Has the Grattan Institute got the answer to our housing woes?

Housing preferences compared with existing stock and the composition of current housing supply (by Grattan Institute)

I have to say right up-front that I’m disappointed by The Grattan Institute’s new report, Getting the housing we want. It nominally proposes ways of increasing housing supply in established suburbs, but it really just puts up the politician’s standard solution – more bureaucracy, more money, and little explanation (press report here).

In the Institute’s defence, I must acknowledge that it’s taken on a difficult task. It’s much harder to propose practical solutions than it is to analyse problems, identify key issues and propose general directions for action. And the Institute has hitherto done a good job on the latter three tasks with a series of reports under its Cities Program.

The new book by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, Triumph of the City, illustrates the way solutions attract criticism. The book was lauded for its sophisticated analysis of the benefits of density and the need to remove the many obstacles to redevelopment. But his big idea for an historic buildings preservation quota – meaning that cities could only protect a set number of buildings each year and so would be forced to prioritise – was lambasted by all and sundry as impractical and, worse, naïve.

A lot of critics had a similar reaction to Ryan Avent’s The Gated City. Great analysis of the need to promote density, they said, but potential solutions to NIMBYism like developers compensating neighbours for the negative effects of development were criticised as unworkable and unrealistic. As soon as detailed, practical solutions are suggested, the knives come out!

So the Grattan Institute is putting its corporate head on the line with the solutions-oriented Getting the housing we want. It’s a follow-up to the Institute’s earlier report, the impressive The Housing we’d choose. The earlier report established that there’s a significant mismatch in Melbourne and Sydney between where many people actually live and where they’d like to live (see my earlier discussion of this report).

Opposition from existing residents to redevelopment proposals is a key reason for this misalignment – they don’t see the broader good and they don’t see how redevelopment benefits them. Councils tend to fall in behind residents who’re committed in their opposition to redevelopment.

The new report is on safe and familiar ground when it advocates standard stuff like code-based approval processes for small-scale development. However its headline proposal is more problematic – the Institute proposes the establishment of Neighbourhood Development Corporations (NDCs), with initial financing coming from a proposed new Commonwealth-State Liveability Fund.

The idea is NDCs would undertake large scale redevelopment projects aimed at increasing housing supply. NDCs would be “independent”, not-for-profit organisations that work in “partnership” with all tiers of government, the private sector and residents. The Institute stresses the importance of in-depth consultation and says NDCs could only “go ahead with the support of local residents”. NDCs would have to provide a diversity of housing “in terms of both type and price” and would have “temporary planning powers”.

Disappointingly, there’s not a lot of concrete information in the report on the mechanics of the proposed NDCs and Liveability Fund. And there’s little specific analysis and justification provided in support of these ideas. However the report profiles three examples of existing organisational structures similar to what’s envisaged with NDCs. These are London Docklands Development Corporation; HafenCity Hamburg, and Bonnyrigg social housing estate.

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).

I have trouble enough with the idea that changing management structures is the broom that will sweep away all the gunk that’s holding up supply. But the trouble with having such a narrow ambit is that the potential contribution NDCs can make to increasing housing supply is necessarily more limited. Moreover, it begs the question of whether NDCs are even necessary. Read the rest of this entry »

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Can activity centres supply enough housing?

Average annual growth in population of centres (%) - data from BITRE

Melbourne 2030 envisaged growth of high density housing and office employment within established suburbs would be located in activity centres, especially those with a rail station. In fact it specified that 41% of all dwellings should be constructed in activity centres over the period 2001-30 (with 31% in Growth Areas and the rest dispersed in small projects throughout established suburbs – at present though, about half of all new dwellings are constructed on the fringe).

Locating more intensive development within strategically important activity centres makes a lot of sense. In particular, it means a larger number of people will be within walking distance of frequent public transport, giving them an alternative to driving. Bigger activity centres should be more sustainable and might even cost the public sector less in infrastructure outlays and operating costs.

Yet it doesn’t seem to be happening – outside of the city centre, only a small number of activity centres are experiencing significant growth in multi-unit housing. Moreover, according to research by BITRE, Melbourne’s six Central Activities Areas (CAAs) and 25 Principal Activity Centres (PAC) only accounted for 3.6% of all population growth in the metropolitan area between 2001 and 2006. The number of people living in CAAs fell (by -0.3% p.a.) over the period and the number in PACs grew by just 0.8% p.a. – much lower than the growth rate for the metro area and the CBD (see exhibit).

Nor are activity centres generally successful in attracting employment – BITRE found jobs growth was actually negative in the CAAs, falling by 0.5% p.a. between 2001 and 2006. Jobs grew by 1.25% p.a. in dispersed areas outside of centres over the same period, but by only 0.5% p.a. in PACs.

There are reasons why it’s hard to attract developers to larger centres. Assembling land is difficult – existing holdings are in diverse ownership, values are often high and lots may be small. Moreover, Planning restrictions mean suitable sites are in short supply or have constrained redevelopment potential. But perhaps the key issue is opposition to development from existing residents.

As 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 to 4-8 storeys in their local centre. They fear higher housing and employment densities will increase traffic congestion and noise and they expect the character and familiarity of their local centre will change for the worse. They see few, if any, upsides for them personally from a higher density centre.

It seems putting most higher density redevelopment eggs in the activity centres basket isn’t paying off. The politics of dealing with existing residents is simply too hard for all levels of government, whatever their colour. That’s not surprising given residents generally feel redevelopment makes them worse off and the planning system emphasises the interests of local residents.

Economists like Edward Glaeser and Ryan Avent have proposed ways that in theory might give existing residents an incentive to be more accepting of redevelopment, e.g. residents could buy the right to remain living at low density. These are novel and interesting ideas but at the present time they’re simply not going to fly politically.

Any redevelopment within established suburbs is going to be difficult. However the level of opposition can be reduced, although by no means avoided, where more intensive development is proposed for disused industrial areas. Even so, “brownfield” sites come with their own set of issues, like potential contamination and possible alternative uses.

Further, there don’t actually appear to be many brownfield sites. The authors of Challenge Melbourne – the discussion paper prepared in 2001 as part of the Melbourne 2030 process – estimated suitable brownfield sites within established suburbs have a total potential yield of 65,000 dwellings. That’s impressive, but even if all of that estimate could be realised, it’s not a big enough contribution, given the number of households in Melbourne is now projected to grow by 825,000 between 2006 and 2036. Read the rest of this entry »


Why is Acland St becoming “Chadstone by the Bay”?

Acland Street, St Kilda, with 7-Eleven, Subway and vacant office space - click to see McDonalds to the left

Carol Nader wrote an article in The Age on the weekend bemoaning the decline of St Kilda’s famous Acland Street. She reports there are eight shops with “for lease” signs:

The strip that used to have everything is now bereft of a newsagent and a florist. Kinki Gerlinki has shut down and the Quick Brown Fox has moved to the Balaclava end of Carlisle Street. The Vibe cafe a few doors down from the iconic Cicciolina restaurant is gone.

With the closure of “cool and quirky” fashion and vintage clothes shops in Carlisle and Barkley streets, she counts 12 empty shops in the village precinct.

Ms Nader’s main emphasis is on the current poor economic climate for retailing, but a letter writer to The Age, Maxine Hardinge, reckons the rot set in long ago. She says St Kilda “was sold to the devil 20 years ago when McDonald’s and other chain stores started the ”creep”. The morph into Chadstone-by-the-Bay has long been complete”.

Sadly, the same thing is happening in Balaclava, with Priceline, Crust, Telechoice, Kinki Gerlinki, Flight Centre, 7-Eleven, Quick Brown Fox, Subway, Urban Burger etc gradually squeezing out the independent retailers.

Ms Hardinge says council should cap the number of chain stores and favour independent retailers, otherwise “the particular flavour of the suburb – that thing that attracts people to live and shop there”, will be lost.

Like these writers, I would be disappointed to see the special character and personality of these villages fade away. I’d prefer an Acland Street “where an Italian deli sits between a Middle Eastern bakery and an antiques shop”. I’d like to think St Kilda’s cake shops will be there forever.

However the idea that a council should manage the mix of uses in a centre, as if it were a mall under its management, is an idea that – to put it as politely as I can – is well ahead of its time.

It should be self-evident that the 7-Eleven’s and their ilk are moving into these villages because there’s a demand for them. They’re attracting customers more successfully and generating larger profits than the shops they’ve replaced (or, less charitably, squeezed out). The customers of Acland Street have spoken and the chains appear to be winning.

While St Kilda has enough “hip” inhabitants to give it a cool profile, it seems those who want a village of cool, quirky and traditional shops are actually in the minority. This might seem surprising but, as the My School debacle showed, drill down below the average and most places will reveal many residents in different age, family status, educational and income strata.

Many of these people have what the writers might think of as common tastes. St Kilda has long-standing residents who have no interest in the special character of the village. It has many newcomers attracted by the vibrancy of the place but whose interests are decidedly plebeian, even bogan.

Much as I personally would love to see the diversity of places like Acland Street preserved, resorting to regulation as Ms Hardinge proposes is not only impractical, but inequitable. It would give priority to the interests of what appears to be a minority.

Ironically, the sort of transition she fears has parallels with the way many fashionable inner city areas got their “cool” in the first place. The gentrifying yuppies of the 60s, 70s and 80s profoundly changed the living circumstances of the working class populations in inner city neighbourhoods.

For example, not so long ago all those boutique hotels in places like Fitzroy and Sydney’s Surry Hills were old fashioned drinking establishments, frequented largely by older men. Gentrification brought unaffordable bar prices, unsympathetic fellow patrons, and eventually no admittance. Not to mention higher rents, noisy parties, parking problems, and more. Read the rest of this entry »


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. Read the rest of this entry »


Malls & strips: what’s the difference?

(Image from Fleskw - via The Conversation)

Whether you like them or not, malls have been pretty successful in capturing a sizeable share of the retail dollar in Australia since the first ones opened in 1957 at Chermside in Brisbane and Top Ryde in Sydney (Chadstone opened in Melbourne in 1960). Much of that success historically came at the expense of strip shopping centres, so it’s worth unpicking what it is about malls that attracts shoppers.

Both retail forms have their advantages and disadvantages from a consumer’s and an urbanist’s point of view. A week ago I took a general look at malls (What’s so bad about malls?) but what I want to look at here is a singular advantage that regional malls have over regional strip shopping centres: unified management. In one sense that’s a trite observation – it’s hard to imagine that a collection of small businesses could’ve gotten together in the 1950s to build collectively something as large as suburban Chadstone in Melbourne, currently Australia’s largest mall.

The Myer Emporium, however, had no such coordination problems. It was able to ignore the objective of the MMBW’s 1954 Melbourne and Metropolitan Planning Scheme to confine development to activity centres served by public transport. Ken Myer constructed instead a massive new retail centre on a Malvern orchard, well away from the nearest rail station.

Let me be clear that this is not a post about which is ‘better or ‘worse’ – it’s about understanding the differences between malls and strips and, in particular, why they’re different. I’ve chosen to look at management arrangements because I think that’s a key difference and space is limited, but it’s not the only one. I’ll try and look at other differences another time.

The real power of the management advantage enjoyed by malls is in operations. A stand-alone regional mall like Chadstone or Northland has a single landlord and manager who coordinates a wide range of key commercial variables, from infrastructure to the overall retail offer of the mall.

I think of malls as being a bit like clubs. The welfare of each retailer depends not only on his own performance but on that of all the others — they generate business for each other. That’s true of strips too, but in malls the tenants formally cede a considerable measure of independence to the centre manager in return for maximising the benefits of the mutual inter-dependency of the parties. The manager’s role is to maximise the benefit for all tenants and, consequently, for herself. If she doesn’t also satisfy shoppers then both she and the retailers will suffer.

One of the most important qualities of any regional centre for shoppers, whether it’s a mall or a large strip centre, is the range and choice of products and services on offer. The mall’s advantage is it is ‘designed’ or ‘engineered’ to maximise the retail experience.  Managers are able to optimise a range of critical variables important to customers, like the mix of shops/tenants, the mix of merchandise value, and the mix of floorspace allocated to different retail segments. Considerable research effort is devoted to the subtleties and nuances of what sells and what doesn’t.

The centre manager can create a unified marketing image. She can also engineer a defined ‘experience’ or ‘atmosphere’ comprised of the retail offer, associated services like cinema, and the design of the physical environment. She can control the level and management of car parking, often providing it for ‘free’. Moreover she can provide simple things like clean, safe and working public toilets; tenant directories; staffed centre management offices; and security services.

The management advantage also extends to the quality of staff. Malls are largely populated by national franchises that can afford to put effort into choosing and training staff and supporting them with sophisticated management systems, inventory control and procedures manuals.

All of these activities are much more difficult for a strip shopping centre. Strips are composed of multiple landlords and multiple tenants. Individuals within each of these groups may have different priorities. Further, circulation and parking spaces are administered by a range of public agencies, such as local government and traffic authorities. In many centres there are residential and other non-retail occupants in the centre with agendas which might be inconsistent with the priorities of businesses and organisations that serve the public directly.

This diversity of purpose makes it more difficult to get any sort of sustained, unified action. Publicly funded programs like Mainstreet have endeavoured to create some semblance of joint action by retailers and other players but the results have been small scale, short-lived and largely confined to ‘beautification’ projects. Even where they work, they seldom go to the core commercial issues. Read the rest of this entry »


What’s so bad about regional malls?

Waterfront City, Docklands, Melbourne - one of the newer breed of "topless" malls.

I’m always a little surprised by the ill-feeling many planners, architects and educated elites show toward regional managed shopping centres (a.k.a malls). The alternative isn’t always articulated but in most cases seems to be some notion of the traditional strip shopping centre, or ‘High Street’**.

The vast majority of Australians – the 90% plus who live in the suburbs – have pretty clearly voted with their feet for shopping in malls (see herehere, here, here and here). That seems like a rational and inevitable response to the prevailing cost of travel and, relative to strip centres, the considerable advantages of regional malls for a population that’s overwhelmingly car-based. The key advantages are:

One, malls provide complementary shopping – shoppers can buy a diverse range of goods and services from different retailers at a single destination. On one trip, a customer can buy electronics, clothes, furniture, kitchen gadgets, get a haircut, and more.

Two, they provide comparison shopping – buyers can compare the prices of similar products (say shoes) at multiple retailers within the same destination.

Three, economies of scale at the level of the store and the franchise network provide purchasers with lower prices and wider product choice than they could ever hope to get on the High Street.

Four, most regional malls offer a climate-controlled shopping experience irrespective of whether it’s hot, cold or raining outdoors (although enclosure might possibly be of declining importance – newer malls like Waterfront City at Docklands are largely open-air with car-free pedestrian “streets”).

Five, they’re safe. There are no cars within malls, so parents of small children don’t have to worry about road safety. In most, there’s a permanent security guard and centre management presence. Most don’t have pubs or licensed restaurants so there’re fewer drunks.

Six, malls are very sociable. They have indoor ‘streets’ and large food courts. They have cinemas and play areas for small children. They’re meeting places that offer plenty of “buzz” for little cost. Few traditional strip shopping centres have a direct equivalent to the food court because they’re not centrally managed.

Seven, they’re equitable. Prices are competitive – that’s one reason those on average to low incomes like them. Maybe they also like the fact their “relative poverty” isn’t highlighted by the sorts of expensive restaurants and designer shops often found in fashionable strip shopping centres.

Of course there’s no such thing as a perfect solution and malls also have downsides. The most common criticisms I hear are as follows:

One, malls are dull and franchising means “they’re all the same” no matter where you are in Australia. Personally, I don’t find regional malls particularly appealing (although some are better than others), but there’s no getting away from the fact that most people, on balance, prefer them to the High Street. Either it’s a price most people are prepared to pay for the benefits, or most simply don’t see many other malls, or more likely there’re many, many people who actually don’t find them dull.

Two, they turn their back on the street. This criticism misses the essential point of malls – they have their streets within the building and these indoor promenades are often safer, quieter and more congenial that outside streets. Shops blend with the ‘street’ – mall designers have understood the importance of “activation” since the days of Victor Gruen.

It’s true that malls often have blank, windowless facades and are separated from the street network by parking, but this is true of many suburban building types. Suburban universities, schools, hospitals and sports stadia, for example, are commonly set well back from the street and only occasionally directly ‘address’ it. This is a wider urban design issue and there are ways to handle it – it’s by no means peculiar to malls.

Three, malls are blatantly commercial – they’re designed around getting people “to buy”. That’s probably true, but almost every proposal I see to “activate” civic spaces is based on uses like cafes and bars that are, well, commercial operations. Remove the commercial operators from Southbank and see how much life is left. Strip shopping centres too, are places of commerce. Read the rest of this entry »


Are planning regulations making retailing uncompetitive?

City of Darebin's draft Vision for Northland

I agree with Australia’s retailers and the Productivity Commission that imported internet purchases valued at less than $1,000 should be subject to GST. But I only agree in-principle.

The trouble is, as the Productivity Commission’s report on retailing released last week shows, the administrative effort required to levy the GST would cost more than the tax would raise in revenue.

But the GST is really just a distraction – the underlying malaise of Australia’s retail sector runs far deeper. The Commission says retailers operate under several regulatory regimes that reduce their competitiveness. It nominates three major restrictions which require improvement:

Planning and zoning regulations which are complex, excessively prescriptive and often exclusionary

Trading hours regulations (in some States) which interfere with the industry’s ability to adapt and compete in a more globalised market

Constraints on workplace flexibility such as obstacles to the greater use of enterprise bargaining and the adoption of best practice productivity measures

Retail hasn’t historically been trade-exposed, so it hasn’t had to work hard at being competitive. Up until now, international suppliers have even been able to practice blatant price discrimination. But the internet has changed the game. Consumers can now compare what they’re paying for many products locally with what it costs to import them from overseas markets.

The impact of planning regulations on the viability of domestic retailing is of course of particular interest to The Melbourne Urbanist. The Commission notes that the ability to maintain a competitive and healthy retail sector is vitally dependent on the ability of new retail formats to gain entry to Activity Centres. A number of studies have shown that preventing the development of new retail formats lowers productivity, reduces employment and raises prices to consumers.

The Commission finds a number of barriers to entry, including limits on the size and scope of centres, prescriptive planning requirements and excessive scope for firms to establish local monopolies and maintain them by excluding new entrants, either with the implicit cooperation of planning agencies or through the courts. The Commission recommends that:

Activity Centres should be large enough in terms of total retail floor space and broad enough in terms of allowable uses to facilitate new retail formats locating in existing business zones

Prescriptive planning requirements should be significantly reduced to ensure competition is not needlessly restricted

The impact of new entrants on the viability of existing retail businesses should not be considered at any stage in the rezoning or development assessment process. This issue should only be considered at the strategic planning stage

The focus should shift to “as-of-right” development processes to reduce uncertainty and minimise the scope for gaming of the system by commercial rivals

Courts should be able to award costs against parties who are found to be appealing for non planning reasons

It’s interesting and illuminating to read the Commission’s report and at the same time look at what the City of Darebin is proposing in this report for the future development of Northland, a “hard-top” shopping centre (mall) with nearby “big-box” retail facilities at Preston, about 11 km north of Melbourne’s CBD. The exhibit above shows Council’s proposed vision for the centre and surrounding uses. Read the rest of this entry »