In recent years there has been much discussion in the ‘planning’ world about increasing densities in our activity centres and reducing growth at the fringe, you know, all that Melbourne 2030 talk! Collie has recently worked on two developments that we believe are excellent examples of activity centre development. Our experience with these projects we feel is instructive of the challenges faced by this type of development.
 Collie worked on both projects with BBP Architects.
One site is located on the corner of Leake Street and Lincoln Road in the North Essendon Major Activity Centre. It is placed strategically at the northern end of Lincoln Park and is the south-western gateway to the Centre. The site is in the Business 1 Zone, with commercial properties to the north and east of the site and residential properties located to the west of Lincoln Road and is occupied by some unremarkable two-storey offices, the grand and historic former Essendon Theatre and an open car parking area.
The well resolved design for the proposed redevelopment includes:
  • a basement car park;
  • two separate buildings, both of which are (in part) five storeys in height;
  • retention of the former Essendon Theatre facade;
  • 37 dwellings;
  • seven shop tenancies;
  • sixteen small office tenancies.

It provides active commercial uses at street level, office and residential uses above and behind the street frontage, basement car parking so as to not be visible from the surrounding area, appropriate massing of the built form to respond to the varying interfaces and context of the site and retention and enhancement of the heritage facade. Extensive pre-application discussions were had with Council planning department representatives, from both the statutory and strategic planning departments. It was clear from these discussions that the planning staff had an excellent understanding of the site’s potential and also the importance of this site to Essendon North, not only because of the landmark theatre building but also as a catalyst for redevelopment. Their level of support for the proposal was evidence of the high quality design proposed.

The second proposal is located on the corner of Mt Alexander Road and Sturt Street and is part of a former nursery site. It is located in a Residential Zone at the fringe of the activity centre and the proposal reflects this through increased setbacks and an entirely residential proposal of 40 dwellings, including basement car parking.

Both of these projects were supported by the planning department within Council. Unfortunately, it was necessary to take both applications to VCAT given the failure of Council to make a decision within the prescribed time. Subsequently, Council resolved to oppose both proposals against the recommendations of their planning department.

A planning permit has since been issued at the direction of VCAT in relation to both proposals. The Leake Street proposal was approved largely as submitted to Council, while some amendments were made to the Mt Alexander Road design.

Our experience with both of these projects shows the time delays and uncertainties that developers face when undertaking these types of projects. This despite the quality of design and a high level of compliance with broader planning policies.

While it seems that the concept of increased densities is being accepted in part at planning department levels within Councils, this is often less the case with elected members, often regardless of the quality of the design and compliance with policies and controls. Until the culture changes or the planning process is changed to provide more support for these types of development in key activity centres, we will continue to have a focus towards development on the fringe of Melbourne.

What it also shows is the important role that VCAT can play in managing local politics in the decision making process and ensuring that a decision is made on matters of planning policy. All the more reason why the expanding VCAT timelines for hearings and decisions are a concern.

Images sourced from BBP Architects