The decision of the Minister for Planning to refuse a proposal for a ‘twin-tower’ development at 447 Collins Street, Melbourne (previously known as the National Mutual building with its large open plaza along its Collins Street frontage between William and Market Streets – south side) has been a topic of debate within the planning / development industry this week.  The development, which has been nicknamed ‘pantscraper’ due its resemblance to a pair of trousers, proposed two 47-storey towers connected across the top by a sky bridge.  In addition and of special interest, the proposal included 2,000 square metres of proposed public open space fronting Market Street wrapping around part of the built form that would connect with a possible future open space if Market Street were to be closed at some time in the future (and as contemplated in Melbourne City strategy considerations).  The proposal included also a $500,000 contribution to the landscape of a closed Market Street converted to open space (between Collins Street and Flinders Lane).

We understand that the main ground of refusal related to the tower overshadowing the north bank of the Yarra River by more than 15 metres at specified times of the year and the precedent that such an approval would set.

This proposal is the second by the applicant to be rejected for the site, with the first being refused by the former Minister for Planning, Matthew Guy, due to overshadowing of the south bank of the Yarra.

It is important to note that the most recent proposal was devised in response to the grounds of refusal for the first proposal and would not overshadow the south bank during the stipulated hours.  Furthermore, the submission was about to be lodged when days before, the Minister gazetted an interim planning control via Amendment C262, which introduced amongst other things, stricter overshadowing policies for the north bank of the Yarra.

Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle, has been vocal in his disappointment with the Minister’s decision and is concerned that the benefit of a substantial park in Collins Street is now lost with any subsequent proposal able to comply but with an uninspiring tower with a greater building footprint and without the public benefits.

While we acknowledge the importance of maintaining sunlight to significant public open spaces, the part of north bank that will be affected by shadows seems to include a small landscaped area wedged between railway lines and major roads, and part of Enterprise Wharf.  The area that would be overshadowed appears not to be a highly desirable area of public open space and when compared to the south side of the River, does not carry a substantial volume of pedestrian traffic.  We do acknowledge that this can change with future re-development.

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Given the lack of public open space in the central business district (plus the loss of the ‘private’ National Mutual plaza on the site), we are surprised with this recent decision.  We acknowledge that if approved, it could set a precedent for other planning permit applications but wonder if a net community benefit should not be the test.  Although we have reviewed the Council officer report that was presented to the Future Melbourne Committee, we have not been able to gain a full understanding of the amenity of the 2,000 square metres of public open space proposed.  If the space was to be in shadow for a significant part of the day, exposed to strong winds and could be perceived as privatised open space, then perhaps the trade-off of shadowing the north bank of the Yarra is not adequately justified.

With our recent office move to the CBD we now have an even greater appreciation of the need to provide additional public open space in the City however, any new public open space needs to be carefully designed to ensure that it provides reasonable amenity.

Perhaps this decision suggests a failure of the planning policy framework to enable a reasonable level of discretion when considering the impact of overshadowing from a proposed tower and the community benefit of public open space offered as part of the proposal.  We hope that whatever development occurs on the site, it is of high architectural merit and includes a substantial open space component with a high level of amenity.