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High rise 'in-spansion' and community neighbourhoods

By Ross Elliott - posted Tuesday, 10 August 2010


The decision by Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman to compulsorily (if necessary) acquire a major inner city development site so that it can be used for public open space might have plenty of people in the planning and development industry shaking their heads in disapproval. I won’t be one of them.

Lord Mayor Campbell Newman’s bold move to purchase the disused Milton Tennis Centre site in inner city Brisbane for public parkland has been welcomed by a host of so called NIMBY groups in the area, who opposed high density development. 

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The 3.5-hectare site had been acquired by a prominent developer and had existing planning approval for a range of development to around seven storeys in height. The developer was in the process of seeking planning approval to increase the development density to closer to 20 storeys for the tallest towers. That proposal was generally consistent with the stated intentions of the State Government’s infill strategy under their regional plan, which sought to deliver much greater density throughout the Brisbane area, especially for sites close to transit infrastructure - otherwise know as transit-oriented development, or TODs (as is the Milton site).

But the scale of development proposed did not sit well with local residents. Community opposition in the area was widespread - it was the talk of the supermarket aisles on the weekends and school pickup zones during the week. An active NIMBY group campaigned aggressively against more high density development in the area and they’ll be congratulating themselves on a win right about now.

But the decision goes deeper than simple local community opposition, however vociferous. It highlights some of the inevitable conflicts of a State-imposed regional plan which mandates higher density, and a community which hasn’t bought the talk. The decision, I think, was a good one for this local area, given the scale of development which will take place in and around the Milton area in years to come. It signaled that the Mayor is acutely aware that higher densities will mean more pressure on open space. And it also signaled that there is still a place for democracy in public policy, as opposed to the imposition by elites of mandated policy dogma.

On the flip side, it reinforces the legitimacy of political intervention in planning matters. In this instance, a Mayor made a good decision, in the community interest. But other politicians have notably made some very poor interventionist decisions, and not always in the community’s best interest.

The decision also exposes the failures of the density advocates to win public support for their case. This is ultimately the highest test for public policy in a democratic system. The alternative is a Soviet-style system where elites dictate direction without reference to the will of the people (or without reference to basic fundamentals of economics, or of market demand).

But perhaps most of all, the decision throws into question a range of issues which have yet to be resolved, except for the "pro" and "anti" rhetoric of the protagonists. Clarity, and community agreement are, it seems, a long way off. Consider the following:

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The Milton Tennis site is only 500 metres away from the proposed "The Milton" high rise residential tower. This tower has been approved for 30 storeys, after being "called in" by the state government Planning Minister as a "matter of state significance". Ironically, the existing town plan for the area permits less than 20 storeys, but a draft neighborhood plan by the council would have allowed 20 storeys. It’s now approved for 30, because the proponent succeeded in convincing the state government that this was something of great importance to the state. Will other high density proposals required to meet the density targets of a regional plan be equally important, and receive the same treatment?

Part of that argument no doubt rested on the need for at least some transit-oriented developments to see the light of day. A decade of discussion has achieved precious little, which would be an embarrassment to the succession of plans and planning reviews which have hailed TODs as the urban planning equivalent of a second coming. Having faith is one thing, but there’s a desperate need for TOD advocates to attend at least one ribbon cutting ceremony, at some stage, to vindicate themselves. "The Milton" looks like it will be "the chosen One".

Anyone who thought that actual planning permission for a particular site could be found in a local town planning document would be mightily confused. The 30-storey Milton tower gets an OK despite community objection and a planning scheme which provides much reduced height restriction, while 500 metres away a site with existing approval for around seven storeys gets the opposite treatment - it’s to be resumed and turned into parkland.

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About the Author

Ross Elliott is an industry consultant and business advisor, currently working with property economists Macroplan and engineers Calibre, among others.

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