Speakers Corner: Planning matters (town and local, building regulations etc)

By June 2, 2022June 6th, 2022No Comments

Here we will publish comment on some of the recent goings on in our neighbourhood – things like local council matters, State government initiatives and other things that have provoked debate within the community. The pieces we publish here will  reflect the views of the writer.  We publish them here because we want to contribute to the public debate by giving readers access to  the discussion around the issues involved. The opinions expressed remain those of the writer; it should not be taken that Eastsider News and ICNG  necessarily supports the views expressed.

If you wish to have your say on any issue posted here, please email us at eastsidernews1@gmail.com

Are we walking tall but not thinking big?

Chris Trueman

Is it really surprising that, in the context of a major Metropolitan Activity Centre (MAC), proposals are being put on the table by Vicinity Centres to build a 51-storey residential tower and a 28 story commercial building in Box Hill?

With the confluence of train, tram, bus and the world class automated underground Suburban Rail Loop (SRL) being planned as we speak, and a major shopping and restaurant precinct to boot – all effectively immediately adjacent to or below the towers – what better place to concentrate city dwellers?

Yet at the recent Whitehorse Council meeting where planning permits were granted to Vicinity (the owners of Chadstone Shopping Centre) to proceed with their planned big-tower development, the vote was only 7:4 in favour. A relatively close call. Those against were mainly worried by the height – the visual impact from nearby leafy suburbs like Mont Albert – and the less-than-normal car parking allowance.

A well designed apartment on the 51st floor will have an impressive outlook. I can hear to doubters now: “But Box Hill is not like those places!” Of course, it’s not, but it could be its own version of a really desirable CBD. It’s only the imaginations of the folk in diverse cities like York (UK), Oslo, Helsinki, New York, Amsterdam, Barcelona and a great many others that has led to them banning or radically reducing car use.

So, it’s unfortunate that Councillors talked about building height, and lack of car parks, rather than pushing for better people-centred access into and through the MAC at ground level.

It’s been several years now since Whitehorse started to develop a new Structure Plan for Box Hill to ensure that the future the developers are giving the city is one that the residents actually want. There have been plans, hearings, and forums of interested people with a vision for the MAC and for transport integration. But still there is no framework.

Our city planners need to step up and give the Councillors some real vision to consider for Box Hill.

It’s within this context that it’s very disappointing that the relatively few conditions placed on Vicinity’s plans did not include insisting on maintaining an effective north-south active transport route through the CBD and over the railway line until, at some unspecified and uncertain time in the future, a new alternative is provided. All the forums and meetings about the Box Hill of the future have universally agreed that an additional new bridge over the railway between Nelson Rd and Thurston St is essential for the active transport needs of the future. Vicinity agreed too and will, as part of this planning application, transfer a small parcel of land to the Council to, hopefully, enable this to be practically built at some stage.  But the future is now coming quickly, and the bridge is not.

And what’s worse, the only north-south cycling link will soon be cut off by Vicinity’s development, leaving Station St and Elgar Rd as the only options to use. Suicide potential for experienced riders, let alone a young person wanting to get by bike to major Box Hill swimming and sports precinct south of the rail line. Academics tell us we have a big deficit in the amount of physical activity undertaken by all, and especially our youth. Let’s make it easier, not harder or impossible.

Pedestrians will still have the option to traverse through the foodcourts and arcades of the station precinct and shopping centre to travel north-south. But that’s like demanding that in the City of Melbourne all north-south foot traffic must go through the many arcades and food courts, and banning the use of Swanston and Elizabeth streets. Possible but totally impractical and undesirable.

At a time when the Box Hill MAC should be regarded as a blank canvas upon which to creatively build a city for the future, have we let our visions be clouded by how we perceive the past? Have we let the inertia of bureaucracy lead to the mundane, and to locking-in of the unattainable?

At a time when the Box Hill MAC should be regarded as a blank canvas upon which to creatively build a city for the future, have we let our visions be clouded by how we perceive the past? Have we let the inertia of bureaucracy lead to the mundane, and to locking-in of the unattainable?

Now add in the uncertainties of the SRL development and its effects. And the lack of direction and planning by the State Government about the Box Hill station itself, about a bus interchange that meets the community need, or shared, safe and desirable active transport links towards Blackburn and Mont Albert. It makes all their talk about 15 or 20 minute cities sound hollow.

Vicinity will now want to commence planning for their next stage of development over the station and across to Carrington Rd. Let’s make sure that an arcade-type-shopping-mall-foodcourt route is not foist upon the through-traffic pedestrians, and those using transport aids – even low speed bikes. People of Box Hill deserve much better vision than that.

And here’s a way to speed up the delivery of that universally agreed Nelson-Thurston bridge. SRL plans to eventually make the existing south lanes of divided Whitehorse Rd into a vibrant pedestrian, cycling and open mall area. It will make an east-to-west active transport route via Box Hill MAC possible by utilising the proposed new rail bridge.

Let’s turn “eventually” into a “do-it as a first priority” of the project. With a coming State Election, a commitment by the State Government to build that bridge now, rather than in some uncertain future, will show their true colours. And it might influence a few precious votes too!