Standing firm on city height limits

December 2018

In a way, we have a lot to thank the Fragrance Group for. Their overwhelmingly tall tower proposals, way out of scale with the Hobart cityscape, galvanised the community to press for stronger controls on building heights.

Now we have a choice. We can direct the future shape of our city by fitting in with our landscape, designing it for people and protecting what we love. Or we can simply bend to the will of the development lobby and leave CBD decisions to the high-rise tycoons.

The Council’s City Planning Committee recently proposed a maximum limit of 45 metres (around 15 storeys) in the inner-city area.

Contrary to some media coverage, the Committee’s decision isn’t “slashing height limits”. In fact, the Planning Committee is rejecting moves to increase our height limits. Our decision reconfirms the height limit that is already in place. 45 metres (15 storeys) is our current preferred limit in the central area of the CBD.

We have reports from one consultant and Council staff suggesting we could set a higher limit of between 60 and 75 metres (20-25 storeys), and protect views of the mountain from the waterfront.  However, your elected Council members have considered advice from more than just these two sources. 

We read about best practice around the world and watch the policies developed by other thriving heritage cities. We listen to the perspectives of a diverse range of local and national experts. We also consider community views and the clear indication that a majority want to retain Hobart’s low-rise character. 

We propose a gradated series of new height limits throughout an area of central Hobart from Davey Street in the south, to Burnet Street in the north. This vast area will allow for development of between 15 – 45 metres (translating to around 5–15 storeys), depending on design and adjacency to heritage. 

Contrary to outrage from some narrow property interests and their cheerleaders, these new height standards will create certainty for the community and developers, and provide clear guidance on development at an appropriate and respectful scale. 

This huge area covers more than 60 city blocks and approximately 1300 lots of land. Recently the City of Hobart started looking strategically at this entire area with help from the University of Tasmania. We considered heritage constraints, likely height limits and looked at under-utilised sites. 

The commercial zone between the CBD and North Hobart has a huge amount of land that is under-utilised, meaning the land is not being used at its highest potential value. We all drive past these kinds of sites everyday – it might be a car yard in Argyle street or a vacant block in Warwick Street. 

The UTAS study concludes that if these areas were made available for residential development, we could build homes in medium density, low rise apartments for between 20,000 and 40,000 people. 

This is the start of positive and proactive strategic land use planning – identifying the parts of central Hobart most suited for residential housing and then working to encourage development of these under-utilised sites. I hope we can do more of this in the coming years.

Housing affordability is an important consideration for all Tasmanian decision-makers. Encouraging the development of strategically located under-utilised sites, tackling the skill shortage in the construction sector, good policy and government intervention are essential to see more affordable housing. The idea that allowing high-rise automatically equals affordability is simplistic and inaccurate.

Residential buildings over 8 – 9 storeys in height are generally considered to be high-rise housing. Many high-rise buildings in booming cities tend to be built for hotels or luxury investment units, not affordable housing. These buildings are actually often more costly to construct than ‘shop-top’ or ‘medium-rise housing’ of 3-7 storeys. In cities like Melbourne there is now a problem where speculative high-rise units sit vacant, sparking debate about the need for a vacancy tax. 

Hobart’s housing affordability will not be magically fixed by letting developers stack floors to create ‘vertical real estate’ with the primary goal of increasing their profit. We need a mix of solutions, such as reversing the chronic under investment in public and social housing, and improving regulation of AirBnB.

Some people say that high-rise buildings will deliver the world – an exciting city, better-designed buildings, more affordable housing. I don’t buy this. These assertions tend not to be backed up with evidence.

Many of the cities that Hobart would like to emulate – the exciting, economically thriving, liveable small cities of the world – have strict building height limits because they know their economic niche in a competitive world is about looking and feeling different to just another metropolis.

Future generations of Hobartians will thank us if we set sensible height limits that retain the low-rise heritage character that our visitor economy depends on and our local community loves.