Is 13 storeys right for Coburg?

Whether you like the look of this building or not, I think the Panel has done a good job in recommending the rezoning and permit pretty much as proposed by the proponent. This is the kind of development Melbourne needs in order to increase densities in established areas (click image below; and here’s another one).

The proposal is for a mixed use development on the old Coburg High School site in Bell St near the intersection with Sydney Rd. It’s a large landmark site of around 1.2 hectares, fronting Bell St in the north, Bridges Reserve in the west and established housing on the other frontages.

It is within the Coburg Principal Activity Centre and will provide 520 residential units spread over 8-13 storeys along the non-residential frontages, stepping down to three storeys where it faces existing housing. It also includes some commercial uses on the Bell St frontage.

The units are very small and therefore relatively affordable (although that’s not the same as value for money!). Around three quarters are proposed to be studios and one bedroom apartments, with a minimum internal floor area of 40 sq m and 44 sq m respectively. The remainder are two bedroom units (minimum 65 sq m). These tiny sizes are around the average for inner suburban apartments – see here.

The project must provide at least 20% of the units for social housing under the planning scheme. However the proponent proposes around half of the units will be allocated to a recognised social housing provider under the National Rental Affordability Scheme.

The Panel’s reasons for supporting the project can be read here. While I endorse their overall direction, I have misgivings about some of their conclusions.

First, I’m worried about the spatial concentration of both lower income residents and smaller households. This is a very large development with demographics that are likely to be very different from the rest of Coburg (suburb), where 69% of households are families and 24% are lone person households.

I agree with the Panel that this is not a repeat of the “Housing Commission high rises”, but even if only 20% of units are allocated to social housing – let alone 50% – it will be a large concentration of lower income residents. I’m not persuaded by their argument that issues of social concentration should be considered on a wider or area basis rather than on a site-by-site basis.

Second, I have some doubts about the parking provisions. The planning scheme requires that a project of this size should have 1,288 parking spaces for residents, visitors and commercial users, but the proposal as endorsed by the Panel provides only 560, of which 460 would be for residents (plus 50 for resident’s visitors and another 50 for the Bell St commercial uses).

A key part of the proponent’s calculation is that 76% of bed-sits and 43% of one bedroom apartments located within the municipality of Moreland have no cars associated with them (whereas 15% of all households in the municipality don’t have a car).

My concern is that these residents may not be typical of the people who will move into the new complex. In particular, their income and age – and hence their propensity to own a car – may be very different to the sorts of residents who take up the non-social housing units. I think it’s likely young professionals will be the predominant buyers or lessees of those units (which could number as many as 400 units but at least 250) that are not allocated for social housing. As I’ve noted elsewhere, average prices for studios and one bedroom apartments in the inner suburbs of Melbourne exceed $300,000.

With up to 80% of the units prospectively to be offered for sale on the open market, it would be better in my opinion to evaluate likely rates of car ownership on the basis of the expected demographic composition of the complex. I’ve no doubt the correct number of parking spaces is considerably lower than the 1,288 specified in the planning scheme, but is it 563? I don’t know if I’m right, but I think there’s considerable room for doubt.

Third, the draft Permit requires 1.5% of total construction cost as a contribution for public art. As I’ve indicated before, I’m not kindly disposed toward levying developments to fund public art. In my view the building and landscape architects have provided all the “art” that is necessary. Residents who must live in 40 – 70 sq m units in order to afford housing in a reasonably accessible location shouldn’t be shamelessly squeezed to subsidise the incomes of artists. It’s time this disgraceful practice was stopped.

I’m also not entirely convinced that there is enough visitor parking or that off-site parking should be counted in the projects total parking provision. Nor am I completely persuaded that residents who live in 40 sq m studios should have to share much of the internal courtyard with non residents. I also have some thoughts on the appearance of the building which I’ll keep for another day.

But overall it’s a large and impressive complex that capitalises on the advantages of a large site located within a transit-rich Principal Activity Centre. It would be a real failure of policy if the size of the project were reduced. An opportunity like this should not be squandered.

Public comment is open until 27 July 2010.

5 Comments on “Is 13 storeys right for Coburg?”

  1. Russ says:

    Alan, my first impression is that this sort of proposal demonstrates the difficulties of developing large sites. In a proposal of this size, the developer has so much latitude they are practically tasked with designing a small town. Difficulties invariably arise when determining the mix of target markets, or from a single architect trying to creating a vibrant urban form, and on the planning side, adjudicating such a massive proposal with such limited empirical data and theory. I’d wager, developing the land in 6 allotments would have garnered almost as much housing, but created a far more diverse urban setting.

    On your concerns: (1) I don’t see it as a problem to be different to the existing demographics. To the extent that planning should be controlling demographic change, the aim should be to offset undesirable market outcomes. As Melbourne’s population increases, if the wealth remains centralised, Coburg will become richer and less affordable, so new housing should aim to replace what is being lost; similarly with demographics.

    (2) To be honest, I don’t really see that planners should be concerning themselves with parking, full stop. Presumably the developer knows how much parking they need to sell units (notwithstanding that they are not “selling” the social housing, in which case the parking requirement should refer to those units only). If there is insufficient parking when built, then presumably there is a market for a parking garage nearby to offset the problem. If there isn’t, then forcing more parking on-site effectively subsidises parking by under-utilising the site.

    In any case, the Melbourne Social Atlas indicates that car-ownership rates are much lower in census districts adjacent to a railway station, so estimating from demographics alone will massively over-state the parking need. Given you’d have to remove one 40sq.m unit for every new car-park, the “cost” of adding more parking is considerable.

  2. […] are rising in the suburbs, whether through large developments like this 13 storey, 520 unit development on a redundant government site at Coburg 10 km from the CBD, or via numerous dual occupancy and […]

  3. Peter Robertson says:

    I live in Rodda St and am aghast that the proposal has been approved. Of course Hamton have to sell the units first and as the key market for these ‘dog boxes’ are international students, given the dramatic fall in international enrolments across Melbourne educational institutions Hamton had best come up with something better now.

  4. […] are of course other non-industrial sites that could potentially be used for housing. For example, a major housing development was proposed for the former Coburg High School site in Bell St (although it appears to have fallen […]

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