Are we really better off with a high-rise city?


While there’s a lot to be loved, I must admit that Hobart’s CBD also leaves a lot to be desired.

Our heritage heart is in danger of being overwhelmed by concrete bulk, ugly design, deep shadows, and windy streets.

Decades of inconsistent decisions, and Aldermen agreeing to ‘discretions’ to allow exceptions that shouldn’t have been made, have left us with a mish-mash of building heights and forms.
Hobart’s CBD has some amazing heritage streetscapes and precincts, but many are hidden, dowdy and neglected – our planning laws are not effective enough.
So can we feel optimistic that Council will bring a more sophisticated approach to height rules in Hobart’s CBD?
To get an idea of where this might take us, we need to remember where we have come from.
In early 2017, community concern was sparked by the Fragrance Group’s proposals for high-rise towers completely out of proportion with every other building in Hobart and even Tasmania.
Richard Flanagan wrote that allowing high-rise to proliferate would leave “a sad and broken town” with “the waterfront looking like a mouth of meth-rotted teeth.”
A petition rapidly gathered support and the pressure group ‘Hobart Not Highrise’ was formed. Within weeks, the Town Hall was packed with hundreds of people calling for absolute maximum height limits that reflected the existing height rules in the city planning schemes.
In the meantime, Council commissioned architect Leigh Woolley to review the height rules to make them clearer and introduce some ‘townscape’ planning principles.
Although his report was not intended to set height limits, it did end up recommending a new ‘zone of intensification’ up to 75 metres. His revisions also failed to mention ‘heritage’ in the planning vision for the CBD.
When it came to Council, I proposed amendments to include heritage, and remove the new zone for much taller buildings. These were not supported by any other Aldermen.
But a deluge of submissions from concerned citizens caused a rethink. With the weight of public opinion behind the same amendments I had originally proposed, a majority of Aldermen voted for them.
By this time, Mr Woolley had been commissioned to prepare a second report on setting maximum height limits. And more than 7,000 people had signed the petition.
All this in little over a year. Which brings us to now.
Council is currently considering a new proposal to introduce a 60-metre building height limit in the inner city, and lower limits throughout ten different height zones.
A community that’s nervous about giant Fragrance towers may feel somewhat relieved by talk of CBD heights that don’t sound quite as big.
However, these changes still start from a view of ‘well, we must have high-rise somewhere’.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are so many opportunities for exciting, medium density, ‘human scale’ development of our city – on Macquarie Point, between the CBD and North Hobart (currently dominated by car yards), and along the rail line between the waterfront and Glenorchy.
For our CBD core, I would like to see a maximum height limit that reflects the existing 45 metre height rule and reduces the use of discretion in approving proposals, as well as more proactive planning for restoring, reusing and revamping our heritage precincts.
The conversation we are having about the future shape of our city is such an important one. Mr Woolley’s second report is now out for public consultation only until 17 October, and it’s important that people take an interest.
This conversation shouldn’t be one that we only consider from an architectural perspective that views the cityscape from afar, rather than within.
I will be walking the city streets in the next few weeks and encourage others to join me. We need to consider the full range of issues, including how taller buildings may affect the quality of life on the street, and the character of Hobart’s heritage heart from the ground up.
We need to be seeking answers to questions like:
•        How will more 20 storey (60 metre) buildings in the city heart affect over-shadowing, sunshine in the street, and wind impacts?
•        Are we better off developing our heritage heart as a 6-8 storey city like Paris, Washington or Edinburgh, and creating a new modern, taller hub on the eastern shore or Glenorchy?
•        Why should Brisbane and Melville Streets be brought into the core zone with potential for 20 storey buildings, as proposed by the draft report?
We need to allow time for people to read and discuss the options, and seek a range of community and expert views. Changes may be made to these draft proposals if the community makes its voice heard once again.
HAVE YOUR SAY on the Building Heights Standards Review here.
(published in The Mercury, 12 September 2018)