Monday Melbourne: CXV, March 2006
Russell Degnan

It is always odd, how sometimes clouds produce amazing colours, and sometimes -- like now -- the dullest greys. This from my window, November 2005

Melbourne Town 27th March, 2006 19:35:54   [#] [1 comment] 

Addicted Romantic - Faker
Russell Degnan

The list your influences on song-writer Nathan Hudson's bio is a pretty neat summary of where Faker come from: the Cure, Blur, the Pixies, the Psychedelic Furs, and Echo and the Bunnymen. They are a band in the best of pop-rock traditions, combining hard and fast beats with choruses that could make any crowd jump and down like right idiots.

Unusually, but perhaps not suprisingly, they aren't a band in the Australian tradition; Hudson's accent while singing could pass for somewhere in London, while the subject matter is pessimistic and tinged with darkness. Not always though; the filmclip to Hurricane is set in the State Library, and several of the songs are more reminiscent of Rhubarb -- pub, rather than pop rock. Unfortunately they are also the weakest songs on the album, being fairly messy and lacking the kind of bite of the best bits.

This isn't a classic album, but it is pretty good, with several standout songs -- especially in the second half -- and a lot of energy.

Track Highlights
Bodies - Two strong chords, drums, and then a guitar solo, to start the album. Very like Placebo at their best.
Quarter to Three - A bit depressing, but otherwise excellent song, with lots to recommend it.
Seizures - Their most complex effort. Also depressing, but everyone sang like this in the mid-90s, so it takes me back.
Hurricane - This song rocks. The best song on the album for the simple reason that the chorus goes off.
Familiar - Another cool chorus. Simple, but pop is simple, and they do it well

Finer Things 27th March, 2006 19:21:21   [#] [1 comment] 

Melbourne 2030 - Planning Rhetoric versus Urban Reality
Russell Degnan

Ch. 5 - Residential Infill and its Threat to Melbourne's Liveability

See also: Ch. 1, Ch. 2, Ch. 3, Ch. 4

In many ways, of all of them, this chapter is the most coherent but least cogent. It makes two assertions, the first, based on the reasoning of previous chapters, that current legislation, the housing market and community preferences, all point towards more 'infill' housing -- medium density housing built on single dwelling blocks. And secondly, that this type of housing is antithetical to Melbourne's liveability and garden suburb nature with many canopy trees.

The first argument is broadly correct. As the authors argue, infill has several advantages. Firstly, cost. Semi-detached medium density houses sell for almost the same price as an old house in the middle and inner suburbs, allowing developers to buy and redevelop many existing properties. Secondly, demand. There are many more people who would like to live in the inner and middle suburbs than can currently, so while they would undoubtedly prefer a large landlot, a terrace house is an acceptable alternative. Thirdly, availability. There are a lot of large lots dotted through these suburbs and with the exception of heritage properties there is nothing in the regulatory environment to stop this.

As I've argued elsewhere high density living is neither necessary nor preferable except perhaps in the CBD and immediate surrounds. The demand for infill that has occured over the past decade and a bit would seem to indicate that people are willing to live in medium density housing when that choice is offered to them. Most importantly though, infill would appear to be a solution to the expected increase in population and household numbers in Melbourne, and the need for more housing that is within reasonable distance of the CBD.

The authors disagree with it as a solution however, and in their second argument we finally dig to the bottom of their real complaint with Melbourne 2030. Apparently, infill housing causes two problems: congestion and a loss of suburban character.

The section on congestion is so short as to be unworthy of mention. It amounts, essentially, to a complaint about the number of cars on the street. To which I can only say: who cares? Seriously. This is a non-issue, especially when it is put against the costs of an ever-expanding suburbia.

The suburban character complaint is more serious, but deeply deceptive. The authors show through a series of photos, urban infill without canopy trees, and older suburban streets with so many trees you can't see the houses. The argument being that infill leaves no room for trees, and the tree canopy suburbs allow. This is complete bullshit.

The pictures they show are real, but I could easily find pictures of suburbs denuded of trees, particularly new suburbs which is essentially what the authors are depicting when they show new infill. And I can also find pictures of medium density streets with extensive tree canopies: Canning Street in Carlton comes to mind, as does Harris Street, North Melbourne, or Harrison Street, Mitcham, and dozens of others. All have extensive flats or terrace houses, all have large trees covering the footpath and roads. To suggest that canopies don't exist in small backyards is to ignore some any number of beer gardens in inner suburbia: The Standard in Fitzroy, or the Town Hall in North Melbourne being but two.

When there is the best part of 30m of public space in front of properties in the form of a public road, the idea that front gardens are essential for tree canopies is ludicrous. Good streetscapes are important, and developers should pay attention to them, but they are not dependent on extensive setbacks, any more than the precious neighbourhood character of Boorondara is dependent on its large number of hedges and six foot fences along the footpath.

The authors argument is deceptive and wrong, associating a particular housing form with a streetscape that can be achieved with the smallest amount of imagination within Melbourne's sufficiently wide thoroughfares. Councils should look to the maintenance of trees on streets better than they do, particularly when infill is occuring. But that is hardly an imposition, and certainly not a reason to dismiss infill as a solution to housing constraints.

Next: Melbourne 2030: The Need for a Fundamental Review

Finer Things 25th March, 2006 18:58:31   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXIV, March 2006
Russell Degnan

St. Mary Star of the Sea. North Melbourne Taken March 2006

Melbourne Town 20th March, 2006 23:30:18   [#] [0 comments] 

The Gastronomic Pub Crawl of North Melbourne
Russell Degnan

With the North Star having been converted into apartments the technical side of the gastronomic pub crawl came to a rather quiet end (we went to the Town Hall instead). But a lack of fanfare would be grossly inappropriate on the blog, with its sense of purpose and mission, and enormous single-digit readership. And so, I will recap, for those of you who missed the early pubs, and because now is as good a time as any to cast judgement instead of being nice.

The Route:

1. The Castle Hotel
2. The Metropolitan Hotel
3. The Keepers Arms
4. The Royal Park Hotel
5. The Leveson Hotel
6. The Three Crowns Hotel
7. The Town Hall Hotel
8. The Court House Hotel
9. The Limerick Castle Hotel
10. The Albion Hotel
11. The Redback Brewery
12. The Village Idiot
13. The Bedford Hotel
14. The Public Bar
15. The Royal Standard Hotel
16. The Hotel Spencer
17. The Maitz Hotel
18. McMahon's Hotel
19. The Railway Hotel
20. Hotel Oz

This was the intended order, those of you who look at dates will notice a couple were out of order because they were closed on first inspection. Such is our dedication that we went back to them later, and a good thing too.

The Hall of Shame:

Victoria Hotel (corner of Victoria and Peel Street) - no meals
Central Club Hotel (corner of Victoria and O'Connell Street) - lunch only

Not every pub serves meals, though every pub should. Suprisingly though, only two never have an evening dinner, and only one (a dodgy back-packers) not at all. With maybe one exception they all sell chicken parmas too.

The Awards

Best Meal
The quality of meals is pretty fine in North Melbourne and a few really stand-out. The Spencer, the Bedford and the Leveson are all outstanding, but there can only be one winner; and that is the Metropolitan $12 Tuesday steak. Not that big, but seriously good.

Best Parma
Some people might say this is the key criteria, but I didn't have a parma everywhere, so I can't judge impartially. A friend of mine says that a good parma is easy, but a great one is hard. He is right; only one really stood out and that was the Leveson. The bartender talked it up, and he wasn't wrong.

Best Deal
Mondays and Tuesdays are full of good deals. The Bedford and Castle deals on those days are the best for over-all quality although the Spencer and Maitz both come close. But for shear value-for-money, day in, day out, the ridiculously large Albion $10 Parma and Pot is unbeatable.

Most Traditional
Yeah, anyone can renovate a pub, but where do you buy the old guys on stools? The Limerick Castle was the rowdiest by far, the Town Hall the cosiest but the winner has to be the Railway. Long bar and plenty of chatty patrons settling in.

Best Interiors
The Courthouse impressed me, as did the Railway, and the Metropolitan. The Village Idiot is the most lavish looking, but I can't go past the Town Hall. Religious pictures in one room, album covers in another, and some great graffiti in the dunnies.

Best Beer Garden
A contest with very few entries. The Town Hall is nice but the Bedford lays the rest to waste. Big, nice trees to shade under, plenty of space, plenty of sun, and somewhere that is very hard to leave on a summer afternoon (trust me).

Friendliest Staff
Tough call. Not many pubs survive long with pricks behind the bar, but a few go the extra mile. The Keepers Arms is good, the Public Bar likewise, and the staff at the Royal Park would have chatted our ear off had we let them. But for that touch of home, the Royal Standard was the go. Such a pity they don't serve evening meals every night of the week.

Best Night Out
By which I mean, for students and other drunks. The Town Hall has bands and a great atmosphere, and the Redback goes off on occasion. The Bedford give the sense that it will be good, but I haven't checked it out, and having watched Australia qualify for a World Cup at the Keeper Arms I would be remiss to not mention that. But if you are looking for a late one, then the latest of the late, and the grungiest of the grungy is without question the Public Bar.

Best Pub
Subjective as this award is, I'll still give it. If the above is any guide then you can see that two stand out above the rest. The Bedford is one, for the great meals, nice beer garden and cruisy atmosphere. But for mind, the best pub in North Melbourne is the one most people would probably think of if they gave the question much mind themselves. For its cozy interiors, great menu (if slow kitchen), entertainment variety and diverse patronage, the winner is The Town Hall Hotel
The Castle HotelThe Metropolitan HotelThe Keepers ArmsThe Royal Park HotelThe Leveson HotelThe Three Crowns HotelThe Town Hall HotelThe Courthouse HotelThe Limerick Castle HotelThe Albion HotelThe Redback HotelThe Village IdiotThe Bedford HotelThe Public BarThe Royal Standard HotelThe Hotel SpencerThe Maitz HotelMcMahonThe Railway HotelHotel Oz

Melbourne Town 19th March, 2006 23:14:15   [#] [5 comments] 

Things I Wish I`d Said (1)
Russell Degnan

Did you report this as lost?

While travelling, like in real-life there are dozens of things you would, in retrospect, have said, given your chance to make amends: "No Salt", "How much?", "Hi", "Do you take bookings?", "Yes, I will be here tonight". But the winner for me, hands down, was the one above.

It all started when I lost my passport. That in itself is not suprising, I lose many things: keys, addresses, mobile phones, my sense of where a sentence is going. But to lose a passport is a pretty bad feeling. Even apart from the sheer stupidity, there is the sense of lost identity, the small matter of having to get it re-issued, the fact that you are effectively unable to leave the country you are in, and are probably now there illegally to boot. It isn't a "No worries" moment like say, falling out of train; people with the ability to do bad things to you take these things seriously.

I lost mine in Kings Cross Station, three days after arriving in London, and one day after I'd learnt that someone had bilked my credit card for $2000AUS. It wasn't exactly turning into a good week. I knew where I'd lost it because that was the only time I'd taken it from my bag (and the reason it later attached itself to my neck instead). But I didn't find out till that evening.

Needless to say I slept like a baby. In that I didn't and I was up at 6am to go down to the lost property office. The guy there was very helpful.

Me: Excuse me, Did you find a brown leather satchel? It has my passport in it.

Him: You need to pay two pounds to get it back.

Me: I need to go to the bank first. But you have it right?

Him: Yes, we have it. But you can't have it back till you pay two pounds.

Sweet relief then. Well, five minutes later anyway. And all's well that ends well, as they say, except I didn't ask him one thing:

Did you report this as lost?

Let me explain. I crossed into Belgium on the sea-cat (rough trip) on September 4th 2001. These were happier times, when you could joke with American customs officials about their silly questions, and they'd tell you how they harass old ladies who say, "Oh, no, my husband packed my bags".

But I got the third degree from the Belgians. He took my passport, ran it up on the computer, then flicked through it a few times. There isn't much to look at. Then he asked me about the Dutch work permit that wasn't valid till October,

You are going to work there?

Yes, but not till October. I am on holiday now

Grumbles, then a chit chat with his fellow official. More grumbles, then, an abrupt shake of the shoulders, and a stamp.

Well, wasn't that fun. Touchy, these Europeans.

Because of the wonders of the Schengen system the next time I used my passport was going back into England, which was a breeze (as far as I remember, it was 4am); followed that evening by a flight out of Heathrow. Needless to say, security had been increased since I'd come in. But even so, the official was a little odd. Like the Belgians, he ran it through, then flicked through it. Then went and talked to his friend, more muttering and grumbling and checking of my photo, before he comes back.

Me: Is there a problem?

Him: No, no problem.


Yeah, no problem at all. Thanks for your help. After two days of flying and no sleep for closer to four, I stumbled into the Tullamarine customs desk, gave the customs official my passport and was told.

Could you go sit over there please?

Well, this is a little... unusual.

While I sat on a hard, clean, plastic seat next to a very irritated Arab-American, a couple of officials perused my passport. They flick, they look at me. More flicking, more looking. And a fairly earnest discussion as well. After about five minutes then came over to talk to me.

Russell, did you lose your passport while you were overseas?

Ah, no.

Well, the computer says your passport is lost.

Oh wait, yes, in London, at Kings Cross. But I got it back the next day.

It is flagged as lost. You need to go to the Dept. of Immigration and get it changed.

And that was that. No anal probes. But a bit too close to one for my liking. So, just so you all know. Having a passport flagged as lost tends to make you less trustworthy. And that isn't a good thing.

Days Spent Away 18th March, 2006 13:06:52   [#] [0 comments] 

Heritage protection for our Planning legislation
Russell Degnan

The February edition of Planning News [1] was interesting because it included not one but two underwhelming articles on the Productivity Commission report on Heritage places. While both Marcus Spiller and Chris Gallagher were quick to point out that the report recommended that private properties not be put on the market without the owner's consent, neither bothered to explain why, even, in Gallagher's case, going so far as to distort the key findings in a way that ignores the most important one.

For what it is worth, that was as follows:

"Prescriptive regulation can lead to ineffective, inefficient and inequitable outcomes, particularly for less significant (marginal) places. Typically, the regulations restrict development and use, which can inappropriately and unnecessarily erode property rights and values. There is little, or no:

- restraint on the tendency to list all properties identified with heritage values, irrespective of degree of significance; and

consideration of the added conservation costs (of operation, maintenance and use restrictions)."

This is subtantially broader than merely saying that "statutory listing of individual places can create unfair burdens on owners". It points to fundamental flaws in the current process listing of properties that seriously question whether heritage is providing a net community benefit.

The rest of her article is no better, from somehow claiming that the PC view:

"Heritage controls are seen, on the other hand, as restrictions which have an impact on a property's potential uses and capital value, generating community-wide benefits at the expense of the owner"

is different to the Heritage Council view that:

"Heritage controls are part and parcel of the evolution of planning controls aimed at delivering community benefits and are now broadly accepted component of the operation of the property market in Victoria"

The only difference being a shocking acceptance of the status quo without reference to its flaws and side-effects.

What is far more relevant, is that unless we hold some expectation that the heritage rules will change in the future, heritage listing is theoretically forever. The fact that only 5% of owners complain about being listed is irrelevant over the long-term. Owners will generally be in favour of listing because they (like their neighbours) support the current streetscape staying the same. However, future residents and developers (which are really potential residents), will not necessarily hold the same view, be it two, forty, or four-hundred years hence. The fact that the current community supports strong heritage controls, or that most current owners don't request funding support, is equally irrelevant. At some point, the cost of heritage protection will fall on someone, in ownership of an under-developed property, and with very little scope for improvements (even moderate ones) that have been the norm in every city in the world until very, very recently.[2]

Marcus Spiller takes a different tack, equally conservative, but in a way that aims to protect planners from having to consider releasing the reins of power. He argues that Australia has no fundamental development rights, but rather, they are "granted by the community". While this is right in a strict legal sense, it is also a furphy. If Victoria truly had no "rights" then the system would be entirely in the domain of political fiat and public protest. The existence of planning schemes, decision guidelines and VCAT are proof that regardless of the planners belief in their own godliness they are subject to legal restrictions, and development rights exist, if not in fact, at least as a reasonable expectation.

What the PC is saying is quite clear. The absence of proper development rights is raising the costs of development through inefficient bureaucratic planning legislation, and ill-defined community consultation processes. That this applies to areas of planning other than heritage is a given, but it is worth starting somewhere. Heritage, being related to matters of aestheticism and the preferences of neighbouring properties for historic styles, is one of the most arbitrary aspects of the planning scheme, and by corollary, one of the most in need of reform.

Which is not to say I agree with the productivity commission completely, but it is worth making these points:
1) Heritage imposes a cost on property owners for the benefit of surrounding residents and the broader community. There are dozens of potential ways to defray those costs using market mechanisms, some of which do involve negotiation with the owner. A further exploration of that can wait till another day.
2) Contrary to what the lunatic fringe of various heritage groups might think, the broader community doesn't want toy-town suburbs of old heritage housing, so much as an improvement in the built form. It is easy to forget that in the 19th century a lot of poor buildings were built because they no longer exist. As I have argued elsewhere, the best type of heritage is not strict listing, but a net-improvement requirement in historic and architectural quality. This would be very subjective, but is certainly no more subjective than current heritage provisions.

[1] Not online of course, who'd join the PIA if it was?
[2] A note too, on the call for "Commonwealth funding of large scale heritage precincts". No kidding, this is a disgrace. Shutting the gates on their own neighbourhood to development (thereby raising housing costs) is one thing, but to actually ask the rest of the country to pay for it...

Sterner Matters 17th March, 2006 23:06:09   [#] [2 comments] 

Kitchen Tea Thankyou - Minimum Chips
Russell Degnan

It is somewhat suprising that a band of this quality can be around for ten years and only be releasing its first full-length LP, but somehow Minimum Chips have managed it. Needless to say they aren't a mainstream band. Prior to this album, the two songs I'd heard were the maundering Friends and Niccone; the latter because as the background music to the ACMI/NGV 2004 exhibition I heard it (and loved it) a lazy forty times in a week. [1]

Their album, helpfully found in its entirety on their website, has no songs quite that good, but is a dreamy, pleasant listen nonetheless. Marked by the consistently high and long notes of Nicole Thibault and the even longer organ playing, Minimum Chips are a band apart from most others. Their music conjures up images of couples relaxing near rivers, or in medieval city streets, filling in for dialog in movies where the writers know better than to try. Despite the shortness of most songs, Minimum Chips have no pretensions of radio airplay (RRR excepted), and as such, there are no songs that really standout. But you won't regret a listen. Defintely worth the time it takes to download their back catalogue off their website.

[1] For those wondering, Friends and Niccone can be found on the SBS Whatever Sessions I and II

Track Highlights
Marble Arch Funky, syncopated combination of guitar, organ and singing to create a neat package.
Nic Nax Slowly, slowly, grows on your consciousness. Increasing the beat and depth till you drown in it.
Treats The longest song by far. A fascinating mix of jazz-inspired percussion, synths, organ and guitar.
Goodbye Great upbeat tune that sounds like the musical interlude of a Doors song, without the belted out chorus to bookend it.

Finer Things 14th March, 2006 00:26:29   [#] [5 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: CXIII, March 2006
Russell Degnan

The West Gate Bridge from the Yarra. Taken November 2005

Melbourne Town 13th March, 2006 23:04:50   [#] [0 comments] 

Pithy Comments on Public Transport
Russell Degnan

Free Public Transport is ridiculously unjust, favouring existing infrastructure at the expense of old, and inner-city residents (funnily enough, also rich Age readers) at the expense of outer-suburban and country people. No doubt the same supporters will also look down on them for driving everywhere and not being "sustainable". It also overlooks the fact that significant numbers of p/t services are already congested.

Discrimination against outer suburbs depends on how you define an outer suburb. I find it hard to believe only $86m was spent in outer suburbs on public transport. According to the budget papers and Track Record, while useless for a decent analysis of cross-subsidies in p/t shows that trams (the quintessential inner-suburban transport mode), are being subsidised $136m to move 146m passengers, while buses get $308m to carry 94.8m passengers. The inner suburbs might be decently subsidised but at least it isn't wasted.

Fare evasion is a touchy issue. People want evaders hung, drawn and quartered (the government commissions surveys with this specific question), but hate the way transport inspectors operate (they'd like them hung drawn and quartered with more respect). As I've said before, collecting money for a service should be the responsibility of the service provider. Fines are not an appropriate way to collect money from people, and it should be up to the operators (or the out-sourced ticketing providers) to find the most cost-effective way to charge people.

Cycling might finally gain some currency in the endless debate over funding for roads against public transport. Given some 300,000 people live within 5km of the CBD and another 650,000 within 10km, walking and cycling should be the commuting option of first resort for a lot more than the current 2-5%. But it won't happen if it continues to be viewed as a third-choice option behind other, more visible, and more demanding, road users.

Developing around, on and over railways, roads, and car-parks is a great idea, if it is cost-effective. Melbourne is nowhere near as dense as Hong Kong or London, so it is not short of land. The sort of developments Greg Hunt talks about could happen, but don't hold your breath. You'd need to start taxing under-developed land before existing owners could see any benefit in doing developments of questionable worth. And that's before they hit the planning system and irate Hollywood actors.

Sterner Matters 12th March, 2006 17:08:48   [#] [9 comments] 

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