$90 million apartment project cleared despite height concerns
Affordable housing provision and public open space secure council approval
DOZENS of affordable housing units will be provided in a new $90 million “urban village” to be developed alongside the Upfield railway line in Brunswick.
Comprising of 282 apartments within five buildings, the latest Nightingale Housing project, in Hope Street, was approved by Merri-bek Council this week.
Despite most of the development being almost twice the preferred height limit, most councillors were convinced that its social benefits outweighed any concerns about its size.
Those social benefits include both the provision of 15% of the apartments as affordable housing, and the allocation of about 1100 square metres of the site for a new linear park that will be open to the public.
The development site consists of disused factory and warehouse space, including a large loading area, with frontage onto Hope Street and directly adjacent to the Upfield shared path.
It is just a few dozen metres further south along the path from the Nightingale Village, a cluster of six buildings with 203 dwellings that won four prizes at this year’s Victorian Architecture Awards. One-in-five of the apartments at Nightingale Village are affordable housing.
The new development at 17-19 Hope Street, known as Ngarrga Terragulk (‘dancing branches’ in Wurundjeri language) and valued at $90 million, will mimic Nightingale Village, with each of the five buildings designed by a different architect and in a different style.
It will include 36 Teilhaus studio-style apartments and 15 three bedroom apartments.
A building at the Hope Street end will be six storeys high, but further within the development, building heights will rise to nine storeys or 30 metres. This is four storeys, or 17 metres, above the discretionary height limit.
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Directly south of the Nightingale project, on Ballarat Street, a similar nine-storey development by Texas-based Hines property group was approved by the council in July for offering 1100 square metres of extra open space in exchange for waiving the height limit. The two linear parks will now be joined together to form one long strip of open space next to the Upfield path.
A key feature of Nightingale development will the setting aside of 42 apartments to be sold to affordable housing provider Housing Choices Australia at a 10% discount to their market price.
In an interview with Brunswick Voice earlier this year, Nightingale chief executive officer Dan McKenna said the company’s business model was for apartment sales to subsidise affordable housing. But he said the success of the model was dependent on projects being approved on a large scale.
The approval of the Hope Street project follows the council earlier this year rejecting a smaller development by Nightingale in Florence Street because it was seeking seven storeys. Nightingale has since appealed to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
Ten objections were lodged against the Hope Street project about a lack of car parking and loading space, its scale and height, overshadowing, and the impact it would have on existing infrastructure.
But council planning staff recommended it should be approved because of the community benefits of the linear park and the affordable housing that will be provided. Although the buildings were taller than the preferred heights for the area, it was in keeping with other developments in the area, they said.
Nightingale chief executive officer Dan McKenna told the council Planning and Related Matters committee meeting on Wednesday night that the project would deliver significant benefits of affordable housing and open space.
“We think this sort of project is exactly what our cities need right now – good quality, medium density homes in diverse, supportive communities – and these are the exact sites they need to be happening on,” he said.
The project was also supported by Jonathan O’Brien, lead organiser of the recently-formed Yes In My Backyard lobby group, which is campaigning for more high-density housing in Melbourne.
He said the work of Nightingale was consistently cited as “the gold standard” of positive planning outcomes and the project would transform “a mess of empty lots and warehouses” into an area of housing, retail and open space.
“To reject this development would be to send the signal that no, nothing is good enough, there’s no standard of design, affordability or housing supply that is good enough to be worth building,” he told the meeting.
During a lengthy debate in the council chamber on Wednesday night, councillors James Conlan and Sue Bolton raised concerns about the building heights and the depth of Nightingale’s commitment of affordable housing.
Cr Conlan said the proposed linear park and the affordable housing components were not enough to justify allowing the buildings to be up to four storeys above the recommended height limit.
He argued unsuccessfully for stronger conditions to ensure the affordable housing would only be available to genuine low income earners, and that it would be delivered for perpetuity rather than the 20 years in the proposed planning permit, after which it could be sold on the private market.
“While I agree there are a lot of good aspects to this proposal, asking council to double the height limit is a big ask,” he said.
“I’m not comfortable with giving away free floor space for nothing. If developers want the council to give concessions, the developer must in my view provide very clear, tangible, measurable public benefits in exchange for those concessions.”
Cr Bolton said doubling the height limit was “a bridge too far” and the commitments by Nightingale to affordable housing did not go far enough to justify it.
“For affordable housing to be genuine, it has to be forever,” she said.
“A lot of other developers are using affordable housing as a way to get increased height over the line.”
“We are hopeful that last night’s decision by Merri-bek councillors heralds a new era of planning decision-making at the council, where applications are judged on their merits and good, responsible, well-designed projects like Ngarrga Terragulk are supported.”
Nightingale Housing CEO Dan McKenna
But the majority of councillors supported the proposal.
Mayor Angelica Panopoulos said the amount of affordable housing proposed for Ngarrga Terragulk was comparatively high and it was the type of development the council should be encouraging.
“We have residents who are living in social housing who are basically imploring us to build more so that other people can be offered the same opportunities as them,” she said.
“It’s just bizarre to me we would saying we have a housing crisis, we need more housing, we all know there are problems with public housing and we shouldn’t be demolishing them, but when we’ve got a proposal here that doesn’t cost us and doesn’t make it very difficult for us, I don’t understand why we would be turning that down.
“This is a good proposal which meets all our requirements.”
Cr Conlan was ultimately the only councillor to vote against the project.
Nightingale Housing, which plans to begin construction of Ngarra Terragulk next year, welcomed the council decision.
“We are hopeful that last night’s decision by Merri-bek councillors heralds a new era of planning decision-making at the council, where applications are judged on their merits and good, responsible, well-designed projects like Ngarrga Terragulk are supported,” McKenna said after the meeting.
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