CBD from the creek trail south of Meridian. April 6, 2015.

Regarding Dandenong

Refining the Rezoning

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Last year, council submitted its new zones to the state government. While the zoning remained largely unchanged, it highlighted how much of the city's land is dedicated to permissive developments — i.e. to the zone formerly known as Residential 2, and now known as the Residential Growth Zone (RGZ). Possibly due to disquiet amongst some residents within the RGZ (which began prior to the rezoning), the council is working on an additional proposal that creates finer divisions within the RGZ. They released this proposal a few weeks ago to get feedback from the public. Below is the suggested finer-grained zoning for central Dandenong.

Red areas are for housing ranging from detached houses up to apartments over 2 storeys; orange areas are for units up to apartments over 3 storeys; green areas are for townhouses up to apartments over 4 storeys; blue areas are what the council calls "shopping centre areas", but which I believe is all under the Comprehensive Development Zone (CDZ), and hence could contain almost anything.

[Before I continue, I will note that I part-own an investment in one of the orange areas. The proposed zoning does not affect me, but could if the zones change significantly. Note also that the following comments aren't intended to cover the proposed zones for Noble Park and Springvale.]

My overall impression is that the zones are broadly reasonable for the next 5-10 years. There is no outrageous proposal to put severe limits on heights in central Dandenong (indeed, the CDZ appears to be mostly unchanged), and the tapering of heights just outside the centre from 4 storeys down based on travel time to the centre makes sense. The council uses walking time as the only measure of travel time, which is probably appropriate for now. I strongly hope, however, that cycling and public transport time is incorporated when Dandenong's evolution is further progressed.

There are some areas that appear to have been omitted, coloured in grey only. The old council site is in grey, as is all of Metro village (including Mosaic and the other higher density sites that Burbank owns). The industrial and undeveloped sites around Cheltenham Road are in grey, which previously fell under the CDZ. (Perhaps they still do.) There is also a small group of properties north of Railway Parade that are in grey, despite having a mix of industrial and residential at the moment. I suspect many of these grey areas are either still to be settled, and many may be future commercial or CDZ areas (i.e. blue zones).

Unfortunately, council has not provided all its reasoning for the zone assignments. While they do give travel time as a reason, the proposed zoning is not simply a set of concentric travel-time circles emanating from some central location. Deviations from the travel time rule have not been made explicit. For instance, why is MacPherson Street a red zone, when it immediately abuts a green zone? Perhaps existing housing character is a factor, but that hasn't been stated as a reason for any of the zones. It's also not clear that housing character distinguishes MacPherson Street from other areas — Hemmings Street west of Potter Street, for instance, has far fewer unit blocks, yet is bathed in orange. Why the different treatment? Sadly, I think the reason is that the people in MacPherson Street happen to have been more vocal. This isn't necessarily a terrible way to formulate policy: people are often vocal about the things they care about. But that doesn't mean people who aren't vocal don't care, so this can distribute the pains of growth unfairly. (And it can't be disputed that growth causes pain, even though growth is often beneficial over the long run.)

And that brings me to one of my greatest concerns. In the FAQ accompanying the proposal, council mentions that "Greater Dandenong will grow by 32,000 people and will need 9,400 new homes." If we take these growth numbers as a given (i.e. something we have no control over), I think council ought to outline our options for accommodating these new homes. For instance, one possibility might be to encourage the subdivision of 9,400 existing homes into two lots. I personally think this is a terrible option, but the option should be put on the table, and the arguments for and against it presented. Another option is to concentrate these developments around the activity centres, leaving the suburban seas between centres relatively untouched — an option I much prefer, and which appears to be roughly in line with council's approach. If we accept this option, we need to decide on a level of concentration and on where the housing goes. If we frame the problem this way, we come to the realization that putting a street like MacPherson Street into the red, forces another zone (like Hemmings west of Potter) into the orange or green — because the new housing required is fixed, as is the level of concentration desired — so if one area has less density, another has to have more. This is a point that I think council should make more clearly, so that people realise the issue is not just what kind of housing we want, but where it goes. The council's zoning proposal and housing survey doesn't deal with this difficult issue at all well.

Another grave concern I have is that the focus is on the kind of housing, rather than the quality of the housing. Quality is paramount. Let me emphasize that: quality is paramount. If we permit the development of homes with paper-thin walls, poorly designed internals, low quality fixtures and fittings, and so on, we will get terrible outcomes for the city (both in terms of buildings and effects on the city's social fabric), regardless of whether the developments are 1 storey or 10 storeys. The key difference is that it's easier to demolish a bad 1 storey house than a bad set of 10 storey apartments, so the importance of quality increases as density increases. But this is a problem introduced by quantity rather than density itself — it's just as hard to demolish a low density block of bad houses.

I'm aware that there are some minimum standards in place already — standards relating to open space, setbacks, landscaping, car parking requirements, overshadowing, privacy and many more things besides. These are the topics I was hoping to see described in the proposal put out for public feedback and that I was also hoping would be addressed in the housing survey. But the proposal and the survey were both lacking in this regard. Of course, a responder could write whatever comments one wished in the survey, but directing people to respond to these specific issues would make comments far more constructive.

For example, one thing I would like to see introduced are minimum floor areas for apartments, as well as for areas within, such as kitchens and bedrooms. Surely it would be useful for council to know what the public thinks the minimums should be if laws were introduced. Another issue, for instance, is privacy, with minimum heights for windows overlooking neighbouring houses currently being 1.7m (which may be a state-level requirement). I think this is far too high, and produces poor quality indoor spaces with almost no actual privacy benefits. I think 1.4m would be much more reasonable, but council did not ask for my opinion — nor, I imagine, any other resident's opinion. Ideally, I think there should be a constant dialogue between council and the public — a perpetually open survey on the website about all of these issues, that residents and others can revisit whenever they have something to say about planning issues.

Setting aside the issues I have with the scope and process for the proposal, I think the suggested zones are mostly good for the city. There are some things I disagree with (such as overly low densities for Pultney, McCrae and Clow Streets) but otherwise it seems a good guide for the city for the next 5-10 years.