Are these planners planning ahead?

Ivanhoe Activity Centre Framework Plan (proposed maximum building heights added by Save Ivanhoe RAG)

The familiar story of residents pushing back against higher density development hit the press again this week, this time in Ivanhoe, where Banyule Council is seeking feedback on its draft Structure Plan for the Ivanhoe Activity Centre. Council is proposing that some areas be zoned to permit development – largely residential – up to five and six storeys in height and, in two locations, up to eight storeys.

I have a personal interest in this issue because Ivanhoe is my nearest strip shopping centre. Unlike the members of the new Save Ivanhoe resident action group, I’m not personally concerned about potential impacts like loss of views, noise and traffic. I live far enough away from the proposed development areas that I don’t expect to be directly (adversely) affected.

In fact if done right, I see further development of the centre as a way of making me and my family much better off. Increased development has the potential to provide a wider and more diverse range of shops and services and make Ivanhoe a vibrant and exciting place to spend time in. The existing strip has its virtues, but at present it’s a bit dull and lacking in personality – it doesn’t give you enough reasons to stay local rather than drive somewhere more distant.

Higher housing density wouldn’t just benefit me personally, it would also increase the supply of dwellings in a highly accessible area and hence help moderate housing prices. If supported by improvements in supporting infrastructure, Ivanhoe is an obvious location for higher density housing – there are, for example, two closely spaced rail stations within the study area’s boundary and a large base of existing shops, restaurants and community facilities.

Having said that, I sympathise with residents concerned about issues like noise from apartments. It underlines the importance of giving attention to non-physical ways of managing the inevitable conflicts inherent in higher densities. As I’ve discussed before, the law around issues like noise simply hasn’t kept up with the shift to new housing forms.

Council has done itself no favours in the way it’s put together the draft Structure Plan. It’s poorly edited, outdated in places, and inconsistent (as Save Ivanhoe point out). It gives equal weight to the minor and the significant, it mixes physical strategies with process strategies, and it’s weak on the big picture. Unforgivably, consultation with residents has been patchy at best – while it’s hard to credit, it’s almost as if no one anticipated the reaction of residents.

A key failing in my view is that it does not explain and justify the very proposals, like building heights, that worry some residents. Why, for example, does medium density development extend west in that ‘finger’ along Livingstone Street (or perhaps it’s the barrel of a pistol!), rather than expanding on a broader front closer to the existing commercial area? Why is the maximum building height in the southern ‘finger’ around Darebin station six storeys rather than, say, two storeys (or, as I would prefer, eight or more)? And why are residential buildings in this finger required to have a zero setback along both sides of Heidelberg Rd?

I can make a guess at the logic Council is using, but a consultation document needs to be framed with its target audience in mind. It’s not enough to have a few high-level paras at the start of the document about sustainability and Melbourne 2030. Residents need to understand on their own terms why the proposals are a good idea. They need to understand what Council’s purpose and logic is otherwise there’s little chance they’ll be convinced the plan is in their interest.

This highlights another failing of the plan – it doesn’t paint an adequate picture of the benefits of growth and development. There’s no excitement, no tantalising suggestion of what a stimulating, even exhilarating, place the centre could be with more people, more shops, more mixing of land uses, and more density.

While I’m personally broadly happy with what’s proposed, I think the plan has some other deficiencies that, without getting too far into Ivanhoe-specific issues, have implications for activity centre structure planning in general.

One is it doesn’t seriously engage with how the centre is envisaged to function in the future as a retail, services and business node. There’s nothing on the emerging challenges to retailing or what sort of centre it will be. Will it be more of the same, will it have a specific character (e.g. restaurant strip), will it specialise?  What sort of retail formats does Council see within the centre? What are developers’ requirements – if they favour some sort of mall, would there be a place for it? Are the areas set aside for retail suitable? Are they enough? Nor is there anything on how many, or what sort, of new businesses and jobs the centre might hope to host (although we’re told specialist medical will be restricted to Heidelberg).

In short, there’s not a lot of vision in this plan about the very essence of what an activity centre is. There’s plenty of ‘by the book’ stuff on physical planning and design (sometimes in ludicrous detail) but not much on the fundamentals.

This lack of commercial focus (for want of a better term) shows up elsewhere. A substantial proportion of the growth in new retail and mixed use development is envisaged to take place on existing at-grade car parking areas, with replacement parking provided in two level (maximum) basements. Sounds good, but I have no sense that Council understands whether this approach is plausible. Will it make financial sense? What sort of uses will be able to justify the cost of locating parking underground? Are they likely to be the types of uses that would contribute positively to the centre? Parking is the lifeblood of a centre like Ivanhoe – it can’t be left to chance.

Some of the other retail and mixed use expansion is earmarked for locations where there are existing uses. For example, at the lower end of Upper Heidelberg Rd there are a number of buildings that are the epitome of street “deactivation” – they include a self-storage facility, a funeral home, and a church. There’s no evidence that Council has thought analytically about what redevelopment incentive is needed to facilitate these uses being replaced. Will eight storeys on one side and four on the other be enough?

The idea that six storey residential could finance building a platform over the rail line north of Darebin station beggars belief. What’s really troubling about this plan though is that it offers no serious appreciation of the transport implications of the higher densities (both residential and commercial) it envisages. It effectively ignores the issue!

In fact my overall impression is this document is more like a ‘brainstorm’ than a plan for the future. Council doesn’t seem to have any real idea of what will work and what the consequences of the planned actions might be. I’m not saying the plan should do whatever business says – after all, market failure is the justification for planning – but if it doesn’t understand commercial imperatives and systemic connections, then it’s likely to fail. I doubt this is the only structure plan that doesn’t “get” that an activity centre, above all else, is a place of trade and exchange.

So while I like the idea of higher density housing, I don’t really know what sort of commercial centre is being proposed or if it can be achieved. I don’t know because I don’t think Council knows. I favour higher density development in this centre, but the residents who oppose the plan are right when they say Council simply hasn’t done its homework (I have a view on other aspects of the plan but they largely pertain to Ivanhoe per se, so I’ll let them pass).


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10 Comments on “Are these planners planning ahead?”

  1. Looks interesting.
    We’re flat out trying to defend our suburb from the monster 17 storey tower proposed for Johnston Street Abbotsford at the moment so we’ll return to reflect upon this discussion after next week – regards.

  2. Michael says:

    There does seem to be some odd characteristics in the plan such as the corridor along Livingstone st. Maybe the opposition to the plan has valid points, but there does seem to be an over the top sense of propriety by some of the residence about “what Ivanhoe stands for”. The facts are that the property prices are getting prohibitive for middle class families and a certain amount of development is surely inevitable. Why is the present status preordained? What happened to the people who liked the area the way it was before their houses were built? Then again there is nothing new in people wanting to preserve their way of life now that they are comfortably ensconced.

    • Alan Davies says:

      The lots along Livingstone Street are very large so that’s my best guess (although I haven’t looked at the cadastre to compare other areas).

      Yes, there’re lots of references to “the Ivanhoe character”. The convenor of Save Ivanhoe has a letter in the Heidelberg Leader this week saying two storeys should be the limit for housing.

  3. Interesting piece Alan. I’ll have to take a closer look at the proposal. It sounds like you should go voice your professional opinion to the council.

  4. rohan says:

    Dont know the area that well, but the heights proposed are not unreasonable (whereas limiting housing to 2 stoerys is), and I think Alan you have made a lot of very valid points. As you say
    “Increased development has the potential to provide a wider and more diverse range of shops and services” but I dont know that that would automatically “make Ivanhoe a vibrant and exciting place to spend time in.”, at least without the proper planning that you are talking about.

    But I do agree that “The existing strip has its virtues, but at present it’s a bit dull and lacking in personality.” though ….. seems to me that that’s very ‘Ivanhoe’ ! no just joking – but it certainly the strip is lacking in architectural personality (just from drive through experience) – there are some nice two storey characterful older shops, but many are 1910s / 20s plain-style, and many are single storey as are many of the modern ones, so they end up really just being signs, and the newer two storey ones are rather unimaginative too – while Im not one to say that good architecture automatically makes a good place, in this case a slew of interesting new 2 and 3 storey contemporary well designed developments would make quite a difference. Good, not just featurist. Preferably not 5 storeys on one side and 6 on the other straight up – its a narrow street, could be a bit overwhelming, and street-darkening at least without upper level setbacks.

    And I like the 60s church – a very dramatic part of the streetscape – I hope its stays.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Rohan, when I say the strip is “a bit dull and lacking in personality” I’m thinking much more about the type and execution of shops than the architecture. Good architecture can help but I don’t think it can create a dynamic strip or rescue a dull one – that has to come from the retailers and the other uses. Ivanhoe’s range of shops is dull and even the best one’s aren’t done very excitingly.

      Architecture is such a subjective thing…..I don’t find that church (Mary Immaculate) at all dramatic, just heavy-handed and plodding – and it gives nothing to the street. It would’ve been a really second-rate piece of design in its day IMHO.

  5. apsheko says:

    I agree with your assessment, Alan. The plan seemed quite wishy-washy, even by the standard of structure plans churned out by municipal councils. I think the recently built Safeway and apartments along the rail line on the south side of the main street will revitalise that area (what with the funeral home and all), and don’t think there would be a problem with retaining heritage architecture and streetside ground floor retail while expanding upwards.

    Have you had a chance to read Moonee Valley City Council’s structure plan for Moonee Ponds? I thought it had more substance and was quite a bit more exciting. Looking forward to see how the area will turn out in the next 10-20 years.

  6. Russ says:

    Alan, good points. The thing that strikes me about the Ivanhoe structure plan (and the Moonee Ponds one), is the complete lack of statistical data. Even though size and diversity of retail are the two biggest “planning” issues, as opposed to urban design ones, on which the detail is endless, there is no mention of retail catchment areas, floor space, or current retail character. Nor, are there any projections on how an increase in resident population will effect these things. They can’t be that difficult to collect, and they are more or less essential to any rational planning of a retail area. The end result is to effectively leave it to the market anyway, because the planners can’t have the knowledge of what is occurring.

  7. […] the strong reaction to Banyule Council’s proposed structure plan for Ivanhoe shopping centre shows, many residents don’t like the idea of redevelopment at up 4-8 […]

  8. […] These throw more light on what the Institute envisages. They make it clear NDCs are conceived primarily as mechanisms for managing large sites like E-Gate which are invariably disused, underutilised or owned largely by government. The familiar redevelopment challenges of land assembly, existing uses and resident opposition are usually much more tractable with these sorts of sites than they are with activity centres (e.g. see discussion of proposals for Ivanhoe). […]

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