Tuesday, December 16, 2014

When is temporary really temporary?

Once again (15 December, 2014) Hobart City Council Aldermen have taken yet another leap of faith on a planning matter, and approved the first stage of transitional planning amendments for the site on the Hobart waterfront known as Macquarie Point, contained in the Sullivans Cove Planning Scheme.  You may know it as the old Railyards.  It is also known in planning circles as Activity Area 3.0.

Tellingly, this leap of faith was in the absence of even the sketchiest of draft Master Plans for the site.

The planning technocracy argued that to wait until even March of 2015 for a draft Master Plan will lock up the site from all human activity, despite also their contra advice to the Development and Environment Services Committee that development applications for temporary works could be lodged as needed. 

So anyone who argues that festivals, or tram renovation or men’s sheds or art displays would be excluded between now and March, when a draft Master Plan is first expected to emerge from its chrysalis, clearly has a comprehension deficit.  Seriously, it’s as if people have never heard of delegated planning authority for certain minor uses and activities.  Oh, but that was considered too hard to do, even for three months or six months, while the draft Master Plan starts to gently fan its drying wings prior to taking flight in the area of public consultation.

This now means that controls on heights, landscaping and uses have all now been put aside or watered down.  So where will any capacity of comparison of past, present and future reside?

It has been claimed that temporary buildings will only be temporary for 5 years and this will be “set in stone”.  Forgive me, but given the planning, building and plumbing requirements for a building, who would spend any money on a development if they knew it would be removed in five years?  Of course, extensions would be sought.  Hobart City Council has a proud history of granting extensions for all sorts of things.

This is where a little history of Tasmania’s economy and state of governance has to be taken into account, as there’s a lot of awful historical buildings in Hobart (and we’re not talking Georgian sandstone here) that has persisted through the preservative effects of economic depression.

Great plans, lots of fanfare, pollie photo ops, and then the Australian economy cycles down again.  Or some developer tries to seize the planning debate with a state of the art convention centre and hotel and we all get locked up in adversarial planning tribunal proceedings and nothing is eventually achieved, other than the economy resurging from all the fees paid to lawyers and planners and experts.

And given the state of the Tasmanian and Australian economy, who is to say any development needing significant planning discretion will not be promoted by a government wanting to be seen to be “open for business” well before the sealing of any Master Plan of the rail yards as a key site?  Mind you, “open for business” is getting a whole new meaning in Tasmania lately (as the Cenotas proponents are finding out), but even so, the risks are enormous of yet another convention centre/marina/hotel/time-shared apartments development horror when a government is desperate for a good news story.

And give the quality of governance that comes to real estate development by Tasmanian governments, who is to say what uses will or will not prejudice the future long term development of the area? 

(Watch and learn, oh gentle reader, when the impending kerfuffle over the Mawson Hut Museum development becomes public as its temporary planning permissions expires and it is made to shift off site over at Key Site 5.  I sense an impending media offensive against the Council’s current refusal to extend the lease beyond the original temporary time limits.)

Back at the Railyards site, pounds to peanuts, there will be significant resistance when uses (for this, read car parks) that people want become entrenched, and then similarly, are attempted to be moved on in favour of installing, say, a cycle way connection.

And some of you with very long memories may remember the planning concerns that were raised over the wheat silos (later converted to the Silos Apartments that from the front bear little resemblance to their earlier incarnation, perhaps being better suited to the Gold Coast or the Toaster of Sydney Harbour infamy).  Anyone remember the site development plan that was proffered by the developer then?  Leading planning proponents decried its content, as it simply provided a somewhat (at the time) illiterate rubber stamp for what was built on the site.

There is such a history of getting to wrong on the Hobart waterfront.

And it is not as if permits cannot be given by delegation to ensure land contamination investigation and decontamination works to go ahead as needed (that would be a far simpler amendment to the Sullivans Cove Planning Scheme).  This is not an argument for onerous bureaucracy, rather for developing a streamlined best practice process badly needed for all of Tasmania’s planning processes.

Ensuring appropriate planning considerations are in place before any significant development on the site is a laudable aim – indeed it is essential that planning controls guide any development proposals.  But is removing existing planning controls in the way being suggested prior to even the comfort of a draft Master Plan represent the best way to go?

And here’s another thing.  If you have a site that is needing a new look, and you’re on the public record as saying you’re all about public consultation, why then would you not also want any public consultation (people actually meeting face to face) on these sorts of transitional changes?  A three week consultation period is being suggested via websites and the old analog of newspaper advertising.  But no public meeting, oh no, we don’t want that.  Which is curious, given the exhaustive public meetings have been held so far on what is wanted to happen to the site.

Why do I smell Ministerial intervention in the offing?  It happened recently when the MPDC was warned off by the Minister over proposing universities from around the world becoming tenants on the site.  Is this what is holding up the draft Master Plan?

So here’s the thing.

A good planning process would indicate having even the sketchiest of a draft Master Plan in place before deciding to ditch any existing planning controls.  Having a draft Master Plan in place would give a deal of comfort over the relevance of or retaining of, any existing planning controls.  Right now, a decision has been made akin to shining a weak torch around a massive warehouse.  You see some things, but not the whole of the area in context.

Yes, it is acknowledged that the preferred future for the area is now for mixed use development opportunities consistent with the Macquarie Point Development Corporation Act 2012.  No issues with that.  However, does that mean we should water down the Activity Area 3.0 provisions before the final uses can be settled on?  And given the quantity and quality of changes to the provisions, isn’t this in effect a de facto draft Master Plan?  So what is holding up the cutting and pasting of a draft Master Plan document?

Surely after all the public consultation that has occurred, the Macquarie Point Development Corporation should be able to formulate a set of draft Master Plan site activity statements that reflect preferred heights, uses and activities, etc that have emerged?  It is not as if they don’t have access to planning advice from the expertise of Hobart City Council.

After all, it is the Hobart City Council’s officers who have drafted up the transitional planning changes – imagine if they had been able to devote such energies into assisting the workers at the MPDC?  It is not as if there is a demand for a fully fledged site development plan – that is something that should emerge well after the planning reassessment is done and dusted and a Master Plan is finalised.

What does concern me is that in the absence of planning controls, development applications that are meant to be temporary will exceed the sorts of heights and setbacks that will fit well in the area, and end up becoming permanent fixtures. 

Heights and setbacks against what is recognised as the edge of the Cenotaph (the “topographical wall”) or against existing heritage buildings were controlled but now, if a development application is lodged, and we know the sorts of discretions asked for by various of developers, what happens then when a significant discretion is asked for, because after all, “no one complained about the temporary buildings”?

What does concern me is that in the absence of real income for the site (given the budget model for the MPDC is a zero budget by the end of its stewardship, that car parking will become a de facto income stream and become a permanent feature in the absence of any Master Plan statements on permitted, discretionary or prohibited uses.  Carparking become a permitted used for 5 years, otherwise then is “discretionary”. 

What does concern me is that uses currently deemed “discretionary”, such as an arts and cultural centre, research and development centre, offices, markets and suchlike, are now going to be deemed temporary uses for five years or otherwise prohibited. So tell me, whose going to invest with such a limitation, and then do we then see after five years no proposals forthcoming, so a Master Plan is written that excludes them out? 

Yes, public art requires no permission, as neither does land decontamination works.  So are we looking forward to five years of decontamination works screened by public art as other proposals are scared off by the lack of certainty and having to jump the hoops of the now changed objectives and performance criteria?

What does concern me is that landscaping controls are being weakened, such that the careful control of landscaping at the entry point to the City of the Brooker Highway-Davey Street-Tasman Highway nexus will be lost.  It was hard enough in the past to get landscaping controls to try and cover up the bare walls and wire security fence of the now disused Ports Cool Store under the now-defunct planning controls. 

(Ah, I remember one now dead Alderman insisting the Ports Cool Store building would be in use for many, many years, it was inconceivable it would no longer be used for purpose.  And that was only twelve or so years ago!)

What does concern me is that transport is no longer a prime use of the site – so what happens to cycling?  What happens to light rail opportunities?  What happens to having a tram connection between the City and the Royal Botanical Gardens?  Because transport is downgraded, does it preclude using the site for cycleways, light rail, etc.  What possible future uses are now being written out of the final Master Plan?

What does concern me is the downgrading of importance of access to the working port.  What is exactly meant by “adequate” access to the working port?  Has anyone any idea of the crucial role transport to the working port plays in Tasmania’s $187 million dollars a year plus Antarctic and Southern Oceans industry?  Or the burgeoning resupply and tourism benefits of the cruise ship industry?

And what does really concern me is that there is no guarantee that the relevant careful planning controls built up with experience and knowledge, which have had significant support through the public consultation process over the years, but will no longer be in existence, will make their way back into future planning documents (ie the Master Plan, the Site Development Plan).  Yes, the site will change in its uses and you match planning accordingly, but not this way.  Not in this “arse-about” process.

I can’t say it’s been a good move.  In fact, I voted against it and I suggest that sadly I’ll have the pleasure of saying “I told you so” in a decade’s time, and not for the first time, over planning issues around the waterfront.

So have a read of the report, make your own mind up, and ask yourself the question.  Is this a good planning process for one of the most significant development sites in our City, give Tasmania’s economic and political history?  Will we get the good outcomes the public has been building up its hopes for?

Agenda meeting 8 December 2014 Item 6.2.1

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