No development over rail line without master planning: Expert

Sean Car

Developments shouldn't occur over rail lines in public airspace without the state government first undertaking master planning in consultation with the community.

The call by director of RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research Professor Jago Dodson follows a $25 billion pitch by private investment group Connex Capital last month to build up to 24 buildings above rail lines between Flinders Street and South Yarra Stations.

The “nation-building” project was submitted as part of the state government’s market-led proposal scheme, which allows private groups to suggest projects. However, the plans have not progressed to formal consideration.

Offering to purchase the airspace above the rail lines for a whopping $6 billion, the proposal would see a string of towers and buildings cover over what the project’s spokesperson Sam Almaliki described as the “scar of Melbourne”.

Incorporating plans for a TAFE, school and a linear park, the plans would see around 9000 apartments constructed above the train line, with a wall of towers soaring over East Melbourne and Melbourne’s Sports Precinct.

While the vision drew praise from some including Lord Mayor Sally Capp, others slammed it as “ghettos in the sky”, while former Premier Ted Baillieu was reported in the Herald Sun as describing it as “unfriendly crap that would divide the city”.

Professor Dodson said while offering market-led proposals were a “useful exercise” for getting some “creative schemes dreamed up”, the Connex Capital vision represented an “extreme change” near the CBD that would “considerably reshape the structure of the city”.

“As far as innovative ideas go, this is on the extreme end [of the scale],” Professor Jago said. “It’s a very narrow strip of land they would be seeking air space so it would need to be very high to maximise the small footprint.”

“What’s interesting is the linear nature of it, which shouldn’t really be viewed differently to that of a precinct. It’s out of scope with the state government’s major redevelopment precincts, which it is still deliberating, such as Arden-Macauley, Fishermans Bend, as well as starting to think about the Suburban Rail Loop, which is being viewed as much as a precinct.”

Talks regarding developing over the “scars of Melbourne”, including the Flinders Street and Spencer Street Railyards are nothing new. In 2008, the Brumby Government announced a residential and entertainment precinct known as Federation Square East.

In 2018, former Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood led talks from the City of Melbourne to deck Southern Cross Station’s rail lines with a series of sporting ovals. No such plans have ever progressed further.

But the legitimacy of selling off public airspace to private interests to the tune of $6 billion has sparked fresh debate regarding how these spaces should be best utilised to balance public and private interests.

The City of Melbourne this month has called on the state government to develop urban planning controls for the 1.4-hectare Treasury Square site along Flinders St and Wellington Parade, which was sold off for private interests with little community consultation.

Professor Dodson told Inner City News he held similar concerns for proposals such as the Connex Capital plan, which he said should be deliberated transparently and incorporated in a refreshed Plan Melbourne strategy. He said that with 2022 marking five years since the latest Plan Melbourne iteration, it presented a timely opportunity to review airspace above railyards within a broader context for the city.

“My concern primarily is that question [whether to develop over railyards] gets deliberated in the public sphere,” he said. “What is problematic is when developers get hold of the land before the public is consulted.”

“It would seem this proposal ought to be questioned further in the next round of Plan Melbourne. The government needs to refresh the metropolitan part of the plan to include the Suburban Rail Loop anyway.”

“Given that we’re likely to see return to a high-growth model for Melbourne, there will continue to be pressure on property markets close to the CBD, so it’s wise for the government to think about, understand the nature of the asset and get various perspectives.”

“The question about the railyards has been posed for decades now, so it’s a timely reminder. I wouldn’t say this [Connex Capital proposal] is something that is necessary. If they [government] wanted to explore it, then including it in Plan Melbourne would be the way to go.” •

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