12 June 2014 — The City of Sydney this week announced that Greenland, the Shanghai government-controlled developer building Sydney’s tallest tower, would include a hub for the city’s artistic and cultural community.
This 2000 square metres of space, valued at $25 million, would wrap around the lower levels of the building on the corner of Pitt and Bathurst Street.
The new artistic precinct comes free of charge to the council, at a peppercorn rental of $1 a year, as a gift to the city’s future.
But it’s clear that in reality it’s the result of some clever negotiations, a deal where both sides have benefited.
In return for the hub, the council will not include the artistic space in its tally of the gross floor area of the project (which seems only fair) and Greenland will gain more balcony space for its apartments – so more width, but no extra height.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore told The Fifth Estate on Wednesday that she thinks that in terms of cultural outcomes that more such deals are possible and very much needed.
The new cultural space would contain soundproof rooms for music, sprung floors for dancing and wet and dry studios for painting, she said.
“It’s about providing a base, a space for young people to take their art, to talk about it and develop it. We have fine institutions in Sydney but as for finding places where people can learn to dance and play music and design and paint and do many creative things, it’s hard.
“And that’s why we’ve made spaces available in William Street and Oxford Street, and why we’ve opened up seven live/work spaces in William Street. It’s about giving our creative people a leg up.”
The deal came about because of Sydney’s new cultural policy, launched in May, which would “ensure that culture is part of everything we do”.
The Greenland project was an aspect of that, Ms Moore said, and would hopefully be repeated.
But if it was possible to leverage a cultural benefit from projects, could additional environmental benefits also be leveraged?
What exactly can local governments do to ensure better-than-average outcomes, especially in residential developments for which the green revolution has almost passed by?
In recent years there have been calls for “green doors”, that is, more favourable passage through the planning regime in return for greener outcomes.
But it seems not much has shifted.
The City of Perth said it allowed higher floor space in return for outcomes such as in heritage and public facilities, as well as for the inclusion of residential uses in the city core and hotels in large parts of the city, since these are seen to contribute to the economic productivity and vibrancy of the city.
Melbourne is understood not to offer any concessions for environmental outcomes, but for other outcomes, it does.
Sydney’s director city planning, Graham Jahn told The Fifth Estate the tools in Sydney are limited.
In the residential sphere the council’s hands are tied by restrictions placed by the state government that ensure that no council can mandate environmental standards greater than BASIX.
“There are limits in place by the state government on what the environmental performance of multi-unit buildings can be,” Mr Jahn said.
“You can’t require a performance greater than BASIX.”
The government did not want individual councils setting their own standards.
The exceptions are if the project can be subject to VPA, or voluntary planning agreement, if a rezoning is required or if there is a special covenant that controls the site such as at Green Square, where a consortium has been implemented to drive the project.
What about commercial? Several years ago Ryde mandated a minimum 4 Star Green Star for its commercial projects, but it’s understood the rating level was dropped from 5 Star after lobbying from developers.
In the city, Mr Jahn said most commercial developments aim for 5 or 6 Star Green Star as a matter of course, but there’s no mandate for this.
“We have broad encouragement policies such as green roofs and end of trip facilities. But we don’t mandate any star system. We think most developments are pretty good.”
What the City is mostly focused on, he said, is systemic improvements across areas such as waste, recycling and energy systems.
The Greenland project
The Greenland project, he said, ticked some big environmental dividends, which though not part of VPA, must have sweetened the negotiations.
Greenland, for instance, had chosen not to go ahead with the original plan designed by Brookfield to demolish the existing 1965, 26-storey Water Board building and excavate a seven storey underground car park. There were logistical reasons for that, namely an extra two years of construction, and significant difficulty in excavating right next to the eastern rail easement and the Cross City Tunnel.
That’s a huge saving in embodied energy and huge savings in materials and resources to replace the original tower.
There will still be a 41-storey tower built on top that will be wider wider than the existing building so will need a “sleeve” to enclose the original tower and support the upper tower, but still some big overall savings.
“Their approach was to keep the tower,” Mr Jahn said. “It’s a superior outcome because all the embodied energy of a 26-storey building has been re-used, there is the environmental outcome of fewer truck movements in the city and you don’t have to excavate.”
But there was a catch.
“We would only agree to above ground parking if it was fully concealed.”
A number of options were canvassed by Greenland, but then they saw the council’s cultural policy.
“One day they suggested, what if it was creative uses? We looked at that, analysed it and agreed if they did that we wouldn’t count it as floor space.”
According to Mr Jahn, it’s not often the city can steer these types of outcomes.
Projects can’t generally breach height controls where they exist for instance but the council can sometimes chose to not include floor space in the over gross floor area, or GFA, of a development.
These concessions exist for end of bicycle trip change facilities and for “fine grain” retail spaces of less than 100 square metres – fronting laneways, for instance. But little else.
“It’s a project by project approach with no standard trade-offs or deals,” he said.
On the other hand there is the mandate that, “If you want this approved, it must be pretty good.
“We’re pretty rigid on floor space.”
Another rare exception will be a forthcoming development in the city on which the developer has chosen to build a single slender tower instead of two squat towers. The benefits of this are retention of views for neighbours and less overshadowing.
An interesting twist is that with a four-storey high podium to accompany the project, the developer had considered a number of options such as a restaurant and shops, but in the end proposed building two childcare centres, each of 1300 square metres and each for 65 places, and then handing them over to the council in perpetuity.
In return, the developer was able to obtain agreement for additional floor space in the tower.
“It made sense because it meant that the adjoining building didn’t lose all its view,” Mr Jahn said.
“We felt that if the inclusion of the two childcare centres didn’t add to the bulk of the building and didn’t create any detriment or additional overshadowing then the effect is that we would not count the floor space as part of the floor space.
“It adds no more saleable floorspace but adds more higher value floor space.
“The developer knew that by asking us to change the height control we will do it very publicly, not just by varying the controls on the DA.”
But in terms of encouraging greater environmental or cultural outcomes this was the limit of the council’s influence, unless there was a voluntary planning agreement or VPA.
There are exceptions where a project is part of specific agreement or subject to rezoning. Such as at Green Square, for instance, the mixed use precinct for about 40,000 people underway south of the CBD.
The project is subject to a consortium that has built in obligations to exceed regular environmental performance, so the council has been able to mandate investigations for specific outcomes, such as recycling, trigeneration and dual plumbing, Mr Jahn said.
At Harold Park, subject to rezoning, where a project in inner city Glebe for about 2500 people in 1250 new apartments, the developer Mirvac entered into a VPA when the site was rezoned from a harness racing track.
“When the site was rezoned they voluntarily agreed to exceed BASIX through higher measures of insulation and shading and they promised improvements of about 25 per cent. And that was captured in a planning agreement, so the main tool is coming to an arrangement when we rezone land.”
But there was no concession for additional densities or height, Mr Jahn said.
“It could not have been extra height because it wasn’t height control relevant – all the controls introduced were introduced having regard to the VPA. Whatever the densities were agreed to, that was it. It needed to have 3.8 hectares of open space plus 50 affordable housing units, plus the improved environmental standards and the restoration and re-use of the tram sheds.
The site will also have 260 car parking spaces.
See a detailed account of the planning process that Greenland undertook for its tower, handled by JBA Planning.