Fitting a public square in a private triangle
Russell Degnan

What conclusions should you draw about planning in Melbourne, when an architecturally progressive development that hints at and preserves local heritage, adds to public space, and provides significant local amenity, built over a derelict and ugly building site that has been an eyesore for the better part of four decades, attracts thousands of innumerable celebrities in protest, while hundreds of horrid concrete slabs, devoid of pedestrians, character or life itself, bloom like a thousand weeds around the outer suburban road network with nary a raised eyebrow?

There are innumerable reasons why the site has become the focal point of community outrage, but few seem to relate to the development itself, rather than the general under-current of change, the planning process generally, and the expectation of residents for the site.

The shops became a major point of contention. The scale of the development scared local retailers, fearing for their slice of the local economy. Perhaps for a few businesses this is right, but it is just as likely the added attraction will add to their customer base, and few future changes will be attributable to this development, rather than something else.

More complex is the response of residents. An emotional attachment to a place through its culture of shops, architecture and people is an essential aspect of urban life, but like children, places invariably grow and change. Theoretically, it might be possible to prevent aspects of these changes, but it would require more severe planning laws than we have, and that we would accept. Instead, we can only make choices that slow or hasten change.

Ironically, the proud defenders of St Kilda's eclectic heritage seem determined to prevent something that may slow, not hasten change. They protested the range of shops, worried about chain stores, and no doubt the clientele. When the developer promised not to allow them - a move of questionable legal basis - the protests shifted to the number. Neither complaint makes sense if residents want to protect a retail culture in St Kilda. St Kilda is an attractive place for retail businesses. The residents are young, increasingly wealthy, and it is nearby other, even more attractive, areas. Up market shops and chain stores will increasingly invade St Kilda's streets and it is not possible to stop them pushing other businesses out of Fitzroy or Acland Street. But it is possible to create space for them, lowering rents across the suburb, and slowing the rate of change. The triangle development provides this space, enhancing, not out-competing the retail shopping strips.

The legal challenge ahead seems to rely on interpretation of more mundane planning issues. But here, the case is flimsy. From the report produced by Prof. Roz Hansen the main claims seem to be that:

  • "[T]he site was not a designated activity centre under the Melbourne 2030 planning scheme and local planning guidelines failed to support the inclusion of 25,000 square metres of retail space."

A completely spurious claim. St Kilda is a major activity centre, and this includes both Acland and Fitzroy Streets, respectively 200 and 500m from the site. That the planning scheme doesn't propose substantial new retail space is equally irrelevant. If buildings were only built as anticipated by the planning scheme most major developments would need to include amendments to the scheme.

  • "The level of development envisaged in the UDF was for a public recreational space and not a massive commercial development"

Semantics, semantics. The Urban Design Framework makes no claims of size. It specifically asks for the triangle site to be "sympathetic" to the visual and spatial qualities of public open space. But it also refers to the triangle site as an "activity node", and regardless of the intention of the UDF the state government has always been quite clear that the site was for commercial development with public space included. A matter that relates to the last claim:

  • "The broad grounds of the challenge will include the proposal's failure to comply with the [...] public purpose requirements of the St Kilda Triangle Act"

The St Kilda Triangle Act is quite clear here:

"The committee of management of the St Kilda triangle land may grant a lease of that land for the purpose of the construction or use of buildings, works, facilities or public open space for retail, tourism, entertainment, commercial or cultural purposes."

Clearly, what has been told to the residents in public meetings hasn't matched what has gone into the planning of the site. And herein lies the problem. The public clearly believe they have some claim on the site, because it is iconic (heritage buildings being quasi-public in nature), because the land is Crown land, and because of the important position of the site in relation to the foreshore. The state government and council have left the developer to produce their vision, and unsurprisingly the developer has proposed something that maximises their value from the site. Arguably, as always, parcels of land could have prevented a development of this size, but parcels reduce the grandiosity of the vision.

What the residents want, in other words, is to develop the site, their way, through state government funding. To inundate an area already teeming with cultural spaces with more cultural spaces. I don't disagree that it presents an attractive vision, but it is grossly naive in thinking it deserves such largesse, when so many other places go without anything.

Some years ago, I posted on the planning process for this site, but left open the question of whether heavy handed planning seeking particular outcomes was actually beneficial. Now, I think, I can say no. In a pattern repeated in Docklands, Southbank, QV and others, the consolidation of large sites, for significant and prescribed outcomes has always produced the same thing: large, commercially orientated development, where the sheer cost and scale prevents any close scrutiny of the little things that matter.

Moreover, the expectations raised by the consultation and planning process lend themselves to these sort of excessive outcries over fundamentally reasonable proposals. It is not healthy for the planning process, not even particularly democratic, and certainly not helpful for a developer who rather than being granted some sort of certainty has become a political and legal football.

In each of the cases cited above, there was a fundamental tension between the intimate scale the residents wanted (and the planners hinted they might be getting), and the major retail, housing and business hubs that were created. The public space in each case varies from very good to poor, though none is so bad as that found in less prominent locations, and each has grown on people as they accustomed themselves to it. As with those places, the St Kilda triangle was destined to be a large development from the moment the State government closed the Lower Esplanade, parceled the land together, and wrote an act allowing practically any commercial or entertainment use.

Ultimately, though, and as I've said before, these developments would be much improved if governments stop reneging on their responsibility to the aspect that really matters: the provision and protection of public space. At the commercial end, encouraging unrealistic public expectations about likely development only brings trouble when commercial reality intrudes.

Sterner Matters 10th February, 2008 19:41:00   [#] 


Fitting a public squares in a private triangle
It is hard to argue against such a well thought out post and such reasoned thinking. One point, while the young and wealthy may well be on board, it seems to be the older and comfortable who are doing the work against the proposal.

For the action group, the retail is just an angle they are using. Using empathy, what they don't want is even more anti social behaviour on their streets and weekend crowds, probably turning into weekday crowds too. They could cope with the odd addict on the street, a drunken aboriginal and grungy (well not so grungy these days) types who visit The Espy. They knew they were moving to or living in an edgy area.

But 3000 people in nightclubs on your doorstep surely is the real point, along with increased traffic and parking issues.

For mine, water tanks on the top of a renovated Palais to water lovely green grass, trees and curving paths on the rest of the site. The Palais is not about to fall down. No rush.
Andrew  10th February, 2008 22:10:48  

Fitting a public squares in a private triangle
Thanks Andrew.

You make a fair point on the nightclubs, though like the retail, I think it offers opportunities too. The foreshore is a vastly preferable site for drunkards than Fitzroy or Acland Streets, so it allows council to tighten residential controls in those areas on the basis of a nearby activity node.

I'm very laissez faire when it comes to planning, but these sort of changes to the dynamic do tend to balance out over time. There wil still be plenty of people who hate it, but the site will be well used I am sure, and eventually hardly anyone will remember what all the fuss was about.

Naturally it must be so. If people did remember the fuss over planning issues we'd never plan the way we do. Rehashing the same issues over and over again.
Russ  12th February, 2008 13:07:55  

Fitting a public square in a private triangle
The major flaw of the BBC's Triangle proposal ignores the urban place-making value of the site. The Triangle is, by world standards, unique. It is at the city's water edge languishing alongside one of the world's precious seaside boulevards. Not only is the Palais a reminder of Marvelous Melbourne, the seascape and its adjoing topography lend itself to the very reason why anyone wants to visit St. Kilda. I accept that social norms change. But does the commodification of a place necessarily guarantees its nobility. I remind you that the derelict Les Halles in Paris is being replaced by a very large garde, not nightclubs, shops, boutique hotel, cinema complex, a token educational instituion and a faux gallery.
I really think that we have a pathological problem here, as a people we don't love our cities the way others do. We certainly can't cope with open spaces without stuffing them with commercial bric-a-brac.
Alex Njoo  13th February, 2008 16:49:43  

Fitting a public square in a private triangle
Alex, I don't necessarily disagree with your comment, but your reasoning is flimsy.

Les Halles is a classic case study of the difficulties of turning a commercial space - a market remember - into public open space. The two feed off each other, and should be understood in relation to each other. Contrary to what you seem to think, neither the Forum des Halles nor the gardens above are being substantially modified from their existing uses. However, the canopy being built as part of the renovations will include "a museum, a music conservatory, restaurants and shops"...

Nor is the Palias a reminder of "Marvellous Melbourne" - an era that ended with the depression of the 1890s - but of St Kilda's days as a fashionable beach--side resort built for the entertainment of Melbourne's masses. There is a fairly strong thread connecting the Palais de Danse, the Palace and whatever entertainment this development brings. And its a thread that hangs heavy with baser pleasures and the commercial exploitation of the tourist trade along the foreshore. In that sense, its role as an urban place is to attract as many people as possible. Done well or not, this proposal will do that.
Russ  14th February, 2008 01:51:22