Could major housing developments be outside activity centres?

We need to start thinking about new ways of increasing housing supply in the established suburbs. As I’ve noted a number of times now, activity centres aren’t delivering much and infill housing, though it’s putting in a sterling effort, is probably at full stretch. These strategies are still important, but additional sources of supply are needed.

Much of the current thinking confines major developments to a narrow range of locations, primarily activity centres and major transport corridors where key infrastructure, particularly rail lines, already exists. Many have argued these locations have the potential to accommodate enough apartments to house all of Melbourne’s projected growth for decades to come. I don’t doubt they could in theory, but in reality they’re not doing enough.

I think there are lessons we can learn from the study of infill housing I discussed last time. One is the decisive importance of land – developers working at all scales need to be able to easily acquire or assemble sites that are of an appropriate size and aren’t encumbered by high-value improvements.

Developers don’t want to be rejected or delayed by unhappy neighbours or sent packing by councils that impose restrictive limits and conditions on development. And they need to offer housing types that are attractive to the market in that locality – not everyone who’d be inclined to live in the middle ring suburbs would want to live in an apartment.

I think there’s another option worth investigating that addresses many of these concerns. Although it’s just an idea at the moment, it involves a reverse strategy – encouraging residential and commercial development in areas that usually have poor infrastructure, but large sites and compliant neighbours. Rather than require infrastructure to be in place first, it involves retrofitting infrastructure like public transport in order to create new living areas.

It relies on the existence of sites in the suburbs which are large, in single or limited ownership, have few neighbours, and are either undeveloped or have relatively low-value improvements such as warehouses. Some sites that meet these criteria are attached to large public sector organisations like tertiary institutions and utilities, but are surplus to requirements.

As an example, I’m familiar with a tertiary institution in an Australian capital city that’s located within 20 km of the CBD and has more than 100 ha of surplus developable land (that’s five times the size of Melbourne’s E-Gate). It is in a single ownership and already has the extensive infrastructure and services required to serve a student population and workforce of many thousands.

It’s in an attractive environment and could potentially be redeveloped as a major regional activity centre at relatively high densities. It isn’t near a train line, but is well-connected by buses to the rail network with the potential to add more to suit the needs of a very large permanent resident population. I’m aware professionally of some opportunities in Melbourne that are consistent with this example.

However most of the prospective sites are likely to be used at present for storage, distribution and manufacturing activities. They’re not brownfields sites though, because they’re not disused. The idea is that rezoning would provide owners with an incentive to redevelop their properties for intensive residential and commercial uses.

The extended area running through Clayton/Monash/Glen Waverley is a possible candidate in Melbourne. It has a number of large industrial sites that could potentially be redeveloped given an appropriate inducement. This region is particularly important because it already has the largest concentration of jobs in suburban Melbourne (albeit at relatively low density compared to the CBD) and is a prime candidate for development as a Central Activities Area.

While it isn’t well-served by rail, it could potentially be retrofitted as part of the proposed Rowville rail project. More plausibly, it could be serviced at a lower up-front cost by an expanded bus rapid transit system similar to that now connecting Monash University with Glen Huntley Huntingdale station.

The overall idea of retrofitting relies on the sheer size and intensity of projects to provide the incentive for redevelopment and to justify investment in infrastructure. The scale of projects would also be a key way of differentiating developments from neighbouring uses, some of which may retain their non-residential character, at least in the short term. Read the rest of this entry »


Can Melbourne depend on infill housing?

Geography of infill developments in City of Monash, 2000-2006 (source: Phan et al, 2008 - graphic via Grattan Institute)

We know that the inability to increase significantly the supply of dwellings within established suburbs is a key failing of strategic planning in Melbourne. Simply put, there’s not enough housing to make established suburbs affordable for all the people who would like to live in a relatively accessible location.

We also know that activity centres aren’t pulling their weight in the task of increasing supply (see here and here) and that the burden of supply is instead falling on small-scale infill development, much of it dual occupancy projects. So it’s worth looking further at the nature of infill housing.

A study by Monash University’s Thu Phan, Jim Peterson and Shobhit Chandra , Urban infill: the extent and implications in the City of Monash, examined new developments in the municipality over the period 2000-06. They defined infill primarily as projects where two or more new dwellings were constructed on sites formerly occupied by detached houses. A total of 1,483 projects were identified, ranging in size from two dwellings to 178.

The study revealed a number of interesting aspects about this middle suburban municipality.

First, it found new dwelling supply is dominated by small projects. One project built more than 178 dwellings and three built between 40-77 dwellings, however 98% of projects involve just 2-7 seven dwellings (and we can be pretty confident they’re heavily weighted toward the smaller end).

Second, projects are dispersed, not concentrated. As shown in the exhibit, proximity to major trip generators is uncorrelated with location of projects. Just 5% are within 400 metres of a Principal, Major or Specialised activity centre, and only 10% are within 400 metres of a rail station. Moreover, the authors found projects located within 400 metres of an activity centre are smaller on average than those in more distant locations.

Third, developers tend to be opportunistic rather than strategic – they wait for properties to be offered for sale and assess each one on its potential for redevelopment. Thus the geography of infill development is shaped largely by what comes on the market rather than by any sort of deterministic planning policy.

Fourth, the size of lots and the age of the existing house is a more important influence on the location of infill development than proximity to an activity centre or rail station. The average infill site is relatively large (700 to 900 sq m) and the majority of existing dwellings are relatively old i.e. built between 1945 and 1965. Lot sizes close to rail stations are smaller – and hence less amenable to redevelopment – than those further away, probably reflecting the different periods of development.

Thus not only are activity centres failing to expand housing supply in accordance with the precepts of Melbourne 2030, but the great bulk of new housing being built in Monash isn’t located close to activity centres but rather is dispersed (relatively uniformly too judging by the exhibit i.e. non-randomly).The dispersed pattern will worry some, but I don’t see it as a big issue. 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 »


Is big-box bad for the Modern Family?

Click to go to slideshow

Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania, Canadian-American architect Witold Rybczynski, has this interesting slide show at Slate titled Ordinary Places. He subtitles it “rediscovering the parking lot, the big-box store, the farmers market, the gas Station” and observes:

At first glance, the big-box store doesn’t foster sociability. The no-frills environment sends the message that “we are doing everything possible to keep our prices down,” and the assembly-line atmosphere encourages speed and efficiency.

Everyone is absorbed in the serious business of finding what they’re looking for, a task the long, identical aisles don’t make easy. This is the exact opposite of shopping-as-entertainment that characterizes most malls.

He’s not the only one to characterise big-box retailing this way, but why on earth would it really matter if a big-box store does or “doesn’t foster sociability”? Read the rest of this entry »