Beware the icebergs

With the commemoration of the sinking of the Titanic earlier this year, it recalled another great epic: Monarto.

Now, this is not a historical treatise on what transpired the last time South Australia went into a self-induced lather from a need to cater for a perceived wave of unprecedented urban growth. Rather, it is a ploy to put the reader into a state of mind ready to contemplate our current urban vision, The 30-Year Plan for Adelaide.

Now, context is important here. The 30-Year Plan is a substantial idea, having won many accolades and awards. But, much of the plan was no doubt conceived in the rarefied atmosphere of the pre-GFC period. What is emerging though, anecdotally at least, is that the growth predictions upon which the 30-Year Plan was based, may be an over estimation with the current growth trends on the low side of the predictions.

While it is the prerogative of governments to set targets, the issue may be about to manifest itself. Emerging research is beginning to suggest a lower actual growth rate as well as distribution. This may compound the problem of greenfield versus infill opportunities; i.e., there may already be more greenfield land ready to go than infill opportunities, as developers are drawn to easy picks – this may jeopardise the possibilities. Has much of the growth already been given away to the greenfield developments, supposedly slated to be 30 percent of the predicted growth?

If this proves to be correct, then the remaining 70 percent slated for infill may have vapourised already. If this in fact is the case, then why the opposite ‘knee jerk’ reaction to again raise heights in the City of Adelaide? That is quite apart from the vast amount of resources already expended by other councils, the development industry and organisations like the Integrated Design Commission (soon to come to an end) on the inner rim?

We seem to have forgotten the last push on heights in the City, driven by a previous City Council, which led to developments like Balfours. It is accurate to say that demand has waned and the property market crashed, so Balfours has come to an apparent standstill, at least for now.

So why this obsession with height… surely it is about density. May be a more modest approach would be better for the City, rather than just more height which may simply encourage other super-sites like Balfours, possibly in deference to the surroundings and the City as a whole. An evenly balanced distribution of density would be more beneficial, better promoting that ‘vibrant’ city we crave, rather than some Ville Radieuse inspired smattering of towers surrounded by idyllic parklands …. Oh! That’s right, we already have parklands, albeit a bit tired and sad.

And after the last property crash in the late 80s, which brought about the demise of the State Bank, Adelaide became a ‘City of holes’ (some of which still exist!) … and to quote a prominent member of the community, Adelaide may next become a ‘City of poles’!

And this notion that Design Review Panels (DRP) will some how ensure we don’t get the post war dross that pervaded urban renewal in the 50s and 60s in Europe and North America, may be flawed.

This line of discussion could equally lead us to the effectiveness of Development Assessment Panels (DAP) and the promises made when they were introduced, but that’s another matter altogether. Albeit, there are similar learnings.

Now DRPs do work, but there needs to be clarity with clear pathways to approvals. Having to now jump through two hoops (DRP and DAP) has the potential to further frustrate the process, adding cost and undermining such fundamentals as affordability.

The design professions, particularly the architects, are already slashing fees given the dire state of the development industry, further limiting the ability to deliver better design in South Australia.

And what coherent developer is going to entertain the idea of DRPs, or rather for how long … eventually convincing well-meaning politicians to join their cause.

Oh, and by the way, DRPs are not a new idea. They were piloted by the City Council, before being dismantled by the same Council that gave us the last height increases.

And what of the last major development overseen by the City Council on their old depot site in Halifax Street, often maligned in the middle naughties for being an underdevelopment. Is there anything really wrong with it, revitalising a brownfield site, commercially successful for most that joined that ‘party’ at the time, a vibrant public realm, day and night, with employment and eateries … it even has a tram stop, albeit by accident.

So why do we seem to swing from one extreme to the next? One minute it is a land grab on the outskirts of the urban development boundary, the next more height in the city.

Current urban thinking appears to suggest that heights of up to five or six storeys are truly sustainable: environmentally, economically and socially.

After all, what is really wrong with Paris or Barcelona? Can Adelaide be the New York of the South? Do we want to be?

Just as we have geographical limitations to greenfield development; to the East the hills, the West the sea, the South, land and the North, water… remember the Goyder line… the City has as well. And no, not the parklands, the Civil Aviation Authority.

In the City we have also systematically debased the original Red Book – that other iconic leap in urban thinking from the 70s – to a banal response seemingly only interested in height.

Density not building heights should be the focus in the city and the inner rim – the Balfours development is an example of where height has dictated a local market that is not robust enough to support multi-storey development beyond a few storeys let alone multiple towers… no new development in that precinct has progressed since, as demand has been sucked out of the area by one project.

So, the latest (much like the last) height increases may only benefit a very few, possibly in deference to the well being of our City and the community as a whole.

So, next time you contemplate the Titanic take a moment to consider… is Adelaide’s latest urban protestations a disaster waiting to happen… barrelling head long into another iceberg!

Francesco Bonato is the Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, University of Adelaide. Bonato is also a Director of Tectvs.

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