The Age reported on the weekend that a Melbourne developer has released plans for a high-rise public school with a rooftop playground. The developer, David Wardlaw, stated that a 25- to 30-storey tower would likely be added to his company’s plans in light of “Melbourne City Council’s decision to allow buildings over 36 metres if the package came with a school”.

For those not involved in the arcane world of statutory planning, it might seem strange — even outrageous — that the maximum height of a building can be bought and sold, traded off, and bargained for other amenities. Lots of energy and emotion gets spent on debates about the “right” height in a particular location, but it seems it can be pretty flexible concept. It’s as much about small “p” politics as “science”.

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Of course, largely subjective decisions will always be made about the aesthetic impact of buildings along with hard-nosed stuff like over-shadowing. Here, for example, is The Wall Street Journal’s Richard Gardner Jnr discussing the new 75-storey One57 tower nearing completion in Manhattan:

“I just think (towers) have their place, but looming over Central Park, sabotaging Olmsted’s carefully crafted illusion of Elysian fields and enchanted glades, isn’t one of them, because every time you look up there it is staring back at you.”

I don’t think planners and politicians have done enough to explain how community’s gain, or lose, from regulating development through tools like building height. It’s power as a bargaining chip is clear enough but not the value or distributional implications of restricting height in the first place.

It ought to be possible to say, within a reasonable approximation, what impact a change in height will have on the cost of infrastructure and the cost of doing business and living in the area. Planners should be able to model, given reasonable assumptions, how a change is expected to impact on critical variables like housing supply or office space supply, or on the cost of expanding transport infrastructure.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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