Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
System locks developers into forcing return for their dollars
OPINION, CAMPAIGN FOR SYDNEY, A HERALD PROJECT
Planning cities is hard enough, God knows. But once you have a plan – say, hypothetically, that did happen in Sydney – you still need to implement it. How is it done? The main tool kit is development control, also known as urban design – designing the rules that result in the buildings, uses and settlement patterns we want.
Sounds simple? In fact, there’s quite a trick to designing the rules that govern city growth in the desired way and – perhaps more importantly – do not produce an epidemic of unforeseen and undesirable outcomes. It’s not rocket science, but it is complex. And not in the least similar to designing buildings. That’s the first mistake.
We tend to see urban design as architecture writ large. People who do it, therefore, tend to be architects with slightly elevated levels of abstraction and/or megalomania. In fact, though, urban design is the categorical inverse of architecture. If architecture is the yeasted dough, urban design is the mould into which and against which it rises. For a good city outcome, both disciplines must be applied with genuine creative intelligence.
But what really happens is more like events at Duntroon Avenue, St Leonards. The Government, quite rightly, is increasing the density of living across Sydney, but especially at inner-city transport hubs such as St Leonards. So far, so sensible, as many of the residents of the Duntroon Avenue area would likely agree, in principle.
And yet for seven years, and perhaps that many to come, they have fought Australand’s proposal to put a hundred-odd units on a pretty site near the railway line now home to 16 houses. And so far, despite two court appeals, the residents have won.
It smells like nimbyism. And doubtless there’s an element of that. Most people in Sydney probably feel that if they don’t defend their corner, no one will. Underlying the nimbyism, though, and generating so much mistrust between developers and communities, is the way our rules are framed.
In Sydney, since the late 1960s, the main urban design tool is FSR – floor space ratio. We took it from New York, and it tells you how many times you can cover your site with building.
FSR was meant to govern density without prescribing design. Meant, that is, to allow play-space for architecture within a given envelope. But that’s not what it achieves.
It achieves a situation where, as at Duntroon Avenue, the developer feels committed to achieving the FSR (in this case 2.33:1). They feel this commitment because that is how the land is valued. Having purchased on that expectation, they must achieve it; anything less is a loss. So what is meant as a maximum becomes, de facto, a minimum.
That’s what SEPP 65 (State Environmental Planning Policy No. 65 – Design Quality of Residential Flat Development) was supposed to remedy. SEPP 65 mandates all the qualitative stuff such as amenity, appropriate scale and form, integrated landscape design and so on. It struggles valiantly to define “good design” but, since this is impossible, and since such qualities can be neither measured nor built into land valuation systems, SEPP 65 remains essentially toothless.
And this, in turns, sends the most contentious aesthetic decisions – such as a 10-storey building OK in a one-storey suburb – to the courts.
Napoleon, whose what-politics-just-do-it attitude gave us Paris, had this sorted. At Duntroon Avenue, however, the so-called “Paris Option” – a seven-storey slab across the whole site – has already been rejected by the court. And the architect’s alternative, a range of three-to-10 storey buildings, has been roundly rejected by the community.
The answer? The only real answer is to require land valuers to work on something (say 10 per cent) less than the given FSR limit. Only then will developers start to play tag.
Elizabeth Farrelly is the Herald’s architecture and urban planning critic.