The Commons apartment building in the inner Melbourne suburb of Brunswick has won swags of awards, including the Best of Best at the 2014 BPN Sustainability Awards. Among its many lauded attributes is its total lack of on-site car parking.
Residents get a yearly public transport ticket and membership of a car share scheme with a prepaid usage allowance. A share car is located on the street in front of the building. Cycling is the fastest mode of transport into the city, so there are 76 bike spaces for just 24 apartments.
The council waived the car parking requirement on the proviso that no on-street parking permits would ever be issued to residents. More than 620 people are on the waiting list for a Commons-type apartment. The proponents, Breathe Architecture, thought they’d do The Commons again, across the road. With the Nightingale they intended to add a bicycle maintenance service as part of the package.
Again Moreland City Council waived the requirement for car parking. But the neighbouring site owner, a developer, objected on the grounds that a reduction in car parking was acceptable but not a full waiver. The matter went to appeal.
The Nightingale proponents and supporters were shocked when Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) member Russell Byard agreed with the developer and revoked the planning permit.
The VCAT decision has been roundly criticised. Byard’s decision is 180 degrees from a 2012 VCAT [decision](http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/sinodisp/au/cases/vic/VCAT/2012/1838.html?stem=0&synonyms=0&query=title(Frydman%20), which accepted that the waiver of parking for dwellings was an important component of sustainability. This was deemed a “Red Dot Decision”, meaning it is of interest or significance, but as there is no doctrine of precedent at VCAT, members are not obliged to be guided by previous VCAT decisions.
Sustainability is a test of political will
Byard has left himself open to opprobrium because his defence of personal car ownership would do a human rights lawyer proud: he could have been more circumspect in attacking the objectives of policy he so obviously disagrees with. At the end of the day, however, his decision is based on the law and thus highlights deep flaws in policymaking and the administration of the planning system.
Byard stated that the Moreland Planning Scheme contains:
… repeated reference to encouragement and enablement, reduction and sustainability, but not to policy provisions that actually get down to, or think through, strategic questions in relation to waiver or reduction to zero.
That is, the scheme has no teeth. At the most basic level, planning law does not sufficiently support the over-arching objectives for sustainability in planning policy.
Moreland and other councils have attempted to put teeth into their planning schemes in relation to matters such as sustainability, housing affordability and disability requirements, but each time the state planning minister has overruled them. The ball is firmly in the Victorian government’s court.
The Commons got a waiver because no one appealed the council’s decision to grant the permit, so the adequacy of the law was not tested in that case. A few kilometres away in the Capital City Zone (which covers the Melbourne CBD) the law indisputably permits waivers and sets a maximum of one car parking space per dwelling for developments over four storeys.
Apartment parking has many costs
Incredibly, the southern hemisphere’s tallest residential building, Australia108, which will have more than 1100 apartments, will include a 10-storey podium car park for 500 cars.
Initial analysis of high-rise development permits and proposals for nearby Fishermans Bend (which has been incorporated in the Capital City Zone) indicates that the sheer volume of proposed car parking means the place will be gridlocked much of the day.
Nightingale, which proposes 20 apartments, is located two minutes from a railway station, four minutes from a bus route and a tram service, and is a few steps away from one of Melbourne’s busiest cycling routes. Nightingale is closer to public transport than Australia108. The future residents of Fishermans Bend will need to get on their bikes as the area will not have any public transport for a long time.
Urban consolidation policies premised on the suburban ideal of car ownership can only deliver the worst of outcomes; intensification without relief from traffic and less efficiency rather than more. The time has come for housing provision in certain areas to be separated from car parking provision. Both would be cheaper and housing affordability improved.
As for VCAT’s concern for buyers of apartments who want car parking, it’s a market: no-one can force them to buy an apartment they do not want. But today people are forced to buy car parks they do not want, which many can ill afford to do.
Update: Three months after revoking the planning permit for the Nightingale, VCAT reversed its decision. The development has been approved with minor changes.