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Exterior of NKYA _Photograph by John Gollings

Questions of Character

WORDS BY Ivan Rijavec

South Fitzroy has never been short of character or characters for that matter. Everyone from Mary McKillop to Squizzy Taylor has been part of its social history, and despite its recent gentrification it still has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in Australia. It doesn’t surprise therefore that its urbanism also has an equally diverse character.

In the Fitzroy Historical Society’s terms, South Fitzroy’s ‘compatible mix of light industry and residential housing’ was developed progressively over time in tune with its cultural and economic history. On the other hand Robin Boyd’s broader fulmination of Melbourne’s inner suburbs as ‘a dressmakers floor strewn with the snippings of style’, suggests a cacophony of tasteless ignorance.

Exterior of NKYA _Photograph by John Gollings

Both descriptions paint the picture of a diverse urban character, though from diametrically opposite points of view. The operative interpretation used by Yarra City Planning however, is based on the South Fitzroy Conservation Study which describes the precinct as one of Melbourne’s most historically intact and of a ‘predominantly nineteenth-century character’.

This implies a consistency of urban form that South Fitzroy simply doesn’t have. The diversity of its nineteenth century character, which manifests a broad variety of different styles, building types and scales, is all but ignored. Nor does it acknowledge the post war industrial architecture or the subsequent modern expressions that pepper its fabric with increasing regularity as one ventures north.  Alas, this conservation study which favours a consistency of urban form has been used as the basis for Neighbourhood Character regulation in the precinct.

Having practiced there for 25 years and conducted urban character studies for numerous projects over that period, my view was that its character is a form of ‘urban sampling’ or ‘jazz’, where streetscapes are expressed in syncopated rhythms of different architectures and scales. To me its urbanism read as an authentic register of the cultural and socioeconomic forces that shaped it. Its syncopation was in my view the essential aspect of its character because it reflected the rhythms of a uniquely Australian urbanism, not the shrill of ‘the violence of artistic conflict’, and the abject lack of taste that this Boydian phrase implies.

This was, until the planning profession got hold of it, an honest urbanism unaffected by the dress code of the comparatively refined European urban preferences which planners have increasingly been regulating for since the early nineties. Their preference for more regular rhythms with gradual transitions is as much a nostalgia for European urbanism as it is the denial of Australian identity. Effectively urban character regulation amounts to a form of urban averaging which splits the difference between adjoining heights and setbacks for infill development. Streetscapes that have been shaped in this way read as a form of urban correctness, with upper floor setbacks and chamfers, which is neither European nor Australian. The result is twee.

Aside from the differences in aesthetic preference embodied in the urban character interpretations above, it is important to note that they predominantly recognise urban diversity as the essential common factor. It is remiss therefore that conservation and urban character studies focus on establishing urban similarities and consistency to determine a particular urban character, and it is unfortunate that these regulations have been used as a basis for the new Residential Zones gazetted in Victoria on 1 July 2013.

Sceptics could assert that all of the above interpretations are on par with reading tea leaves since they rely more on the bias of the observer than on the observed. They would be correct in reasoning that the dilemmas in determining tendencies of either urban similarity or diversity are akin to questions of ‘is the cup half empty or half full’, since the adjudicator’s preferences rather than accurate measurement determine these answers. It is important to note however, that assuming our cities survive the next millennium, urban diversity will be impossible to avoid.

The political expediency of the new residential zones which endorse NIMBY (not in my backyard) activism to limit both densities and heights in inner suburbs while promoting them in areas where there are few residents, like Fishermens Bend, Docklands and E-Gate, could not be more transparent. It concentrates heights and densities where opposition is limited and limits them where opposition is great. This NIMBY legislation is being sold on the basis of democratic principles, and planning innovation. The truth is that Victoria’s planning policy is NIMBY-inspired.

Here democracy has been used as the decoy for a lack in political leadership since the city’s liveability and its cultural and social prosperity depend on its function as a whole, not on the political clout of inner city lobby groups. Ironically it has been the Greens who have led the charge on limiting inner city heights and densities, contradicting their platform on carbon reduction.

These questions of character and how they are determined have prompted the following summary on ‘NKYA’, also known as ‘The Cheesegrater’, now ‘The Artist’, dubbed the test case for Labour’s new planning policy 2030 back in 2002, when it made headlines. Then NKYA successfully challenged neighbourhood character regulation which will now become entrenched, gaining substantial legislative force from Residential Zones implemented in Victoria on 1 July.

In 2002 when the planning application was lodged, Neighbourhood Character Policy in Yarra City had been in operation for the best part of seven years and most proposed medium density projects in the inner suburbs irrespective of their compliance or otherwise were vigorously objected to on the grounds of breaching character guidelines.

In expectation of a massive backlash, I completed a comprehensive urban character study immediately surrounding the site also incorporating large tracts of South Fitzroy.

The study comprised a bound volume of several hundreds of photographs and a preface that reinterpreted South Fitzroy’s Neighbourhood Character as one of diversity. It rejected both the south Fitzroy conservation study and Boyd’s Australian Ugliness, proposing an affirmative interpretation of Australian urbanism.

The planning process that followed was punctuated by a succession of name-calling that served as a sardonic echo of the contradictions inherent in the administration of the planning process. NKYA was chosen in demurral of the status envy branding that real estate advertising revels in. Composed of the first letters of the streets surrounding the site, Napier, Kerr, Young and Argyle, the acronym expressed a neutrality that rebutted the hollow marketing of real estate hype that sells the sizzle and forgets the sausage.

Objectors responded with ‘The Cheesegrater’ which prevailed, until ‘The Artist’ was coined by a new development consortium. This prompted objectors to insert ‘Bullshit’ between definite article and noun on the numerous advertising billboards surrounding the site proclaiming it ‘The Bullshit Artist’. I would like to think this obvious reflex was in contempt of the expert witness evidence presented at the eight day VCAT hearing where heritage, planning, traffic and architectural witnesses diametrically opposed one another’s views on professional grounds.

The quasi legalese of the VCAT system belies the inherent hypocrisy of the process where experts contradict each other’s evidence with panache. In this case, against the council’s refusal, the wishes of three thousand objectors and the contrary arguments of opposing expert witnesses supporting the South Fitzroy Conservation Study, the panel members were persuaded by the notion of Urban Sampling or Jazz. Controversially, they granted a permit justifying their decision in terms of the supporting neighbourhood character study and because in their view, NKYA was an exemplary design.

In 2011 I revisited the ironies of the experience in an exhibition titled Boyd’s Error Planning’s Curse, expanding on my observations with an essay illustrated with collaged photographs of 3 km of Fitzroy’s primary streetscapes. The exhibition expanded on the original neighbourhood character study with an analysis by comparative reference.

It consisted of three rows of images mounted one above the other. The bottom row speculated on what may have become had contemporary planning regulations prevailed from the genesis of South Fitzroy, thereby promoting greater consistency of period, scale and character. The middle row illustrated the 2011 streetscape current at that time and the top row speculated on what might become if the regulations were relaxed and broadened to embrace the future.

The exhibition audience was then invited to choose between the three rows and on the evidence of their reactions, the overwhelming majority preferred the top row. Obviously, exercising preferences to simulations of theoretical pasts and futures in a gallery is one thing, and deciding on whether to object to a multi storey development next door, entirely another.

This contradiction of human behaviour encapsulates the ironies of NIMBY urbanism which has become the subtext of Victoria’s planning regulation. When the democratic process fails in this way it is a sure sign that the system is in need of review. It is unfortunate that our most respected professional institutions, urban theorists and commentators are seldom listened to by government, since their recommendations measured against the weight of public opinion have virtually no political clout.

It doesn’t help that the political prism through which urban affairs reporters project their gaze on the public makes urban planning policy look like a frightened rabbit in full flight as it dodges hounds from lobby groups on every side of politics, zig-zagging over the different political terrains of their vested interests. Making this important urban debate look like an intriguing battle between humble residents and ethically bereft developers sells newspapers and though it gives voice to respected urban commentators, they remain voices in the wilderness serving no other purpose than preserving the notion of free speech.

The consequences can be appalling. In this case planning delays were responsible for NKYA’s 30% price hike by the time it was sold off the plan in 2009. The delays were in part a consequence of the 2004 housing downturn that spiralled after the spectacular collapse of Henry Kaye’s 120 company property spruiking empire.

If the prolonged planning process had not ensued, apartments could have been sold a year prior, avoiding the downturn. As a consequence NKYA was shelved until 2006 when a revised development consortium submitted new designs which VCAT refused. Several aborted resubmissions of the new design followed eventually prompting the new consortium to restrict their amendments to the internal courtyard and interiors. Maintaining the integrity of the original street facades they successfully submitted these revisions as an amendment to the originally approved planning permit.

Planning consultant Tim Biles described the final outcome as being ‘so similar to the original as to be considered practically identical’. By this he meant that the ordinary man or woman in the street would not be able to tell the difference.

It wasn’t until late 2011 that the construction of its upper levels were completed, marking the tenth anniversary of the year in which its design had begun. By the time sales commenced, inner city apartment prices had risen from six thousand dollars per metre to between eight and ten thousand dollars per metre, a cost that would be borne by the public. To this we can add the substantial taxpayer funded administrative costs of VCAT and Yarra City Council plus their consultant fees paid to opposing planners, heritage architects, barristers and other consultants representing objectors.

If NKYA, the Cheesegrater, the Artist, Bullshit Artist, or whatever else you may be inclined to call it, was an exception rather than the rule, then the planning process it was subjected to would be no less hypocritical or an outrageous waste of time and money. The tragedy is that minor two storey additions often suffer the same fate.

Postscript: In asking a former Yarra City mayor, who led the opposition against NKYA, what he thought of ‘The Cheesegrater’ a decade on, Councillor Geoff Barbour replied:

‘My views of the Cheesegrater are that I think it takes time to bring a community around to accepting change, and that it rarely occurs within the timeframe of any particular individual project’.

The three hundred or so residents who now live at ‘The Artist’, have formed a strong community: they love it.  However, if a tower were to be built next door, they would all of course passionately object.