– When is a building worth protecting?Posted: April 4, 2011
The planning Tribunal’s decision on the former AMPOL building highlights a couple of issues about preserving significant buildings. In reaching its decision that demolition could proceed, VCAT’s thinking was that ”a greater community benefit for present and future generations will ensue from the establishment of the Peter Doherty Institute than from retention of the former Ampol House”.
I think this highlights a couple of issues over and above what I discussed last time. It implicitly says that what a building is worth is a function of what’s planned to replace it. We now know VCAT doesn’t think the AMPOL building is worth preserving when the alternative use is an immunology and infectious diseases research centre, but what if the alternative were (say) an apartment or office building? Might VCAT have concluded under those circumstances that AMPOL house is in fact worth saving?
It seems to me that if a building truly is worth protecting (a broader ambit than ‘preserving’) on the basis of its architectural and/or historical significance then it is, by definition, worth saving. That value has nothing to do with alternative uses (they’re about the land it’s sitting on, not the building itself). A significant building isn’t any less valuable if the proposed alternative use is something worthy — like a park, social housing, a memorial, a shrine, a research centre — than it is if the alternative is something prosaic, like a car showroom, a shop or apartments.
If planning schemes weren’t muddled with so many “it depends”, there might be less money and time wasted on court battles. If there were a clear statement of what must be protected, councils would have to think a lot more rigorously about what is worth protecting and what isn’t. Developers, owners and the wider community might appreciate clearer guidance.
Another issue the VCAT decision highlights in my view is that understanding the social costs of preservation (or other regulations, like height limits) is too often overlooked. That’s not saying we shouldn’t protect appropriate buildings, but we should know what it’s costing and we should know who’s paying.
Looking at individual cases doesn’t adequately expose the cost issues. Denying a single new apartment development (say) will usually look reasonable if it saves an old building that by definition can’t be replaced. After all, the argument goes, someone can always build another apartment building elsewhere.
The true cost is only revealed when we look at the costs and benefits of protection across all projects. Then we can see what sort of aggregate impact, if any, there is on housing supply and hence perhaps on affordability. Or how office supply is affected and what possible consequences there might be for rents and ultimately the region’s competitiveness as a business location and as a job market. Or whether or not protection affects the potential for density and buzz in a particular neighbourhood.
This is not anti-protection. It’s saying we need to understand the implications of what we do. Perhaps if it rules out some borderline cases it will strengthen public support for protection of more significant buildings.