News / Planning

New planning strategy aims to drive job creation

On current trends, Brunswick is facing a shortfall of commercial floor space within 15 years

Much of the recent apartment development has taken place in the blocks directly behind Sydney Road. 

Mark Phillips

FUTURE apartment buildings around Brunswick’s main activity centres will be prohibited unless they also provide adequate space for business and retail in a new strategy aimed at retaining the area’s “vibrancy”. 

Merri-bek Council is expected to adopt a new Brunswick Activity Centre Structure Plan this week which will seek to force residential property developers to set aside a mandatory proportion of any new project for commercial floor space around Sydney Road, Lygon Street and Nicholson Street to help generate an additional 5400 local jobs by 2035. 

Under the plan, priority will be given to developments with job and economic creation potential in response to concerns that Brunswick is running out of commercial floor space. 

It is being introduced as residential and commercial property developers compete for a finite amount of space, particularly as dozens of current industrial sites have been identified as having redevelopment potential. 

“In the Brunswick Activity Centre, new developments are focusing on apartments and not providing enough space for new businesses,” the council plan says.  

The strategy has been developed over three years and once adopted by the council at its meeting this Wednesday, it will be referred to the Minister for Planning for approval and incorporation into the city’s planning scheme following public exhibition. 

Brunswick Activity Centre Structure Plan Area

The Brunswick Activity Centre is an area of about 2.3 square kilometres loosely clustered around Sydney Road, Lygon Street south of Albion Street, and Nicholson Street south of Stewart Street. In 2020, it employed 13,743 people and generated $1.3 billion of economic output. 

The new plan lays out a vision where Brunswick could become an inner city office precinct focused around creative sectors, professional services like architecture and accounting, and computer system design.  

It also seeks to enhance Brunswick’s reputation as a home for live music. 

Under the new zoning, precincts within the activity centre will be defined as core employment, multi-use and housing. It is the multi-use precincts, which make up the majority of the land area, that the new planning scheme is most focussed on.

The council’s economic research has found that Merri-bek is not attracting enough jobs to meet community needs and unless efforts are made to encourage employment, the vibrancy of its commercial centres will decline, forcing an increasing proportion of residents to travel outside of the city to work and shop. 

Analysis by the council shows that almost half of recent development is providing little or token commercial floor space. If this trend continues, it is forecast that the Brunswick Activity Centre will have 20% less employment floor space by 2035 than it had in 2010.  

By that stage, the council wants employment in the Brunswick Activity Centre to grow by 39% to 19,100 jobs – 35% of all jobs in the City of Merri-bek – which will require an extra 149,000 square metres of commercial space above the 352,400 square metres in 2020. 

Some of that space will come from land no longer needed for industrial use, but the council’s analysis still predicts an additional requirement of 65,400 square metres. 

The council also found that the current planning requirements for the Brunswick Activity Centre were too complicated, with 10 different zone schedules for industrial, commercial and residential uses and 18 different ways of saying new buildings should be between three and seven storeys in height.  

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While residential development will still be allowed, multi-use sites will be required to have a mandatory allocation for commercial space equating to 70% of the site area. Only 8% percent of the developments approved in the past 10 years achieved this amount of commercial floor space, and the average was just 35%.

There will also be a requirement for the provision of subsidised creative and social enterprise space. Where these mandatory requirements are not met, residential development will be prohibited. 

The council believes these planning rules will encourage employment and based on feedback during consultation about the plan are supported by the community. 

Support for live music venues

Other changes under the new planning structure include requiring so-called “dark kitchens” – takeaway food outlets that serve customers exclusively by delivery and pick up based on phone and online ordering – to have a permit. Self-storage sites will also be contained to a tightly controlled part of the activity centre. 

Overshadowing requirements will be strengthened, and environmentally sustainable design will be encouraged, including bike parking. 

And in an effort to protect live music venues from noise complaints by residents, most of the Brunswick Activity Centre will be designated as a live music precinct, meaning future housing developments must be designed with noise-abatement from the outset. 

‘Ghost town’

But the Yes In My Backyard organisation, which campaigns for increased high density housing in the inner city, says the proposed regulations to force residential developers to provide extra commercial floor space are misguided and would have the opposite impact to that intended. 

YIMBY spokesman Jonathan O’Brien said it would increase the costs of providing new housing and leave commercial space at ground level that was empty because of non-existent demand. 

“It will make Merri-bek a ghost town,” he said. 

“We should not be forcing people to build things that they know will be empty. 

“It makes it difficult to deliver a project and makes Merri-bek feel more empty and doesn’t add to the vibrancy at all except for some hypothetical idea that down the track we will need the space.” 

O’Brien said the proposed building set backs under the new planning zone would also reduce the potential to create more housing in Brunswick. 

The Brunswick Residents Network says its concerns are more about the impact the new zone will have on housing intensity. It says lots of land which currently have single dwellings on them will be given over to the new zone for multi-level redevelopment. 

The BRN also has concerns about the encroachment of the new Activity Centre Zone onto Fleming Park and the Merri Creek parklands in Brunswick East, and while positive about the commercial floor space requirements, “we fear developers will find a way to shift this extra space from commercial uses, to being used for intensive housing”. 

The Sydney Road Brunswick Association was contacted for comment.

Updated, April 10: At its April meeting, the council voted to defer a decision on the new Brunswick Activity Centre Structure Plan for another month.

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