“As big as it gets”: City of Melbourne clashes with State Government over Arden Precinct

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Spencer Fowler Steen

Bulky buildings, a lack of affordable housing and no way to achieve zero emissions are just some of the grievances the City of Melbourne (CoM) has flagged with the Victorian Government’s final Arden Structure Plan as it stands.

In a major submission endorsed at the Future Melbourne Committee Meeting on October 5, the council slammed the Victorian Planning Authority’s (VPA) recently released Arden Structure Plan with one councillor labelling it as “misleading at best, and deceitful at worst”.

The council’s submission highlights a stark disconnect between the three key stakeholders set to deliver the Arden Precinct to the North Melbourne-Macaulay region, which is expected to accommodate 15,000 residents and 34,000 workers by 2050.

Speaking at the meeting, Cr Rohan Leppert said the CoM, the VPA and the Department of Transport (DoT) were still “miles apart” and raised concerns that the proposed discretionary floor area ratios would create bulky buildings that would negatively impact sustainability, heritage, walkability and transport.

“The final version of the structure plan and illustrations that are the basis for the community consultation are misleading at best, and deceitful at worst and we need to fix that,” he said.

“The planning controls absolutely need to be fixed or we won’t end up with a precinct that is environmentally sustainable in its design.”

The VPA considered submissions from the council and the community before finalising the Arden planning package, but due to a number of matters remaining unresolved, the council has released the plan in “consultation with” the VPA rather than “in partnership”.

However, there has been confirmation from within the DoT, which is the client for the Arden Precinct, that affordable housing in Arden will exceed 10 per cent despite the current six per cent target.

On October 1, the council’s Deputy CEO Alison Leighton received a letter from the DoT deputy secretary, policy, precincts and innovation, Natalie Reiter.

The letter expressed that, while subject to confirmation within government, a greater proportion of affordable housing within Arden Central was being pursued and was expected to exceed 10 per cent of all housing on government land. 

Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece also welcomed a commitment in the letter from the DoT to look at state government funding to cover a shortfall of around $47 million identified in the Arden Development Contributions Plan (DCP).

Cr Reece said the council fully supported the provision of new open space in the Arden plan, the “terrific” strategies to green the public realm, the transport network, and the zero emissions by 2040 target.

“This is big. This as big as it gets in urban planning. This is a truly city-shaping proposal that is before us this evening,” Cr Reece said.

However, he said since earlier versions of the structure plan, the developable area in Arden had decreased due to issues with soil around Arden Station and expansion of green space related to water catchment areas.

According to the council’s submission, the loss in developable land combined with the same gross floor area across the precinct has led to sky-rocketing density which will result in poor amenity outcomes.

In response to questions from North West City News, VPA CEO Stuart Moseley said its plan set a range of controls, including height limits, density and scale transitions which operated together to ensure “high design quality”.

“Building controls including height limits and built form are carefully managed to avoid overshadowing of public open spaces and sustainability is embedded into every element of the Arden Structure Plan,” he said.

North West City News understands that the provision of social, affordable and key worker housing is set to exceed 10 per cent, and that the DCP has not yet been finalised. The State Government is still considering how to cover the $47 million shortfall.

A DoT spokesperson confirmed that further details about the precinct, including social, affordable and key worker housing would be finalised at a later stage.

“We are working to create more opportunities for affordable housing within Arden,” the spokesperson said.

The DoT along with the VPA, will review public submissions and identify where and how the plans should be refined in light of community input.

Final Arden plan “exacerbates” community concerns

In July and August 2020, the draft Arden Structure Plan was released for community engagement.

According to the council’s submission, key feedback included “overwhelming” support for higher than six per cent affordable housing in Arden, concerns over the proposed building heights and the importance of development that complements the heritage surrounds.

However, the VPA’s most recent Arden plan varies “significantly” from the draft sent out for feedback, and “exacerbates” rather than addresses the concerns raised by the community without providing sufficient justification, the council stated.

“For example, the permitted densities and building heights have increased rather than been moderated,” the submission read.

According to the council, the community remains concerned about outstanding issues such as excessive density and scale, associated impacts on wind and overshadowing, promoting indigenous biodiversity and a greater focus on Moonee Ponds Creek.

The need for more local schools, insufficient affordable housing and maintaining local character and heritage were other issues raised through community engagement with the CoM.

Former Lord Mayor and chairman of the North and West Melbourne Association (NWMA) Kevin Chamberlin said the concept of the underground railway and the development of the area was “good”.

“However, the current Arden Precinct project needs a lot more work, and the [state] government needs to engage directly with the community to ensure we get a sustainable outcome,” he said.

 

A lot more work is required on built form, the lack of open space, the lack of affordable, social and public housing, to name just a few.

 

“The community is keen to work with the government to fix this. A reincarnation of the Docklands in North Melbourne is not a good outcome.”

“For example, the concept of a 60-storey building on the banks of the Moonee Ponds Creek is a bit of surprise. Hardly a waterfront allotment. We’re dealing with an area that needs to respect the built form of North and West Melbourne and Kensington, not trying to stick to Docklands thinking for the area.”

Kensington Association chair Simon Harvey said the association supported the way that the Arden plan opened up public transport options, and how connections through the precinct would be facilitated.

However, he said it was “totally unacceptable” that affordable housing was expressed as “aims” or “recommendations” rather than “requirements”.

“The same applies to the lack of a firm provision for new public housing,” he said.

“While there is recognition that a secondary school will be required into the future, there appears to be no detailed planning about where that might be located.”

“In our view, because of the arbitrary setting of the Floor Area Ratio, which had the potential to put limits on developer profit expectations and guard against bulky CBD  type development, it has been transformed from a ‘tool’ to help foster liveability into a ‘trick’ to preserve profits for developers.”

Mr Harvey also said one of the “biggest disappointments” was the “failure” of the VPA to include any details of planning developments along Moonee Ponds Creek for which it was responsible – an omission he said was “inexcusable”.

The council also contends that the ambitious 15,000 resident and 34,000 worker population targets evolved from a population estimate to an “aspiration”, to a delivery target that is being prioritised by the VPA at the expense of important policy objectives for Arden.

In addition, the CoM rejects the VPA’s built form analysis for Arden as the justification for the built controls which set higher density limits than previous plans.

“The VPA Built Form Analysis recommends greater densities and building heights than were contemplated by detailed built form testing reports,” the council’s submission reads.

While the CoM is broadly supportive of the strategies in the revised plan to recognise the Aboriginal cultural heritage and values in the area, the council raised concerns that it still does not incorporate sufficient feedback from Traditional Owner groups.

In terms of sustainability, the CoM believes the VPA’s plan does not deliver the Arden vision, which states Arden’s sustainability should “demonstrate best practice standards”, “be at the forefront of sustainable development” and “set new standards for urban renewal”.

“The environmentally sustainable design for Arden and zero emissions by 2040 and all of the things the structure plan says is mandatory are great, but the planning controls don’t make those things mandatory at all,” Cr Leppert said.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said one of the main aspects about Melbourne which differentiated it from other cities around the world was its proximity to two urban renewal precincts in Fishermans Bend and Arden.

“We have a chance to deliver something really special that can drive our revitalisation, and we need to take the care to ensure we do it well. We want a bold and ambitious plan for Arden,” Cr Capp said.

“It’s reflected in the submission put together by our team. A plan that is robust, in an economic, social, and environmental sense and really sets benchmarks on key issues where our community have told us over and over again, they want to see a dedication to progress on issues like affordable housing.”

Community consultation closed on October 11. The VPA will now review submissions before consideration by the Minister for Planning before finalisation in the second quarter of 2022 •

Caption: Artist impressions of the Arden Precinct showing the proposed landscape.

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