replaced by a multi-unit residential complex, as could every house block in the same street, but he doubted that his neighbours knew that.

This ignorance about what can actually be built next door to us is something that a public rarely engaged in planning issues, find themselves suddenly faced with. When a bold proposal like Geocons arrives – out of nowhere – it shouldn’t. There needs to be a proper debate between residents and those who govern us, on what we want the future of our built city to be.

How did this 35 story building proposal arrive as a surprise? The Land Development Agency sold Block 47 with a maximum of 235 residential units and commercial space, set out in the sale documentation. The developers business case was prepared within those guidelines. At the public forum held by the Belconnen Community Council, attended by over 100 concerned residents, many questions were posed to the developer and his architect. Some related to the height of the building, others to the Town Centre Master Plan. The two issues should be related in legislation, but they aren’t.

Unlike the Woden skyscraper, the proposal for Belconnen is a strikingly bold, solar friendly building, which is to be built while adhering to as many environmentally friendly credentials as possible. While it will cast a shadow across surrounding buildings, only one current user of the affected area will be seriously impacted. The design is a compromise between unit size, ventilation and access to natural light. The setback design also provides service roads, primarily for access to the building, but to serve in future as laneways if and when that entire area of Belconnen is redeveloped. To their credit Geocon have put thought about community impact in the proposal.

When asked why the building couldn’t just be made shorter the architect replied that if the building was short and squat, many of the residential units would lose access to the amount of daylight that they would receive in the current design. Whether this building ends up at 20 storeys or 35, it will still contain 235 residential units. Although the height is of genuine concern to many, is a short squat less aesthetic building a better solution than a tall thin environmentally friendly building?

The primary issue is that residents had no idea that a building on this scale could be built in the proposed location. If proper guidelines were in place the issue wouldn’t exist. The Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan has long expired, and the current government appear to be in no hurry to work with the community on preparing a replacement. Although they currently lack any enforcement powers, Master Plans should provide a set of principles and enforceable guidelines to be used by developers and architects. To be publicly accepted they should be a product of consultation between residents, government and developers.

The architect for the Belconnen proposal, Cox Architects, concedes the Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan has no statutory effect and is merely a set of diagrams and principles. When asked about the height the architect stated that they didn’t apologise for the height, they celebrated it. Principles are not legislated rules for architects to follow. The lack of any mechanism for developers to adhere to the desires of Belconnen residents when proposing projects in the Belconnen Town Centre (or projects such as the failed Jamison proposal) means that similar bold proposals will continue to be put forward.

The Minister when asked by the media about height restrictions said that while there were height restrictions in Civic, there were none in the Town Centres, and this would give them a competitive advantage attracting development and jobs that flow on from this economic activity. This recent news came as a surprise to many. Height restrictions are a conversation the residents want to have, whether the government will listen or act remains to be seen.

Although Government Ministers and MLA’s do like to parade in front of cameras when revealing new ‘Master Plans’ the reality is that these paper creatures are often the end result of industry bodies and government keen for more land sale and tax revenue. Territory Plan amendments rarely attract the same interest, yet are far more influential in that they are the rules architects and developers must adhere to, not principles which can be debated, argued and mean different things to different people. We need enforceable clarification.

Our population density will continue to increase and the opportunity to buy a quarter acre suburban block will continue to decline and become more expensive. Developers will fill the vacuum of desire that we all experience for our own home. Arguably it is better that residential density increases in our Town Centres. There are public transport hubs, services within walking distance, and regulations in place to permit taller buildings than can be built in our suburbs. This does not mean that development should occur without enforceable guidelines in place.

These guidelines need to be created with a discussion between residents, developers and government. It is currently very difficult for residents to influence planning guidelines. Like it or not, donations to political parties do provide at least access to decision makers, if not influence. Legitimate resident concerns are also often denied their opportunity for a hearing under current legislation, especially when a Minister will ‘call in’ a development they believe is of benefit. Of benefit to whom is a question that is always left to others to consider. It is rarely of benefit to the residents that suddenly find a very jarring addition to their suburb being built in the new style, piece by piece as it arrives in precast form by lorry and craned into place.

Whether the 35 story tower in Belconnen proceeds or not, its developer has already provided a significant benefit to the residents of Belconnen. It has shown that a conversation urgently needs to be held between residents and Government so that future development surprises do not occur. The positive impact of new residential development in the Belconnen Town Centre should be celebrated. It has bought life back to a problematic area, but the desires of new Belconnen residents must also be balanced by the desires of existing ones. A new Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan can assist that.

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24 Responses to
Surprise development proposals shouldn’t come as a surprise
Martlark 11:16 am
02 Mar 13
#1

This whinge is based on the unstated and unsupported assumption that height is directly correlated with ‘somethings bad’. What these undesired effects are, if any, is left to the imagination of the reader. I’m presuming damien is one of those concerned citizens who lives no where near the building but assumes everyone else knows what he’s worried about so he/she does not have to really express them. As long as various concerned correspondents continue to fulminate about ‘height’ without making their case for deleterious effect I’m just dismissing them as fuming fogeys.

kea 11:42 am
02 Mar 13
#2

Martlark said :

This whinge is based on the unstated and unsupported assumption that height is directly correlated with ‘somethings bad’. What these undesired effects are, if any, is left to the imagination of the reader. I’m presuming damien is one of those concerned citizens who lives no where near the building but assumes everyone else knows what he’s worried about so he/she does not have to really express them. As long as various concerned correspondents continue to fulminate about ‘height’ without making their case for deleterious effect I’m just dismissing them as fuming fogeys.

Did somebody feel a twinge of TL/DR?

stonedwookie 12:02 pm
02 Mar 13
#3

hey nimby nothings gonna be built nextdoor to you,You dont live at the isac centre or in the mcdonalds car park !!!!!! or at amf bowling quit whinging and holding back the future

damien haas 2:05 pm
02 Mar 13
#4

Martlark said :

This whinge is based on the unstated and unsupported assumption that height is directly correlated with ‘somethings bad’. What these undesired effects are, if any, is left to the imagination of the reader. I’m presuming damien is one of those concerned citizens who lives no where near the building but assumes everyone else knows what he’s worried about so he/she does not have to really express them. As long as various concerned correspondents continue to fulminate about ‘height’ without making their case for deleterious effect I’m just dismissing them as fuming fogeys.

Thanks for not reading the article. It is not a whinge about the height, or the design. Those are concerns raised at a residents forum held by the BCC.

My primary concern is over the lack of consultation with the community over development in their communities and town centres. Why does it take a developer announcing a proposal for people to realise that a significant decision has been taken in the recent past, with no input sought from them by the government and bureaucrats that administer the territory on their behalf.

miz 6:04 pm
02 Mar 13
#5

A thought provoking post. Totally agree that ‘a conversation urgently needs to be held between residents and Government so that future development surprises do not occur.’ Otherwise the Canberra we love will become a city we hardly recognise – and not for the better.

Felix the Cat 6:18 pm
02 Mar 13
#6

So let me get this straight, Canberran’s don’t want urban sprawl, they don’t want infiill and they don’t want high rise apartments?

Aeek 6:49 pm
02 Mar 13
#7

Thanks Damien. From what you say, this is the sort of developer we should be encouraging as they have thought about their impact. Given the push for solar, maybe developments that block the sun should at least either supply power from their solar harvesting, or pay for the lack. Guess it wouldn’t be significant for a well planned development like this one.

Pork Hunt 8:19 pm
02 Mar 13
#8

Build as high as you like, I work in construction for a lift company…

dtc 9:31 pm
02 Mar 13
#9

Felix the Cat said :

So let me get this straight, Canberran’s don’t want urban sprawl, they don’t want infiill and they don’t want high rise apartments?

well, they may not want 35 story high rise or 34 units into 2 block infill

The zoning on my street was changed (several years ago) without any warning or consultation. From allowing dual occupancy to allowing medium density (which apparently equals – given a recent approval – to 11 units a block).

I have said it before and wont repeat in detail, but infill/high rise etc is good for Canberra but not good for people who already live in that area and want to stay. Shouldnt those people get some benefit from being sacrificed for the common good – even if something like a stamp duty exemption for buying a new house to move out of the now higher density zoning.

Martlark 10:41 pm
02 Mar 13
#10

dtc said :

Felix the Cat said :

So let me get this straight, Canberran’s don’t want urban sprawl, they don’t want infiill and they don’t want high rise apartments?

well, they may not want 35 story high rise or 34 units into 2 block infill

The zoning on my street was changed (several years ago) without any warning or consultation. From allowing dual occupancy to allowing medium density (which apparently equals – given a recent approval – to 11 units a block).

I have said it before and wont repeat in detail, but infill/high rise etc is good for Canberra but not good for people who already live in that area and want to stay. Shouldnt those people get some benefit from being sacrificed for the common good – even if something like a stamp duty exemption for buying a new house to move out of the now higher density zoning.

You do get a benefit. Your property becomes worth far more than if there was not high density development in your area. And you don’t have to leave, you can buy one of those properties.

These area changes are not snuck in. They were well known policy changes for ages.

thatsnotme 10:54 pm
02 Mar 13
#11

To be honest, I have absolutely no idea what your point is here.

damien haas said :

Why does it take a developer announcing a proposal for people to realise that a significant decision has been taken in the recent past, with no input sought from them by the government and bureaucrats that administer the territory on their behalf.

What is the ‘significant decision’ that’s been taken in the recent past exactly? I’ve read through your post a couple of times now, and I can’t find it. Surely you’re not talking about the lack of height restrictions in the town centres – that’s not exactly new is it? The Woden tower going up should have been a pretty big clue that similar developments could happen in Belconnen.

I don’t understand how the developer’s comments from your first paragraph has any relation to the desire for a new Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan. The street he lives in would almost certainly be outside the area affected by any such plan. When you ask whether I know the height restrictions for my street, I also know that any master plan makes no difference. I know I’m covered by the Territory Plan though. I can only assume that the developer you mention lives in a core zone, and if his neighbours don’t know where the home they’ve purchased fits into the territory plan, then I have no sympathy for them.

I also don’t understand why you’re pushing for a new master plan, when you’ve spent so much of your post reminding us that a master plan is barely worth the paper it’s written on, being as it’s not legally enforceable. So where is the surprise in all of this? Is it simply the fact that a developer has now chosen to propose a development that fits within the current guidelines?

damien haas said :

Of benefit to whom is a question that is always left to others to consider. It is rarely of benefit to the residents that suddenly find a very jarring addition to their suburb being built in the new style, piece by piece as it arrives in precast form by lorry and craned into place.

Now this is just nonsense. Which residents are you talking about here – because my understanding is that when it comes to this development, there are none anywhere near it. You talk as though skyscrapers could suddenly start popping up in the middle of Kaleen, Holt or Aranda – but that’s obviously not the case. Any residents of the Belconnen town centre would almost certainly be living in apartments themselves, and I’d argue that if you choose to live in a town centre, that you have to expect development to occur. If I chose to live in a town centre, I’d actually be hoping that development occurred – if I wanted to live somewhere with little change, there are plenty of suburbs that can give me exactly that.

So what exactly does a Master Plan provide, aside from the chance for some people to put forward their utopian visions, which developers are free to ignore anyway?

poetix 12:22 pm
03 Mar 13
#12

Pork Hunt said :

Build as high as you like, I work in construction for a lift company…

If the company wins the contact for lifts from the bottom to the top of that post, you’ll be set for life.

Interestingly, all the paragraphs look to be the same length, like storeys in a building.

I got stuck on the fifth floor.

JC 8:17 am
04 Mar 13
#13

Call me naive but I always thought that land in this territory had specific zoning which in turn dictated what the land could be used for, and in the case of residential land how many residents etc could be accommodated on that land. I am also under the (maybe misguided) impression that if someone wants to change what that land can be used for then they can apply for it to be changed, with part of this process being consultation through the planning site below.

I was also under the impression that when they were ready to build that they also had to put in a development application where one could comment.

So really I don’t understand how much more consultation the OP wants. Does he want every DA in Belconnen to be personally sent to him for his stamp of approval, or something else?

http://www.actpla.act.gov.au/topics/your_say/comment/pubnote

dixyland 8:37 am
04 Mar 13
#14

Why is it that people feel they need to be consulted on everything? We elect members of the legislative assembly to make decisions for us. If they consult us on every little trivial things (which this very much is), they would never get anything done. Saying that, I think 35 stories is unnecessary. Now we just need light rail to transport of of these residents.

tim_c 8:52 am
04 Mar 13
#15

Of course, you all realise, don’t you, that this “proposal” is just a decoy to distract all the NIMBYs (those with nothing better to do than protest against development) so the developer can quietly obtain approval for the actual project they are planning?

dtc 10:17 am
04 Mar 13
#16

Martlark said :

You do get a benefit. Your property becomes worth far more than if there was not high density development in your area. And you don’t have to leave, you can buy one of those properties.

These area changes are not snuck in. They were well known policy changes for ages.

My land is worth more. But my property is not necessarily worth more – because part of the value of my property is my house, and a house surrounded by units does not have the same value as one surrounded by trees and single story neighbours. This is fine if you have a crappy house; not so much if you have a nice house.

So basically I pay higher rates for a property that is worth less and is harder to sell.

And moving from, say, a 4bedrm house to a 2 bedroom apartment – not really a viable option ‘if I dont want to leave’. Which isnt actually the issue, the issue is that I suffer financially from the zoning change so that other Canberrans can get a benefit.

breda 10:15 pm
04 Mar 13
#17

I don’t understand what the problem is here. Is the OP saying that development in town centres should be subject to the views of anyone and everyone, even if it affects them not at all?

It is fair enough for adjacent businesses (or residents,if there are any) to have some input. But town planning based on the personal prejudices of those who are motivated or bored enough to say “I don’t like that building, therefore it shouldn’t be built?”

If you look at the great cities of the world, you will find that this is not the way they developed. In fact, most of them were built with no or few planning controls. There are plenty of mediocre ones built under centrally planned regimes, though.

Pork Hunt 10:53 pm
04 Mar 13
#18

breda said :

I don’t understand what the problem is here. Is the OP saying that development in town centres should be subject to the views of anyone and everyone, even if it affects them not at all?

It is fair enough for adjacent businesses (or residents,if there are any) to have some input. But town planning based on the personal prejudices of those who are motivated or bored enough to say “I don’t like that building, therefore it shouldn’t be built?”

If you look at the great cities of the world, you will find that this is not the way they developed. In fact, most of them were built with no or few planning controls. There are plenty of mediocre ones built under centrally planned regimes, though.

Well said breda.
With regard to your last para, are you referring to such great cities as Cairo and Jakarta?

dtc 9:41 am
05 Mar 13
#19

Pork Hunt said :

If you look at the great cities of the world, you will find that this is not the way they developed. In fact, most of them were built with no or few planning controls. There are plenty of mediocre ones built under centrally planned regimes, though.

Well, Houston falls into the first category (no planning controls) and Paris mostly into the second (centrally planned regime but perhaps not mediocre)

breda 11:56 am
05 Mar 13
#20

“Well, Houston falls into the first category (no planning controls) and Paris mostly into the second (centrally planned regime but perhaps not mediocre)”
———————————————-
Central Paris (the pretty part) was mostly built with minimal or no planning controls. Outer Paris (ugly and horrible) is the product of modern planning – especially the slummy and crime-ridden public housing estates.

The parts of the great European cities that were built under Communist control are hideous.

I haven’t been to Houston for many years, but from what I understand it is one of the most prosperous and thriving modern cities in the US – in no small part due to its freewheeling approach to development. It is a stark contrast to the shrinking, crumbling, over-regulated cities of the north-east (Detroit being a good example).

The most attractive and fashionable residential districts of London, such as Mayfair and the Sloane Square area, were built by speculators in the C18th and 19th with little, if any, government planning intervention. Ditto for the tourist attraction great public buildings. They just decided to build them and did it.

And, in Canberra, Brindabella Park runs rings around any of the carefully nurtured and endlessly consulted-on developments beloved of the local planning mafia – all done in the face of implacable opposition from those who claim to know what is best for us.

I realise that the Parliamentary Triangle is always going to be heavily regulated (and Lord knows the buildings that have gone up there in the last few decades are pretty mediocre), but the planning control freaks and believers in telling investors how they should spend their money are never, never going to make this into a great city, except perhaps by accident.

Matt_Watts 1:42 pm
05 Mar 13
#21

Damien is by no means a NIMBY.

The desire for greater density within the town centres has been known within the community for ages, but what does that actually mean?

If we are to transition from one town centre design to a new one, we should be open about it in practical terms; the devil is in the detail.

I’ll offer an experience. Back when Belconnen was not considered high-rise, many single or two storey commercial premises were built, with easy access to public parking all over the place. Now, under the current development approach, a public parking lot may be sold to a developer – which is cool – yet the planning laws only consider the impact of the development within that block. We have consequently seen situations where the developer can claim, quite rightly, that they have enough parking for their own residents/patrons/etc, yet there is no consideration of what has been taken away from the broader town centre. The removal of parking for other buildings is out of scope. This means developments which 30 or 40 years ago were appropriate are now insufficient. The current transition is creating winners and losers.

Another scenario is the mapping of the shadows cast by a development. Each development does this for their particular project, yet only their project is within scope (ie end state is ignored and, let’s face it, it’s an unknown at this stage). The project’s shadow might be quite narrow on its own, yet the end state after each block has been developed would be quite different.

Traffic flows are another one. I’ve seen developers sharing a stretch of road individually map the current traffic flow and map the impact of their development in isolation. There’s no consideration of the other development because it’s out of scope. The presentation to the community is therefore unrealistic.

These are practical issues. Damien and I believe the best way of assisting with the management of these practical issues is to have a town centre plan with actual rules so the community knows roughly what they’re getting. Not in the finest of detail, but things like maximum and minimum floor space or height, etc. For example, mapping shadows could be done against the backdrop of a maximum height/width of surrounding blocks as per the town centre plan. It wouldn’t be a perfect representation of the end state, but it would be an indication, which is more than what we have now.

This approach would make for better planning.

These concerns are not anti-development. I’d suggest that if the community were able to have a say in their town planning, they’d like high rises if (for example) that development were to be offset by some green space or some replacement public parking. I’d say this approach is pro-development, because developers would know what they’re getting themselves into.

If certain people have a view that this consultation idea is all rubbish, well fine, that’s their view. If the government believes that, they should be honest and stop paying lip-service to it.

In defence of community consultation, in my experience, the community has great ideas. When the Belconnen Bus Stations were being developed, for example, the community identified problems the “experts” didn’t. The experts didn’t listen to us and went ahead as planned. The experts had to retro-fit solutions. Retro-fitting solutions to temporary bus shelters is a helluva lot easier than retro-fitting solutions to poor town planning.

arescarti42 1:29 pm
08 Mar 13
#22

TL/DR

EvanJames 3:46 pm
08 Mar 13
#23

Why do people just lie down and accept that rapid population growth is inevitable? It’s not inevitable, certainly not on the scale we’ve seen, our population growth is artificallly stimulated by government policy.

It’s time people stopped just accepting that population growth is beneficial (to developers yes, to the rest of the community, no), and had a good look at issues around quality of life. For everyone.

Mark of Sydney 4:23 pm
08 Mar 13
#24

EvanJames said :

Why do people just lie down and accept that rapid population growth is inevitable? It’s not inevitable, certainly not on the scale we’ve seen, our population growth is artificallly stimulated by government policy.

It’s time people stopped just accepting that population growth is beneficial (to developers yes, to the rest of the community, no), and had a good look at issues around quality of life. For everyone.

But for Canberra as a whole the recent population growth has been good, no? The town gets better and better every year. Look at what’s on this weekend (and for once I’m staying, with my special friend joining me). It certainly beats what was on offer when I was growing up here many years ago.

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