59 St Georges Road, Toorak

19 June 2014 — Large swathes of prime residential areas in Melbourne’s wealthiest areas such as Kew, Camberwell, Brighton and Toorak, have been given a reprieve on planning height and density, despite their premium access to public transport. Not a good example for the rest of the city, Willow Aliento finds.

Three of Melbourne’s most advantaged peri-urban local government areas have this week had strict height and density restrictions locked in for large areas of residential zones, with development limited to no more than two dwellings per lot and height limited to two storeys.

According to Planning Institute fellow and former chairman of the Plan Melbourne advisory committee Professor Roz Hansen, the decision will compromise progress towards a low carbon city, limit the return on public transport investment and prevent the development of a diverse mix of appropriate and affordable housing in the local government areas of Stonnington, Boroondara and Bayside.

The ruling is part of the implementation of Plan Melbourne, with residential zoning now comprising the General Residential Zone, the Neighbourhood Residential Zone and the Residential Growth Zone. These replace the old residential zones, which often imposed no height restrictions and had development assessed on a case-by-case basis, with a high degree of community resistance frequently occurring in relation to medium and high density projects.

“These zones deliver on the Government’s policy to direct residential development to defined areas and at the same time protect our suburbs from over-development,” Victorian planning minister Matthew Guy said.

“The application of the new zones strikes the right balance by encouraging new housing in locations that have access to public transport and a wide mix of services. Areas of neighbourhood character that are valued by Melbourne’s residents will be protected, with opportunities for housing diversity and change located in precincts with limited impact.

“With the new residential zones home buyers will more clearly understand how their neighbourhood is likely to evolve over time and developers will direct activity to locations where it is supported.”

These areas where higher developments are to be permitted are the Residential Growth Zone, which allows developments up to four storeys in height, the General Residential Zone, which has no specific height restrictions, and the Neighbourhood Residential Zone, in which two dwelling per lot and two storey height limits apply.

Substantial no-go zones entrench a well-to-do status quo

Under the new rules, in Stonnington, which covers Prahran, South Yarra, Toorak and Armadale, 38 per cent of the council area has been zoned NRZ. In Boroondara, which includes Kew, Hawthorne and Camberwell, 76 per cent of the council area is zoned NRZ. And in Bayside, which includes Brighton, Hampton, Sandringham and Black Rock, 83 per cent of the area has been zoned NRZ.

These three LGAs are, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, three of the most socioeconomically advantaged areas in Melbourne, with higher than average household incomes, high levels of educational attainment, a significant proportion of persons in upper level management or professional occupations, and low unemployment.

According to Professor Hansen, the new zoning rules mean this situation of relative privilege is likely to become even more entrenched.

“Although the application of the NRZ may reduce the potential for accommodating more population growth in these areas, it is likely to create more enclaves of wealthy households and the well-to-do rather than more socially and economically diverse communities catering for all households and income groups,” Professor Hansen said.

Roz Hansen

Rising land values may lock out developers and buyers

Professor Hansen is concerned the highly restricted supply of land zoned RGZ may make it difficult for developers to deliver a product that is affordable for buyers and provides a reasonable return to the developer.

“My contacts in the property sector tell me that land values on land included in the RGZ will rise given that this is the residential zone land least constrained in terms of housing density of all of the three residential zones, and the overall percentage of land in the RGZ is very small,” Professor Hansen said.

“The new residential zones will do little, if anything, to addressing issues of housing affordability – be it housing to buy or rent. The new zones have no mechanisms within their requirements to ensure the provision of affordable housing or social housing so in this context we are likely to see a growing number of people on fixed or low incomes unable to find appropriate housing for their needs at a price they can afford and in a location close to where they work and to services including public transport.

Professor Hansen said she believed the new residential zones would push those who couldn’t afford the high prices to the urban fringe, which lacked services and jobs, and lead to more homelessness.

Return on public transport investment constrained

Despite Mr Guy saying the new zones would enable people to live close to public transport, Professor Hansen says the manner in which the NRZ acts as a cap on density means the return on investment in the public transport infrastructure of these suburbs will be limited.

“In terms of return on investment of public transport there is a wealth of research to demonstrate that with more population density you can support more services and create more local jobs,” Professor Hansen said.

“Given that public transport relies on high patronage levels to be viable and to sustain a more frequent level of service, if the population catchment living within walking distance of public transport is relatively small due to the existence of predominantly low density suburban development then it is much harder to economically support public transport.”

She said low density urban areas were characteristically high car dependency areas, though Melbourne had provided them with high frequency train and tram services, while failing to provide the same to higher density urban growth areas.

“Where is the equity and fairness in that situation?”

The challenge to the carbon footprint

Professor Hansen said that, overall, decisions like this emerging from Plan Melbourne are contrary to sustainability as they support continued sprawl, not low carbon living.

“In the case of Melbourne’s middle suburbia current dwelling densities are in the order of 10-12 dwellings per hectare – this is very low for a metropolitan area which extends more than 100km from east to west. Melbourne is a classic low density, sprawling industrialised western world city which is not efficient to service in terms of infrastructure or sustainable in terms of addressing climate change issues,” Professor Hansen said.

“Melbourne is not only one of the least affordable cities in the world in terms of the cost of housing and cost of living, but it has the largest sized dwellings (around 240 square metres) and is one of the lowest density developed cities of its size.

“Low density sprawling cities are not socially or environmentally sustainable nor are they economically sustainable. There is overwhelming international research to confirm such a statement.

“Locking up vast tracts of urban land in what is effectively a low housing density zone will not only increase the social divide between those who can afford to live in existing urban areas rich in infrastructure and jobs and those pushed to the urban fringe or to outer suburbs lacking adequate community services and job opportunities, but it will increase their reliance on the private car to access work, services and social/family activities.”

Greyfields redevelopment potentials now clouded

While Professor Peter Newton, research professor in sustainable urbanism at Swinburne University, and others have identified middle suburban “greyfields” areas as underperforming environmentally due to ageing housing stock, and have proposed strategic precinct-style medium density redevelopment to improve sustainability and increase the dwellings per hectare, Professor Hansen said the new zones are likely to preclude putting such ideas into action.

“The ageing detached housing in many areas now designated as NRZ will experience some redevelopment but it is likely to replace one dwelling with another single dwelling or at best two dwellings where there was previously a single detached dwelling,” she said.

“The new residential zones will, in my view, do little, if anything, to transition Melbourne to a low carbon city future. The zones do not embrace the concept of a precinct wide approach to housing redevelopment given that much of the land is within single ownerships.

“The concept of greyfield site consolidations to enable the redevelopment of several smaller sites to be redeveloped as medium low rise density housing relies very much on landowners willing and able to work together to create a single larger site for redevelopment.”

The plan is ignoring the research

While there is substantial research being undertaken in Melbourne at RMIT, Swinburne, University of Melbourne and Deakin University, where Professor Hansen is an adjunct professor, she believes little of this thinking has been taken into account by the Minister and the Victorian Department of Planning in finalising Plan Melbourne.

“I don’t believe the information underpinning the application of the NRZ across vast tracts of urban zoned land in metropolitan Melbourne is adequate or well founded in terms of making planning decisions based on sound evidence based research,” Professor Hansen said.

“Zoning land is a mechanism for controlling development – it does not necessarily address people’s needs or the economic feasibilities of whether a development is viable or not. The residential zone reform lacks the multi-faceted approach needed to make informed decisions on housing supply and housing needs.”

She said the process had been expedited to be largely completed prior to the upcoming state election and to appease minority groups opposed to higher density development under the “dubious guise” of protecting neighbourhood character.

It comes down to people, and what they need now and in a lower carbon future

“Ask yourself some simple questions – where will your kids and your grandkids live if they can’t afford to live in or close to the suburb that you live in now? Where will you live when you grow old and need/can only afford a smaller dwelling or require aged residential care if these forms of accommodation are not provided in your suburb or even in your municipality? We all need to think about our housing needs as we grow old, when our kids leave home and we become grandparents.

“In this context access to our family and social connections is important and where we live has a strong influence on these factors. We also need to think about the changing demographics of our city with an increasing number of single and two person households and a decline in family households. We need to cater for the needs of all households and not just those that can afford to have choice in the housing market.”

City of Boroondara mayor Coral Ross

How the plan plays out in Bayside and Boroondara

The NGZ areas where higher density development can occur are a very small percentage of the LGA’s area. Bayside now has the majority of the coastal strip zoned NRZ, with small pockets of RGZ and GRZ around the commercial areas of the various suburbs and transport nodes associated with the Frankston railway line, the Nepean Highway, Highett and Cheltenham.

In the case of Boroondara, the RGZ is 0.8 per cent of the LGA area, with a further 16.9 per cent of area zoned GRZ.

“Council recognises that Boroondara must provide for a share of Melbourne’s housing demands and to provide capacity where this is appropriate in a managed and responsible manner,” City of Boroondara mayor Coral Ross said.

Ms Ross said council was proposing to meet future housing demand through maximum use of activity centres, neighbourhood centres and commercial corridors where “neighbourhood character considerations can be managed”, and through allowing residential intensification in established neighbourhood residential areas, “subject to tighter restrictions on yields, building heights and building design considerations together with the protection of heritage areas and streetscapes”.

Ms Ross said the new zones would continue to allow for a variety of housing types, including dwellings for locals looking to downsize, and that there would still be sufficient incentive for developers.

“Dual occupancy developments can still be developed in the NRZ in established neighbourhoods where existing residents may be looking to downsize yet retain a garden and lower density and attractive residential street.”

Over the past five years, 73 per cent of all multi-unit residential planning permit applications approved had been for dual occupancies, she said, which was expected to continue under the new NRZ.

The GRZ zone could accommodate more density with council analysis finding it could provide an additional 19,686 dwellings, Ms Ross said. The analysis also suggested that land zoned RGZ could accommodate 1000 additional dwellings and in commercial areas 19,328 additional dwellings.

“In the past, large scale mixed-use developments have been few and far between, but where these have occurred, very high yields have been achieved, she said. “Ongoing opportunities for higher yielding developments will still be available on some strategic redevelopment sites to be zoned GRZ4 where flexible ‘discretionary’ controls exist.”

Australian Bureau of Statistics snapshot of development trends in Boroondara from 2006-2011:

  • An increase of 1469 high density dwellings
  • An increase of 1301 separate dwellings
  • A reduction of 685 medium density dwellings
  • In total in 2011 there were 40,101 separate houses, 18,526 medium density dwellings, and 6,070 high density dwellings
  • This equates to 61.7 per cent of all dwellings being separate houses; 28.5 per cent medium density dwellings, and 9.3 per cent high density dwellings, compared with 71.1 per cent, 21.1 per cent, and 7.2 per cent in the Greater Melbourne respectively

In Bayside:

  • An increase of 617 separate dwellings
  • An increase of 110 medium density dwellings
  • An increase of 465 high density dwellings
  • In total in 2011 there were 25,531 separate houses, 11,030 medium density dwellings, and 1,171 high density dwellings.
  • This equates to 67.4 per cent of all dwellings being separate houses; 29.1 per cent medium density dwellings, and 3.1 per cent high density dwellings.

In Stonnington:

  • no new separate houses were built, in fact the number declined by 28 homes;
  • an increase of 198 medium density dwellings
  • an increase of 1884 high density dwellings
  • In total in 2011 there were 16,577 separate houses, 15,816 medium density dwellings, and 14,405 high density dwellings
  • This equates to 35.3 per cent of all dwellings being separate houses; 33.6 per cent medium density dwellings, and 30.6 per cent high density dwellings.

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  1. So far as I am concerned, this is quite shocking coming from a city/ region with a global reputation for progressive city building. Placing limits on residential areas adjacent to high-capacity infrastructure – whether transit or social opportunity places – is what a regressive city/region might do in ‘other places’ who pander to entrenched, connected, families. Australia, fair go?

    I fear there is a rising chance of what is unfolding in SF’s housing market may start happening here in Australia, minus the violence. Check out this excellent long-form, multi-social media, on-line journalism: https://techcrunch.com/2014/04/14/sf-housing/ Don’t be put off by the title.