Changing the rules for Hobart’s Heart

Published in The Mercury, July 2017

Community interest in the future height and shape of Hobart city is strong – as are opinions about the Fragrance hotel proposals. Less well known, but no less important, is the potential impact of Hobart City Council’s proposed new rules for the height and character of the Central Business District (CBD).

Regardless of your opinion on the Fragrance holiday high-rise towers, you can be confident that they will be assessed using the rules set out in the Sullivans Cove Planning Scheme. These are rules that provide strategic guidance on protecting heritage in this part of Hobart, as well as preferred height limits for decision-makers to assess the proposals against. The Council’s final decision will depend on the quality and clarity of the rule book for the area, and the willingness to support them.

So when Council starts redesigning the rule book for another part of the city, the CBD, anyone interested in the future of Hobart needs to pay attention.

Earlier this month Council agreed to start amending the rules for the 2015 Interim Hobart City Planning Scheme that guide and regulate development of the CBD. Contrary to some reporting, none of these proposed rule changes for the CBD zone will affect or influence the assessment of the Fragrance Hotel proposals (which are outside this CBD zone). The Council’s proposed changes may however have a big impact on height and heritage in another large part of the city for decades to come.

So what exactly is motivating Council to initiate planning rule changes for the CBD now? The argument that the proposed changes will help prevent another Palace Hotel being approved is nonsense.

The Palace Hotel, to be built in the GPO block in Elizabeth Street, was the first proposal seen for many years where the developer requested to build 28 metres higher than the preferred ‘Amenity Building Envelope’ of 45 metres.

This ‘Amenity Building Envelope’, while not a ‘hard’ height limit, has nevertheless been the cornerstone of our CBD’s development for many years. It’s a height level determined with careful regard to heritage, streetscape, protection of Hobart’s ‘human scale’, reducing wind effect, and allowing sunshine into city streets.

The current planning rules provided plenty of room for Aldermen to reject the 73 metre tall Palace Hotel proposal, had they had wanted to. Advice provided to us included a damning heritage report from the Council’s own staff, which said:
“the proposal is not considered to be sympathetic to the character of the precinct will result in detriment to the historic character of the precinct…which contains perhaps the highest number of nationally recognised Colonial and Victorian architecture within Hobart.”

When the Palace proposal came to Council in March 2016, I moved to refuse the development application, with eight detailed reasons based on our current planning rules for the CBD. But we never did get to vote on this motion for refusal, because Aldermen instead voted for the matter to be deferred for further negotiation. Ultimately this lead to a majority of Council approving a slightly shorter 63 metre high Palace Hotel a few weeks later. This decision was based on a willingness to approve the proposal, rather than any lack of available planning reasons to reject it.

Now the much talked about Leigh Woolley Report proposes new ‘townscape’ concepts for our planning toolbox, that can be considered when assessing a tall building. These new definitions are helpful, but simply add to the other tools we already have.

However, there are other changes being proposed that signal a concerning change of strategic direction for the development of Hobart’s heart.

For example, the new Desired Future Character Statement endorsed by Council sets a vision for the CBD, to help planners to make judgements and sort out arguments of interpretation in the courts. But the proposed vision does not mention the word ‘heritage’ once. Why not say something like “heritage is integral to our townscape and character”?

The Statement also proposes a new zone of increased building intensification in the eight CBD blocks bounded by Murray, Macquarie, Melville and Argyle Streets. The new vision suggests this development zone should “evolve as a defined (conical) expression of built intensity when viewed from beyond”.

Council has also agreed to get further advice on a new maximum height limit, which I fear will be guided by Mr Woolley’s report, suggesting buildings to a maximum of 75 metres (as big as Wrest Point) could be accommodated in this zone.

The danger is that if our current rules for the CBD that guide the development of our city, with a 45 metre preferred building envelope that’s endlessly negotiable, then the new vision with a maximum limit of 75 metres will become our new norm.

This new vision signals a strategic change in direction away from our traditional heritage and human-scale CBD to one of taller towers, shaded and windy streets, elevated property values, and pressure to remove the heritage we still have.

Why not set a maximum height limit that reflects the existing height rules for the CBD, and for that matter, the height rules for the Sullivans Cove Planning Scheme as well?

Keep an eye out for the 42-day comment period. This will be your one and only chance to tell Council what you think about the changes to the CBD rules. If you blink you may miss it!