Conservative approach stifling the city’s development

28/05/2008 - 22:00

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Perth's popuation is likely to double and a series of infrastructure projects will transform the built environmnet in coming decades, but is there a broader vision for Perth? Emily Piesse reports.

Conservative approach stifling the city’s development

THE future development of Perth, it seems, is at a crossroads.

With the state's population forecast to double over the next 50 years, policy makers and industry leaders are grappling with how to manage this growth.

For the architects and town planners who will help shape the city's future, it's a period of great possibilities.

But the question remains: what kind of city do we want Perth to be?

It's a debate that has gained prominence in recent months as a result of the government's foreshore plans.

LandCorp's release in February of its vision for the $360 million foreshore development sparked some heated debate, largely around the scale and style of the buildings.

The architectural industry has been broadly supportive of the project, but beyond its general praise, there are lingering concerns about delivery.

Many in the sector believe the debate has become bogged down in the detail of LandCorp's images, at a time when the focus should be on broader issues such as the provision of civic spaces.

"There's no ground level images of [the foreshore development], and in effect, that's the bit that government is actually responsible for creating," Cox Howlett & Bailey Woodland director, Steve Woodland, told WA Business News' recent planning and design forum.

There's also the sense that the debate, to this point, has been somewhat back to front, especially in relation to the iconic tower at the centre of the development.

"It might be that a 50-storey building in one spot makes some sense, but you don't start with saying 'this is what we think the buildings are [going to look like]' and then see what you've got," Mr Woodland said.

But perhaps the biggest challenge the foreshore project faces is its delivery, which will hinge on the level of collaboration between local and state government agencies, and the private sector.

Working to the requirements of multiple parties with overlapping jurisdictions is clearly already a cause of frustration to planners and architects, and there's a sense this could be compounded.

"You've got six different authorities you've got to satisfy, whether it's the City of Perth, the Swan River Trust, the WA Planning Commission, the East Perth Redevelopment Authority...the list just goes on," TPG planner Peter Simpson said.

One solution is to create an overarching authority, which would be charged with coordinating the whole foreshore project.

However, there's also a lack of strategic direction, according to the building design industry, which could result in a series of disconnected elements, not just on the foreshore, but with the government's other high-profile city infrastructure projects, Northbridge Link, the Perth Arena and the new East Perth museum.

Cameron Chisholm & Nicol (WA) director Greg Salter said the integration of all these new facilities was essential for the creation of a unified city.

"The most important thing [is] to get a coordinated approach, so the projects relate to one another in a positive sense in terms of land use, environmental impact and community spirit," Mr Salter told the forum.

But once the strategic planning is dealt with, the question remains as to what direction Perth will take, in terms of its built form.

Those at the helm of the city's building design industry say the impediments are numerous, among them Perth's natural conservatism, a commercial office market driven by precedent, and the cost of quality design.

For Silver Thomas Hanley director Rod Mollett, the biggest hurdle is a lack of political will and desire to leave a community dividend through architecture.

"I think politicians just don't take the lead and they're not prepared to put up with criticism...they're not prepared to defend the cost," Mr Mollett said.

"They won't put forward an argument for quality design.

"Politically, it all tends to be driven by cost neutrality, and even on the foreshore the discussion is that [government] will create the land, create the inlet, and someone else will build the buildings."

Others, like HASSELL principal Chris Melsom, say it's the financial bottom line that really inhibits the design process, with property owners and developers keen to maximise the amount they can charge per square metre in office rents.

"It's a bit of a lowest common denominator [approach], partly driven by the predicted marketability of commercial space. I think that's a key conservative element that drives most commercial projects," Mr Melsom said.

There's no doubt that cost, governance and commercial viability issues will have a big impact on the direction the foreshore development takes.

But there's a broader debate to be had, according to Woodhead architect John Nichols, on how Perth will develop over the coming decades, as the state's mining wealth drives further growth.

"When we run out of rocks, what is going to sustain this city? What is the vision? Without the vision, everyone is always going to be tentative, which is what has always informed the development, in my view, of Perth.

It's been one step forward and then half a step back every time," Mr Nichol said.

"The population is going to double in the next 50 years - [the foreshore is] a very small-scale development in that context. Where does the rest of the urban and city [development], the CBD part, occur?"

It's the aspirations of those who are moving to WA that need to be considered, according to Mr Nichols, because it will determine investment in the city.

This applies not just to development in the CBD, but to the suburbs that will absorb Perth's new residents.

At a policy level, it's being directed by the government's Network City strategy, which aims to create nodes of commercial activity in the suburbs, along with high-density and transit-oriented residential development.

According to HASSELL's Chris Melsom, there's also a growing recognition within the Department of Planning and Infrastructure that quality employment will be needed to underpin these centres.

It's a more strategic approach, he said, than the "join the dots" exercise that may have existed before.

"We need to look at not just having employment opportunities and commerce driven by the number of people in a locality, which is basically your lower end service industries...but actually looking at what the key strategic drivers of a location are," Mr Melsom said.

"That work is being done - it's being applied to places like Stirling, for example."

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