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New park lands planning rules a cause for concern

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A park lands blueprint has been endorsed, meaning new guidelines will inform future park lands building projects, but the devil is in the detail.

The future of the park lands’ built landscape is soon to be influenced by a new city council building guide that, for the first time, will have significant new planning assessment status. But its content and ambiguities raise a red flag.

Last month, the Adelaide Park Lands Authority (APLA) reviewed its new architects’ building guide. It could have a profound effect on what gets built on the Adelaide park lands. However, from the state’s population of 1.677 million, only 12 people responded to a council survey about it. Feedback was discouraging, but the Authority voted to endorse it anyway.

The Adelaide Park Lands Building Design Guidelines will soon be one of the formal planning assessment references used whenever a proposal arises in relation to park lands sports buildings, cafes and restaurants, maintenance and amenity buildings, and pavilions and heritage buildings. In decades to come, park lands historians will look back on a post-2020 wave of building projects that all took their cue, and were assisted in getting planning approval, through reference to these guidelines.

Council’s architectural advisers claim that it will “provide a ‘toolkit’ to achieve high-performing buildings that are respectful of their context…”It’s not clear how they could be ‘respectful of their context’ because the guidelines are ambiguous about building footprint and total floor area, and there are no height limits specified in it. These three matters have been controversially ambiguous in all three versions of the Adelaide Park Lands Management Strategy (1999, 2010, 2016: current). But fortunately none had legal planning assessment status – as did the contents of the Adelaide (City) Development Plan’s building rules for the park lands zone. The new Guidelines were supposed to have been aligned with this Plan, for consistency, but were not. One reason was that the Plan, in place for decades as the assessment rule book, is soon to be abandoned by the Marshall state government.

The guidelines have emerged at a time of major change to the instruments and rules about future park lands development. A new Planning and Development Code will soon replace the Development Plan. It will define new assessment rules for Adelaide’s park lands zone and the guidelines will fill a park lands planning assessment void left by the dumping of the Development Plan.

The concept of the Guidelines is not new, but special planning status is, and It is likely to apply to the 2020 version. The original version (2008) was more specific about the need to constrain footprint area, heights and scale of new buildings. But that old version did not have statutory status and so was viewed only as ‘general advice’. A bid for special planning status for the new 2020 version emerged on 6 February when council planners told the APLA that they wanted it to be adopted “either as part of the Code or as a Design Standard, so that [it has] statutory effect in the assessment of a development application “. On 4 June APLA agreed.

This changes everything. Special planning status would presume that the guidelines were rigorous and explicit, with multiple case studies demonstrating obstacles to exploitation of architectural ambiguities, to anticipate inevitable protests about excessive scale of building proposals for the park lands, and to avoid assessment disputes. But the guidelines feature only one case study, which doesn’t address height controversies. They are also choked with architectural jargon, ripe for wide interpretation by planning lawyers. For example, one objective ambiguously advises: “Heights and forms must be informed by their context.”

Other extracts actively encourage more buildings: “Cafes may be offered as part of a community sports building in the form of a kiosk. These may be operated by the building lessee or sub-lessee…” These will encourage new ‘ancillary’ development opportunities, with potential for new licensed premises being added to existing sports buildings or pavilions. In another section about “Cafes and restaurants that facilitate events”, words encourage “cafes and restaurants [which] may be designed for activation during key events … with internal and external spaces catered towards small- to medium-scale events or performances”. This may encourage applications to construct new buildings to attract business by seasoned state or commercial event organisers with multi-year licences seeking to cut the costs of annually erecting and dismantling event infrastructure.

Your Say public consultation began in February 2020. Some background information was confusing to non-professionals. The guidelines were claimed to deliver a planning approach that would “balance the visual impact of built form within the park lands”, but did not explain how. A Frequently Asked Questions section claimed that the guidelines would apply “a whole of park lands approach” but didn’t note that there is no mechanism to guarantee this.

The guidelines did poorly in the Your Say analysis. Of the 12 respondents, five said that they were not easy to navigate and understand. Six of 12 didn’t agree with the “guiding principles”. Five didn’t believe that the guidelines would deliver “quality, fit-for-purpose” buildings. Five considered that footprint was the “most important” issue. But the survey didn’t make observations about the guidelines’ lack of specific restrictions on new applicants seeking expansion of former building footprints. Most notable was a majority (eight respondents) that wanted the guidelines to be “tightly worded and to result in greater control of built form in the park lands”. Clearly, the view was that the guidelines did not deliver.

Critically, nowhere in the consultation was there indication of the guidelines’ new high-level planning assessment status. This left Your Say respondents with the misapprehension that the booklet was just another ambiguous architectural policy paper of no great import. But there will be nothing low-status about these guidelines when council assessors or the State Planning Commission use them to help determine assessment of future development applications (in conjunction with the new Code) to build on the park lands.

Council’s endorsement of the new 2020 guidelines will signal stage one of a major new period of planning assessment determinations for the park lands. Within a few years, interpretations of this document, in association with the new Code, are likely to be manifested in new, multistorey bricks, mortar and glass, especially in the form of community sports buildings, pavilions, and kiosks, and, potentially, adjacent licensed cafes, restaurants – and expanded or new car parks. Who was it that said “From little things big things grow”?

John Bridgland

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