Recent changes to the state’s planning regime have highlighted the conflicts developers and decision makers face during the design process.
FOR developers and officials responsible for planning decisions, navigating community concerns has always been an integral part of the process.
In recent years, though, pushback from opposition groups has become more intense. Several projects in the western suburbs have highlighted how fraught the approvals process can become, with local action groups going to great lengths to oppose developments.
As the state government pushes for greater infill, local authorities are continually working to strike a balance between legitimate planning concerns from the community and opinions from those against any form of density.
Those involved in the planning process are asking themselves where the community opposition stems from and how it can be used to inform new developments.
Speaking at a recent Australian Apartment Advocacy event, former City of Subiaco mayor Penny Taylor reflected on the difficulties associated with getting Blackburne’s ONE Subiaco project over the line.
As the $280 million project was proposed in 2018, local action group Save Subi campaigned against the development, disseminating letters to the community and lobbying councillors.
Ms Taylor recalls an early meeting around ONE Subiaco where members of the local action group attended and heckled councillors and community members who spoke in support of the development.
“I’d be lying if I said it didn’t [take a personal toll],” Ms Taylor said.
“If you are mayor and your name is on the door, you have a sense of responsibility.”
Ms Taylor added that she felt a lot of pressure to act as the peacemaker between those who were opposed to the development and community members who defended it.
ONE Subiaco was proposed amid a wave of change in the area.
Built on the site of the former Pavilion Markets, ONE Subiaco was approved under a new local planning scheme for the area.
The opposition action group lobbied council to pressure the state government to amend the planning scheme to prevent the 24-storey development from going ahead in its proposed form.
Ms Taylor recalled that, when it came to navigating community concerns, it was not as simple as doing what the action group asked.
“Appeasement doesn’t work,” she said.
“I saw members on council and different members of staff say ‘If we just give them this, they’ll stop’, and it didn’t work.
“One particular member of council changed her position from supporting, trying to talk to the state government about changing the local planning scheme … to reject, [but] they did not let up, she still got smashed day in day out.
“She did everything they asked for; she spoke on it and she stood up and voted and did everything they asked for, and they still smashed her.”
95 Evans Street in Shenton Park was built next to a kindergarten.
In nearby Shenton Park, Fabric Property’s $2.75 million Evans Street development drew the ire of the action group, due to its location next to a kindergarten.
As the four-storey development was proposed in 2019, some residents spoke out against its potential to overshadow adjoining blocks and expressed concerns about apartment dwellers living so close to the kindergarten.
The action group also drew attention to the presence of insecticide dieldrin in the soil at the site, saying it could contaminate neighbouring properties.
However, a soil contamination expert said the presence of the insecticide was not at contamination level.
The Evan Street proposal was originally submitted to council but withdrawn and lodged to a Joint Development Assessment Panel later in 2019.
Fabric Property director Rhys Kelly said he was shocked by the level of vitriol aimed at him and his team over the proposal.
“Over the past 20-odd years, I have worked on some quite controversial projects [and] Shenton Park is not a controversial project, it’s 10 apartments next to a train station,” he said.
“What I’ve found in the past is … there’s been action groups, there’s been community groups, there’s been a full spread, but they’ve been highly informed [and] respectful.
“They’ve actually gone through a process and done that correctly [but] what I found more recently, it’s become very personal, you’ll get personally attacked, we would ... be at barbecues, and people be like ‘oh, you’re that person’.
“It takes a toll on you personally, and it’s hard.”
Mr Kelly highlighted the propensity for people against a proposal to speak out against it and for those in support to say nothing, which led to the vocal minority having a louder voice.
“If someone objects to something, they get up and object; if people support something, they say ‘We don’t have to do anything, because it’s great, it’s going to get approved,” he said.
“It’s human nature, typically if you support somebody, you’re like ‘I don’t have to jump up and down in support’, [but] if you’re against it you’re going to say something.”
Australian Apartment Advocacy’s recent survey of 45 residents on Evans Street showed that 51 per cent of respondents were against the development before it was built, compared with 41 per cent once construction was complete.
Among residents’ main concerns were increased traffic, impact on neighbours, tree loss, and the fear that sex offenders might be attracted to the complex due to its location.
The advocacy group conducted a similar survey in East Victoria Park, for the Vic Quarter apartment complex, developed by Celsius Property on behalf of Fowler Group, where fewer residents were opposed to high-rise development.
In both situations, more residents supported the development after it was built than before. Australian Apartment Advocacy founder Samantha Reece said these results showed there was hope for developers to convince the public that density could be done tastefully.
“There is hope, there is a silver lining in the cloud,” she said.
“It’s a change process; when you’re going through a change process there’s denial, there’s anger, there’s acceptance.
“What you want to do is take them through the journey of each of those stages.”
Subiaco’s $60 million Elysian apartment development was approved by the SDAU.
The Property Council of Australia recently commissioned YouGov to gauge community sentiment on housing in Perth and found that 75 per cent of the 1,000 residents surveyed agreed that local councillors should approve more new housing developments.
The findings came as Premier Mark McGowan announced sweeping changes to the state’s planning process, including introducing a permanent iteration of a WA Planning Commission-led pathway: the State Development Assessment Unit (SDAU) In addition, the government is set to reduce the number of JDAPs from five to three and reduce the threshold for proposals to be submitted to that pathway to $2 million.
The changes have been met with a mixed response, with some councils criticising the government for stripping them of their power.
But Ms Taylor is supportive of the change, describing the current situation as untenable.
“I’m hoping that these proposed changes will see JDAP decision makers and expert planning practitioners protected from the unreasonable, vitriolic organised anti-infill groups … and lead to good planning outcomes and improved certainty,” she said.
Ms Taylor said many of these action groups engaged in what she described as ‘astroturfing’, in that they posed as grassroots campaigners but were organised groups that operated like businesses.
Celsius Property Group’s $60 million Subiaco apartment development, Elysian, currently under construction on Rokeby Road, faced opposition when it was proposed in 2021.
Of 172 public submissions received per the original proposal, 54.1 per cent were against, 17.4 per cent were supportive with changes and 28.5 per cent were in support.
Opponents of the six-storey development said its height, bulk and scale were not appropriate for the area.
The developer opted to lodge its proposal with the SDAU, rather than a JDAP, and it was approved in mid-2021.
Andrew Peirce says the SDAU balances the concerns of the community. Photo: David Henry
“We were aware that the Rokeby Road South precinct had been contentious,” he said.
Mr Peirce said the city’s local development plan, formulated by the WAPC and endorsed by community groups, could have made the development unviable.
“Community engagement is an important element of the approval process, and we acknowledge and accept that certain elements of the community may be adversely impacted by medium to high density,” he said.
“The SDAU process still requires community engagement, and we believe it balances the concerns of some elements of the community with the needs of the broader community.”