Prepared 7 April 2019
In a decision released late on Friday, VCAT has required the developer proposing a large apartment complex at 269 Stewart Street to make additional changes to the design to further moderate adverse impacts upon CERES and the Merri Creek valley, if it is to be acceptable.
However VCAT indicated that if it finds these additional changes satisfactory, it would be prepared to approve a six storey building on this site. This is a surprising conclusion, as within its decision VCAT finds that “a four storey height on this site could be an acceptable scale” and that any taller building would be “challenging” for several reasons including that “there is no support within the planning scheme for this level of intensification”. A four storey scale was advocated by CERES as appropriate.
Despite this discussion, the Tribunal appears to have felt bound to retain an expectation that six storeys “may be possible” made in its 2017 decision. This suggests the Tribunal felt there had not been sufficient formal change of policy since the earlier decision to justify a shift of position. This is despite a dramatic reversal in Council’s policy position between hearings, correcting advice in 2017 that erroneously stated this land was designated for intensive redevelopment. However the corrected policy document has not yet been included into the Planning Scheme to remove uncertainty, so was “given limited weight” by VCAT. This delay was due to a procedural challenge by the developer ahead of November’s hearing that is blocking finalisation of this correction.
While still so large it would have adverse impacts on CERES (particularly visual and road safety), the likely outcome is a significant moderation from earlier proposals since 2016. Apartment numbers have been cut from 106 to 75 or less, building setbacks from CERES’ boundary have increased from as little as 1 metre to 6 metres at ground level and over 11 metres on upper floors, enabling substantial landscaping and large screening trees. A greatly improved interface with Stewart Street includes retention of existing mature trees, a deep forecourt and a widened footway.
These significant achievements in moderating the worst impacts of the proposal have justified CERES’ persistence in defending the integrity of its parkland and wider setting. However the ongoing workload and uncertainty became a major distraction to CERES over the past three years, placing demands on staff, volunteers and pro bono advisors, with call outs across our wide support base. This includes 14 days of appearances at VCAT so far, and was compounded by the confusion generated by the erroneous policy compilation that Council acknowledged after the 2017 hearing, and corrected in April 2018.
CERES reinforces that it is not opposed to urban consolidation to support more sustainable living, but highlights the importance of good design that is consistent with considered strategies, and consistent with the importance of open spaces and spaces for ‘retreat’ as important elements of sustainable urban areas. CERES is a valuable contributor of this vital element that enables consolidation of population, but its effectiveness is threatened in this case by a proposal that was incongruous, insensitive and inconsistent with accepted policies for the locality.
CERES thanks all those who have supported our calls for help in responding to this threat in multiple ways. This has reminded us of how cherished CERES is, as a place and as part of the community – a positive reassurance when finding ourselves under threat. CERES particularly thanks specialist experts who provided pro bono assistance, and Moreland Councillors, who voted unanimously to refuse the second permit application, enabling this proposal to be vigorously tested at VCAT.
The proponent is required to submit modified plans to VCAT by 13 May, and CERES will have a brief opportunity to comment on these ahead of a final decision on whether this proposal is approved.
CERES is also a party to the procedural challenge to Amendment C167 (which contains the corrected policy compilation for the Brunswick Structure Plan area). This is set for 3 days in late September, but it is anticipated that this action may be discontinued if a permit is granted for this proposal.