News / Planning

Win for YIMBYs after approval of apartment project

VCAT allows extra building height in Florence Street

An artist’s impression of the apartment building at 8 Florence Street.

Mark Phillips

A HIGH-PROFILE Brunswick residential property developer has slammed Merri-bek Council for “putting politics ahead of good housing outcomes” after the state planning tribunal overturned a council decision and allowed a seven-storey apartment project to go ahead. 

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal has granted a permit to Nightingale Housing for a new apartment building seven metres taller than the recommended height limit to be constructed alongside the Upfield railway line, reversing a council decision last year that sought to reduce the building’s height. 

The council’s rejection of the original seven storey building in Florence Street last year sparked controversy because Nightingale said it made it no longer viable to deliver an affordable housing component. 

Nightingale appealed to VCAT after the council’s Planning and Related Matters committee in March last year voted 6 to 4 to reject the recommendation of their own planning staff and instead issued a permit for a smaller, six storey building, despite adjacent buildings being up to two storeys taller. 

Even though the council decision only resulted in an overall reduction of five dwellings in the project, it became a cause célèbre for the Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) movement, which advocates for more new high-density housing in established suburbs like Brunswick. 

But in a verdict issued last month, VCAT member Tracy Watson reversed the council decision, allowing the original seven-storey building with 28 dwellings, which will include a 10% allocation to an affordable housing provider. 

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Nightingale chief executive Dan McKenna welcomed what he described as a sensible decision by VCAT, but said the delay caused by the appeal would add to the costs of the development. 

“It’s worth remembering the original plans were well-supported by the local community and received very few objections,” he said. 

“Unfortunately, the Merri-bek decision, largely driven by ideology rather than good housing outcomes for the local area, has meant Nightingale has incurred significant extra costs, meaning reduced affordability across all the project’s apartments.  

“We hope the story of 8 Florence Street is front of mind next time local government representatives consider putting politics ahead of good housing outcomes during the worst housing crisis in the nation’s history.” 

A Nightingale spokesperson later clarified that the affordable housing component of the project would still be delivered.

The subject site is a narrow block of land 515 square metres in area squeezed between the Upfield shared path on its west and the Nightingale 1 apartment building on its east. Directly adjacent to its north are the Nightingale Anstey apartments which are up to eight storeys in height. 

Nightingale plans to construct 28 apartments ranging from studios to two bedrooms, including three to be sold to an affordable housing provider, and two ground floor retail tenancies. 

At its street frontage, the building will be 19 metres high, rising to 24.1 metres towards its rear. 

Nightingale said it required the extra scale to generate a financial return that could then subsidise the provision of affordable housing. 

At last year’s PARM meeting which reduced the size of the building, some councillors had insisted that the developers should adhere to the discretionary height limits for the area of 17 metres.  

Councillor Sue Bolton said at the time that she was concerned developers were using affordable housing as “a bargaining chip” to go above the discretionary height limits. 

Read more:

Affordable housing at risk from council decisions, developer warns

In her written decision, VCAT member Tracy Watson said the extra height was acceptable in the context of the location of the building and its physical surroundings. 

Greens councillor Angelica Panopoulos – who as Mayor at the time voted in favour of the seven-storey building at the PARM meeting last March – said it was disappointing the matter had ended up in VCAT, delaying much-needed new housing by almost another year. 

She said the council should be more flexible about building heights and bulk if it meant quality housing could be provided. 

“I hope that as a council we can look at these applications in a more holistic way and acknowledge there are some areas where it may make sense for there to be greater height … especially if it’s good quality housing for people to live in.  

“We don’t want to approve everything that may not provide good quality affordable homes but it makes sense to look at issues under the planning scheme and listen to officers’ advice and make decisions accordingly.” 

But South Ward councillor James Conlan, who voted to reduce the building height at the PARM meeting, said he would continue to seek enforcement of height restrictions in future planning decisions because he did not believe they should be subject to “horse trading”. 

“This particular case demonstrates exactly why we need mandatory social housing as part of every new development because I don’t think the community should have to trade off basic regulations like the height of the building for social or affordable housing. We should have both.  

“Developments should have to comply with basic regulations and should positively contribute to the community through providing open space and social housing and it should not be part of this horse trading process.” 

YIMBY Melbourne spokesman Jonathan O’Brien said the criticism of the building’s proposed height never made sense. 

“All this whole process has done establish the sort of delay that will drive up the costs of the project and of the homes of the people who want to live there,” he said. 

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