Density report ‘spin’ costs credibility

By Shane Scanlan

Churchill Fellow Leanne Hodyl got a lot of airplay and column centimetres last month with the release of a report which concluded that CBD apartments are being built at four times the densities allowed in Hong Kong, New York and Toyko.

The City of Melbourne planner further claimed Melbourne offered developers “cheap density”, because they are allowed to “build unlimited density with limited need for a community contribution”.

She concluded that lack of effective planning policies was letting Melbourne down and recommended the introduction of policies which:

  • Established appropriate density controls in central Melbourne;
  • Established density bonuses to link development to public benefit and incentivise the delivery of new open spaces, affordable housing and other community facilities;
  • Established an enforceable tower separation rule; and
  • Established apartment standards.

Ms Hodyl said policies to regulate decision-making for high-rise developments in central Melbourne were “weak, ineffective or non-existent”.

“This enables the approval of tower developments that are very tall and that squeeze out the space between buildings, with little regard on the effect on the residents within, the impact on the streets below or on the value of neighbouring properties,” she wrote in her report.

Her report is timely and coincides with an ongoing discussion among CBD residents along the lines of “what is the State Government allowing to happen to our neighbourhood?”

It is clear that the CBD is challenged by the current planning regime and there are very real problems with the way development is occurring ... which is why Ms Hodyl’s report is so disappointing.

As an exercise in tabloid journalism, it hits the mark.  But it has so many gaps and weaknesses that it is unlikely to be taken seriously by decision-makers.

Ms Hodyl declined to be interviewed about her findings, which appear to have been determined before she left on her global tour.

Uncommented on in her report, but included in a table, is a comparison that shows Melbourne recommends the most space between towers (24m) of the five cities Ms Hodyl visited – Vancouver (also 24m), New York (18m), Hong Kong (15m), Seoul (6m “if no windows”) and Tokyo (no rules).

The bulk of the report is taken up with a comparison between the planning regimes of three of the cities she visited and how they might relate to a specific CBD block bounded by Franklin, Elizabeth, A’Beckett and Stewart streets (and not the obvious block boundary at Swanston St).

Ms Hodyl then estimates the residential density of this block should it occur in either Vancouver, New York or Hong Kong (interestingly, not reporting on how it might compare in Tokyo or Seoul).

As a benchmark, she claims that the block would support 4300 apartments under the current Melbourne planning rules.  However, the block currently has only 1300 apartment with a future 1200 approved for construction.  It would be reasonable to use this 2500 total as the benchmark but Ms Hodyl includes a further 1800 imaginary apartments in her total of 4300 on the very non-scientific basis of “potential tower based on existing development patterns within block”.

Had she not done this, her conclusions would more likely have been that Melbourne had twice the allowable densities of some other cities in the world.

This would still have made people take notice and would have created a more  sustainable argument for reform.

It’s a shame that an opportunity to influence may have been diminished by giving in to the temptation to spin the results.

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