Apologies for this very long post. What occurred last Tuesday night on this item makes us wonder:

  • Has anything really changed in council?
  • How much are councillors really told/informed about?
  • When will the truth replace fiction? – ie Magee’s comments on ‘what sits next door’
  • Consistency remains elusive given the scores of times that councillors have lopped off several storeys in an application because it was good politics to ignore the ‘expert planners’ on council. Now suddenly it is vital that ‘expert’ recommendations are adhered to.
  • We ask residents to read and judge for themselves whether the level of debate has been elevated or whether this is nothing more than a continuation of the status quo?

Davey moved motion to accept recommendations ‘as printed’. Seconded by Athanasopoulos.

DAVEY: said the ‘report speaks for itself’ and that council has been ‘provided with expert’ advice and that 8 storeys is better than 13.

ATHANASOPOULOS: said he had spoken with residents about the issue. Made the points that ‘six storeys has already been approved in the area’ and this is a ‘stand alone site’ and  council will ‘fight’ so that it ‘won’t become a precedent’. Government wants ‘a landmark’. Council sought expert advice to present to the panel and they’ve got that and ‘the findings give us the tools’ and help council to ‘define our position’. This ‘wipes off 4 storeys from the initial plans’ and council is asking for ‘mandatory height’ which currently isn’t proposed. Said he could be ‘populist’ and ‘oppose the advice which we’ sought. ‘It would be much easier for me to say ‘no’, I think we should go for 6 storeys’ but they’ve ‘made a decision as a council that we want some evidence’. Council has asked for this ‘evidence’ but there will also be ‘other evidence’ that will be presented at the hearing. Said that the traffic evidence could ‘suggest that even 8 storeys is too high’. Said that if they ‘bundle’ all the reports together then if the panel chooses ‘not to go with something’ that could ‘undo all the work’ done. Council needs ‘evidence based defences when we come into these situations’ rather than being ‘wishy washy’ and saying ‘we feel this and so forth’.

ESAKOFF: started off by making several points. (1) this is a ‘neighbourhood centre’ and in council’s heirarchy of centres this is set down for less development in comparison to the 3 major activity centres of Bentleigh, Elsternwick, Carnegie. (2) this ‘sits at lowest’ centre for development (3) schools nearby, childcare, so there are ‘associated parking and traffic ‘ issues. (4) area ‘is a flood zone’ (5) heritage overlays are there and also Neighbourhood Residential zones. The consultants suggest 8 storeys as ‘maximum’ and is based on the desire for this ‘to be a landmark building’. Said that ‘community views in the main are not supportive’ of this and ‘I doubt they would be supportive of any development’ of 8 storeys. Thought that the ‘sticking point’ was the government’s wish that this be a ‘landmark building’. Asked ‘what makes a building a landmark’? Didn’t think that a landmark building ‘needs to be 2 storeys higher’ than its surrounds. Landmarks are building of ‘some special design feature’ and not just height. Said that heritage and neighbourhood status of the centre ‘should be respected’ and traffic shouldn’t be raised to levels that match ‘arterial roads’. ‘Community views should be respected’. Said her ‘preference is not to exceed’ what’s already approved – ie 6 storeys but could ‘succumb’ to a well planned 7 storeys.

SZTRAJT: Thought the whole issue was a ‘circus’. This was a state government project and they are making the decisions so ‘that is already absurd’. Went on to say that the government isn’t ‘building a park’ and they are ‘calling this landmark’ in order to ‘give them the possibility of creating a cash cow’ and to ‘recoup’ their costs for the grade separation. They are therefore ‘using the word landmark to convince us that a residential tower’ is ‘something special in a shopping area’. His concern was that council had to ‘put its stamp of approval on something’ and that ‘the minute we say 8 storeys is acceptable in Ormond’ it will be the  benchmark because this is the ‘first of many towers’ that the state government will be looking to build and ‘I can’t believe the state government is going to show restraint on the first project’ so for the other project ‘not being able to exceed the limits’ they’ve done in Ormond. ‘Therefore, they are not going to listen to this advice’ and will want to ‘build this as high as they possibly can’. They will build their 13 and in a couple of years there will be ‘an application from next door’ where the developer will say that even council supports 8 storeys. ‘We are setting ourselves up’. Said ‘I am disgusted by this report in the first place’ and council has to make sure that ‘if the state government is going to steam roll us, we are not giving permission’ for even 8 storeys. ‘To put anything higher than 6’ is he believes ‘irresponsible’.

SILVER: began by stating that the reason why this tower is proposed in Ormond is because ‘it is a Liberal electorate’ and Bentleigh and McKinnon aren’t. If this was proposed for these latter suburbs then he could ‘assure’ us that the sitting member ‘would be quite worried’. Supported the motion and does ‘prefer the evidence based approach’ although he isn’t completely happy with the proposal. Thought it was ‘damage control’. State government is in control and ‘they want to make a bit of money out of this site’. In cases like this it is worth being ‘objective and look at the surrounding area’ and ask ‘what is reasonable?’ Said that ‘unfortunately, we don’t have those controls anymore’ since it is a government controlled development. Said that the Panel ‘will look for the best evidence, the most persuasive’. Claimed that councillors had a ‘choice whether we put an emotive argument’ which people might be ‘happy’ about, but which is ‘unlikely to give us much credibility’. That would lead to 13 storeys and ‘I don’t want to see that’ nor does he particularly ‘want to see 8’ but ‘it’s better than 13’. Didn’t think ‘this should be happening’ and for the next state election to ‘give the state government hell over this’. Council needs to ‘put its best foot forward’ and to ensure that they have the ‘best option going forward’.

MAGEE: asked the mover and seconder whether they would accept the addition to the motion that council releases the Hansen report. Both agreed. Began by saying that there’s a ‘little place’ called the ‘real world’ and in this place the government has ‘every right’ to do some ‘value capture’ to recoup some of the money it has spent on the grade separation and this money eventually goes to ‘you and me’ as the tax and ‘ratepayers’. Said that council is ‘considering something that we asked for’ (ie consultant’s report). Council ‘decided’ that ‘we didn’t want to go to the Minister and say I think 5, I think 6’. He will ask how did you come to 6 storeys and we will say because next door is 6 storeys. Said that ‘regardless of what sits next door, VCAT cannot use this as a precedent’. With the amendment ‘we can prove how we came to that’ because ‘8 storeys doesn’t throw a shadow’ onto the south side and that the setbacks on the west are ‘sympathetic’ to heritage. ‘We brought in the experts’ and the Minister will listen to them because of all the criteria which ‘we mightn’t understand’ but the panel will. ‘This isn’t about 9 councillors saying I think, I like, I want’ because they are going to front a committee who understands how all this works. Can’t have the ‘expert’ saying 8 and council saying ‘7 or 6’ and council ‘not supporting the officer recommendation’. Said he doesn’t want 8, but he certainly doesn’t want 13 and can’t have a situation where ‘all the experts are saying this, but councillors are saying that’. ‘That defeats the purpose, no matter how much we don’t like it’. They’ve asked for an ‘evidence based approach’ and he thinks it is ‘incumbent on us to actually use that’.

TAYLOR: land is ‘precious’ and house prices are escalating and there’s a ‘housing shortage’. ‘On the other hand’, council has to ‘bear in mind where’ this development will go. All of this ‘has to be considered’ and perhaps a ‘little harsh’ to say that it’s ‘only a money grab’. ‘We did decide that we would defer to experts’ and ‘we are not experts’ in planning and if they are ignored then ‘why pay for experts in the first place?’ Experts give council ‘the best possible chance to get the best possible outcome’. On height and if councillors said only 6, then the panel would ask well, do you want 6 here, and here, over the whole site. But with this proposal there would be ‘bulk at the front’ only and a ‘greater probability’ of getting 3 and 4 storeys at the back. Worried that ‘if we trim that front they will say okay we’re going to have to get it somewhere’ so residents ‘will appreciate that they have a 3 level rather than a six level’ next to them.

SZTRAJT: wanted to ‘clarify something that was said before’ – hamely that if an application goes in for 8 storeys ‘next door’ and ‘we reject it’ whether this means that ‘VCAT can’t approve it’?

TORRES: said the site is under a ‘new set of rules’ which is a ‘building envelope’ and ‘you can build within that height without any resistance from local government’.

SZTRAJT: asked that ‘if a new developer’ and not government puts in an application for ‘8 storeys next door’, council rejects it and the developer goes to VCAT, can ‘VCAT not allow’ that development?

TORRES: asked if this was a ‘scenario on nearby land that is privately owned’. Was told ‘yes’. Said that it ‘would depend on the planning controls on that land’. If ‘it is in a Commercial 1 zone, there is no height control’ and the usual ‘decision making process could include VCAT overriding council decision’.  Said that according to the notion of ‘precedent’, that in planning there is the thinking that ‘each application is assessed on its merits and that tends to move away from the precedent notion’. This is because ‘every site is different’ even if they’ve got the ‘same zones’. ‘It can’t be said that just because there is 8 storeys near by that 8 storeys can just go’ into a neighbouring site.

HYAMS: agreed with Sztrajt and Esakoff ‘except for their conclusions’. SAid that ‘under normal circumstances’ he would never ‘say’ anything that could be seen as ‘supporting 8 storeys’ in Ormond.  Acknowledged that it’s a ‘lower order centre’ and 13 storeys is ‘way out of character’ for the area – ‘but these aren’t normal circumstances’. Government which ‘has power over all of us’ has set the circumstances and the urban design expert ‘has taken into account those circumstances’. Said he’s interested ‘in the best outcome for the community’ and this can only be achieved ‘if we make our expert evidence as strong as possible’. It is ‘possible’ that the government will simply put its 13 storeys up, but council’s best chance is to ‘go along with what our expert has said’. Doesn’t think that ‘just because an expert says something we automatically have to go along with it’. Councillors are the ‘decision makers’ and they have to ‘take that evidence, assess it’. But it’s also ‘important’ that ‘we do achieve the best result by assessing that evidence’.  On the question of ‘precedent’ he thought if it is 13 storeys then this ‘does change the way VCAT’ and applicants will ‘look at it’, and that’s one reason why council is ‘trying to keep it as low as possible’ by ‘throwing our weight behind the expert evidence’.

SZTRAJT: said they’ve been talking about ‘evidence based’ study but ‘we have one piece of evidence’ but ‘I understand that council may also have requested additional’ advice that ‘would include elements like the’ narrow streets alongside the project and ‘issues like the number of cars going’ down these streets. Wanted to know that if council is taking the ‘evidence based approach’ that they are not simply taking ‘one piece of evidence’ but ‘all three that have been requested by council’.

TORRES: said that council’s submission will ‘consist of 3’ expert evidence on traffic, urban design, and retail impact.

SZTRAJT: repeated that he wanted clarity that the evidence based approach is based on ‘all three’ documents and ‘not just one’.

TORRES: ‘yes’. SAid the council rep will ‘orchestrate’ at the panel the ‘strong presentation’ to ‘strongly support our submission’. All are on different topics, but will form part of the submission.

SZTRAJT: asked if ‘one piece of evidence’ is saying 8 storeys  and for example the traffic evidence says that the ‘bulk’ of the building ‘will create’ cars ‘in excess of what the streets can handle’ puts council in a position where they might have to ‘request less than 8 storeys’.

TORRES: said that traffic report ‘will not provide advice on urban design’ but ‘would likely come up with potential suggestions about road widths’ and so on.

ATHANASOPOULOS: asked why Torres had said to councillors that ‘evidence based’ would have ‘a bit more weight behind it’ when council would be arguing their case?

TORRES: said that ‘one word’ missing from all the discussion thus far is ‘independent’. The urban design report ‘has not been guided by officers’. SAid the report is based on ‘urban design principles’. Based on  council’s experience this kind of advice before panels and VCAT has ‘the strongest impact’.

DELAHUNTY: said council is in a very ‘unique’ position. Government on one side and community on the other, and so council had to do what it could to ‘collect the best evidence’. Said they’ve told the government that 13 storeys is ‘ridiculous’. Council has ‘done all that’ so they can’t come back and say ‘we want 5’ with ‘nothing backing that up’. ‘Our reputation is at stake in this process’ and the residents will benefit if ‘that reputation is intact’. ‘This process allows us to enhance our reputation’. They’ve also told government that it is a ‘mistake that they are the planning authority’ and it should be council. ‘Therefore, it is important that we do so with a straight bat’. SAid that the ‘solar access’ points made in the consultant’s report ‘are crucial’ whereas the ‘arbitrary 13 storeys said don’t worry’. Since both sides of the street should be in sunlight therefore the setbacks become important and ‘should be at this amount’. Everyone shouldn’t ‘just talk about height’. ‘Height can disappear if interaction is right’. Council is proposing that the building ‘better integrates’ into the village. There needs to be major ‘scaleback at the back’ to better integrate with heritage. Said that council is like an ordinary community member here and that the best way for them to go is ‘to use this evidence based approach’.

DAVEY: asked for details of when the panel would take place.

TORRES: said he wasn’t ‘up to speed’ on the panel hearing dates.

DAVEY: quoted Esakoff about getting ‘maximum building height’ so ‘hopefully they go less’. Said that Athanasopoulos cited ‘quite rightly’ that these sites have ‘specific controls’. What she found ‘quite disappointing’ plus recognising ‘the irony’ in her saying this as the Green ‘endorsed candidate’, the only party to formally endorse candidates, were Silver’s comments. It is disappointing that ‘we are bringing pure speculation’ about ‘the rationale’ behind the proposal. SAid the government ‘has every right’ to try and recoup its money. What’s disappointing is the speculation that this is ‘being done because of the sitting member in this seat’ (ie Liberal).