Critics are concerned Plan Melbourne’s renewed push for development in activity centres combined with reformed residential zones will damage the city’s distinctive heritage.

Key changes to residential zones, which came into effect on Monday, mean there will be a mandatory height limit of nine metres (two storeys) and no cap on dwellings per block in neighbourhood residential zones and a mandatory height limit of 11 metres (three storeys) in general residential zones. In addition, both zones will have mandatory garden space requirements.

The changes are linked to the state government’s refreshed Plan Melbourne, a blueprint for developing the suburbs until 2050.

According to RMIT planning expert Michael Buxton, the Plan Melbourne refresh is full of contradictions and there’s problems in its generality, which will impact on heritage.

“It’s making clear that it’s going to develop activity centres and commercial mixed use zones without any limitation on development,” Professor Buxton says. “And it’s got a series of policies which are aimed to deregulate the process of approvals for activity centres and main streets.”

However, that’s exactly where Melbourne’s 19th century heritage shops are located.

“You’ve got wonderful heritage along places like Glenferrie Road (Hawthorn), Brunswick Street (Fitzroy) and so on with thousands of existing shops,” Buxton says.

“Protecting the heritage of shops by preventing redevelopment is going to have a marginal impact on the total dwelling yield for all of the metropolitan area but a really high benefit in terms of protecting heritage.

“You don’t have to go ahead and pull down the heritage shops in order to achieve dwelling targets, but the government has adopted policies aimed at developing activity centres in these urban zones without any heritage constraints.”

Heritage can be protected, says PCA

The Property Council’s Victorian executive director Sally Capp says there are plenty of heritage streetscapes, even along Bridge Road in densely populated Richmond, where the heritage has been preserved with some density above.

“We would welcome more of that,” she says. “While we are obviously very supportive of supporting heritage we do note that the opportunities for growth in density are very limited at the moment so we do see the market taking advantage of those very small areas.”

Limited residential growth zones lead to “walls”

With less than one per cent of Melbourne’s municipalities classed as residential growth zones, Capp says those zones become quite concentrated with higher density.

“Along some of those main roads that are the residential growth zones where there’s discretion to go up … people are taking the opportunity to really leverage some density in those particular spots,” she says.

“And it’s important from a supply perspective that we do enable there to be an appropriate increase in density.

“By having such a small concentrated area for increased density it means that you are going to get what some people call almost like ‘a wall’ along those main strips with the rest of the neighbourhood sprawling out behind them and that’s really a reflection of the very high concentration of those residential growth zones.”

Neighbourhoods lose out

Buxton criticises the government for falsely emphasising its introduction of a mandatory height limit in the neighbourhood residential zone, when in fact it is increasing an already existing mandatory height.

“The government is selling this on the basis that they’re introducing mandatory heights,” he says. “Well, in the neighbourhood residential zones, they’re actually liberalising an existing mandatory height from eight to nine metres – it’s quite a false claim.”

In addition, they have changed the limit of dual dwellings on a block to medium density housing.

“So it’s a liberalisation in both ways – to increase height and a move to multiunit development in the neighbourhood residential zone,” Buxton says.

“What the government is really doing is facilitating private sector development through the liberalisation of zones revisions.

“I think the government has bought the Property Council’s argument that the neighbourhood residential zone locked up large areas of the city.”

When combined with the minimum garden area requirement, Buxton believes that the increased mandatory height and the introduction of multiunit development will see very little increase in the number of dwellings.

“The yield is probably going to be about equal,” he says. “So the immediate question is, why would you bother?”

Buxton believes that heritage will lose out.

“It’s certainly going to have an impact on amenity and the loss of heritage.”

The neighbourhood residential zone is applied to land that has been identified as having specific neighbourhood, heritage, environmental or landscape character values. Many of the NRZ properties are covered by heritage overlay, but Buxton says it’s a weak overlay and doesn’t protect heritage all that effectively.

“The neighbourhood residential zone had a much bigger impact and when combined with the heritage overlay was effective in protecting the existing dwelling on the lot,” he said. “So the introduction of the possibility of multiunit development and the weak heritage overlay is definitely going to lead to increased pressure for demolishing existing heritage dwellings in the neighbourhood residential zone.”

City of Boroondara mounts attack

Indeed, the City of Boroondara, in Melbourne’s leafy east, is deeply concerned. The mayor Phillip Healey says the minister’s unilateral decision to fundamentally change the residential zones framework lacks transparency, accountability and justification.

“We are very concerned that the removal of the dwelling density requirement in the neighbourhood residential zone will result in more intensive in-fill development in areas that were previously identified for minimal change to preserve their character,” he says.

Capp says she has not seen anything in the reforms to suggest that they override existing protections.

“Sometimes the devil’s in the detail, but there’s nothing we’ve seen to say that in doing that it overrides heritage protection,” she says.

“People wanting to develop on the sites still have to comply with other normal planning requirements but it does mean you’ve got an opportunity within those planning requirements to do more than the two dwellings per block.”

According to Capp, the Plan Melbourne refresh acknowledges that 70 per cent of the population is going to be living in existing areas so we must find ways in which to accommodate that population.

“So lifting the cap on the number of dwellings per block is certainly a welcome step towards an appropriate uplift in density.”

Together with the height limits and the mandatory garden requirements, the reformed residential zones reach a fair balance between protecting suburban character and catering for growth, Capp says.

“We acknowledge that the purpose of doing that was to give some assurance to people living in neighbourhoods that their streetscape and the character of their neighbourhood would be controlled somewhat, if there is the opportunity for increased density.”

Aged care and retirement villages may be exempt

According to Capp, planning minister Richard Wynne has recognised that the new height controls will have an impact on planned aged care and retirement developments.

“The minister is going to consider exempting those from the height limits because one of the really big issues we’ve got in existing neighbourhoods is there’s very, very limited opportunities for retirees and people wanting aged care to actually stay in their neighbourhood,” she says.

“Because we really lack a diversity of housing stock … a lot of those people are staying put in very big family homes because they are not able to access appropriate housing in the neighbourhoods in which they live.”

General dismay over three storeys

The previous general residential zone had a discretionary height limit. Councils could have a mandatory height but they had to introduce it through a schedule to the zone. Some introduced a height of nine metres. However, the new mandatory height will be 11 metres.

“[The government] can basically get away with claiming that they have introduced a mandatory height right across the zone, but it is a compromised claim – let’s put it that way,” Buxton says.

Healey says the new height will allow developers to build apartment-style complexes up to the mandatory height limit irrespective of the established character of the area.

The Property Council would like to see more residential growth zones identified so that there’s not such a concentration of density in such a small space, or look at adjusting the height controls in the general and neighbourhood zones.

“We acknowledge that it’s good to give residents some sense of comfort over the way their neighbourhood is going to be protected,” Capp says. “But there’s also … the reality that we have a very fast growing population and we want to accommodate the majority of them in existing suburbs.”

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