Artist's (optimistic) impression of the Lombard Tower in Travancore - now under construction
Sitting between Mount Alexander Road Flemington, and CityLink, it is an environmental disaster, and it's on sale now. The brochure gushes with hype, describing the building as "elegant", and referring to the "Kandinsky-inspired sky garden". I think of it as a symbol of the failure of planning in Victoria today.
The site was a factory and warehouse, which burnt down in 2004. It stood right next to the "Melbourne Gateway" and over the freeway from the proposed Commonwealth Games village.
The owners wanted to redevelop the site quickly, and made significant donations to the Labor Party. They joined in the project with the Benson Group, whose chairman, Elias Jreissati, counted Premier Steve Bracks as a friend, and wined and dined the Bracks family at his penthouse apartment. He was involved in fundraising for Labor.
The developers received red carpet treatment. Steve Bracks visited the site the day after the fire, and "called in" the proposal from Moonee Valley Council. It would be the State government which made the key decisions for the site - not the community's local representatives.
The government fast-tracked the process, granting a permit within just six weeks.
They approved the building of the initial lower height stages of the development, but returned the decision in relation to a 21 storey "office tower" to the Moonee Valley Council.
Despite concerns about conflict of interest, one of the Council's town planners left work for the Council and moved across to work for the developer. Such transfers of key personnel with sensitive information are all too common in the planning world.
The Moonee Valley Council rejected the proposal.
The developers appealed to VCAT. The developers easily out-resourced the Council, and the community objectors had no right to be heard at all. The process, and the outcome, was a travesty.
The VCAT member approved the development. The reasons given illustrate why the community has no faith in VCAT's planning decisions. The building is out of scale, and not in an activities centre where higher buildings might be expected. The VCAT member said that although 2030 discourages intensive development outside such centres the "net benefit" of the building outweighed this. He merely identified the financial contribution the developers would be required to pay to Council as the "net benefit". There is no benefit to the community identified at all. And this for a building which dwarfs the neighbourhood, and which will contribute 1000 more cars on already crowded roads every day.
The tower was originally to be 21 storeys, but has slowly grown through various discretionary decisions to be 25 storeys. It was also to be an office tower, and all the planning took place on that basis. Then it was changed - after approval - to a residential tower, something that radically alters the character of the building. Where will the bins go? Where will residents dry their laundry?
The trouble with planning in Victoria is that there is no plan. It's rafferty's rules, with anything going if you have the right influence, and with the community having no secure say at all. We need a prescriptive plan, so that, for example, height rules are not discretionary, but are rules. The Windsor Hotel is in an area with a height limit of 23 metres, but Justin Madden approved a building 27 storeys tall. This is not planning.
We need prescriptive and binding planning rules, and clear community involvement in making those rules, and in decisions made under those rules.
Proposals should not be permitted to morph and change during and even after the approval process - as they are now. The community has a right to know exactly what is planned in advance. This case, with its growing height and drastic change of use, is a case in point.
The law should be changed so that it is regarded as corruption for a Council planning officer to accept a job with any organization on whose application such an officer has deliberated.
VCAT is a failure. It has no community respect, and will not regain it. Procedure there is arbitrary, excessively favourable to well-resourced developers, and unpredictable.
Developers use their money to buy influence. It's not overt bribery, but it has the same cancerous effect on the body politic, with Labor and Liberal politicians courting them for donations.
What sort of city do we want? At present, our city is being delivered to us by big money developers on an ad hoc basis - without coherent, consistent, long term planning. It is a recipe for chaos. The Lombard Tower - out of place, out of scale, and out of the hands of the community - is a symbol of what's being forced on us.
At a recent public meeting, one nearby resident said to me: "I've seen the sun rise from my home for the last time. From now on it will rise behind this ghastly tower."