Without warning last Friday at midnight the Victorian Government did away with the ‘25,000 square metre rule’ as it has been for the past 20 years. Especially undemocratic, this rule empowered the planning minister to approve any building with over 25,000 square metres of floor space without recourse to the local council or the community. It has had dramatic irreversible long-term impacts for Melbourne. This blog reflects on its history.
The rise of the Tower
In 1916, Melbourne introduced a height limit of 32 feet – 40 metres – on all buildings. ICI House was given an exception in 1955 to rise to 81 metres – or 17,850 square metres of floor space – and in 1957 the 32 feet rule was abolished. Over the following two decades tens of towers rose across the Melbourne CBD.
The rise of Heritage
By the 1970s, the tower had become troublesome, particularly as Melburnians realised what had been lost in its wake – such as The Federal Coffee Palace. The issue was not only the loss of specific buildings but also how the feeling of the city was changing as new buildings materialised, too often for the worse. As the activist Collins Street Defence Movement realised, keeping significant architecture was important, but so was safeguarding the city’s premiere thoroughfare for people. That is, making sure light reaches the streets, preventing overshadowing, allowing airflow, and maximising public open space. In 1972, Victoria introduced legislation to safeguard heritage. As a result, some of the most valuable CBD sites were no longer available for towers because they contained heritage listed buildings that could not so easily be demolished.
The rise of Capital
The 1972 heritage act coincided with an international economic downturn. Over the following decade, there was less capital to pursue tower projects, and so this period also marked the heyday of CBD heritage preservation. By the 1980s, however, with the deregulation of Australia’s capital markets and an upturn in the economy, there was a renewed appetite for towers. And state governments became embroiled in their construction.
In Melbourne, the battle over the Rialto epitomised these shifts. The Rialto Towers was approved in late 1981 over the existing heritage listed buildings. The planning minister did away with the recommendations of the independent heritage council and the National Trust. The Melbourne City Council was no barrier either as the state government had sacked the council and appointed commissioners (over governance issues). Even once elections were held, the council’s planning powers were not returned by the state government. Because of Rialto, the 1982 revision to the heritage act gave more leeway to the planning minister. This was an unrepresentative period in Melbourne urban politics when the tower again dominated.
The rise and rise of Capital
The state government retained its CBD planning powers until the ‘The Capital City Policy’ was jointly launched with the Melbourne City Council in 1994. A commenter wrote that, ‘The final document is full of glamorous pictures and is promotional in tone. A lot of space is wasted by motherhood statements and blatant rhetoric.’
As part of the policy, the state government took over areas from council that were deemed of ‘state interest’ such as Docklands and Southbank. In exchange, the council had its planning powers returned, except for buildings larger than 25,000 square metres. In October 1995, the 25,000 square metre rule came into force. This delicate status quo took 12 years to reach, and was maintained for another 20 years. It was a deal that may have suited council in 1994, but by the early 2000s was already disputed.
The rise and rise of the Tower
In the 1990s, a proposal for a building greater than 25,000 square metres was a rarity. The rule was supposed to encourage investment, enabling high-profile booster projects such as Eureka Tower and preventing drawn-out disputes such as the Rialto. It was conceivably meant to fast-track heritage contentious projects like Melbourne’s Hotel Windsor – which had been earmarked for a tower since the 1970s and is still in limbo. It was bound to the heritage and liveability battles of the 1960s-80s when people had begun to demand better cities. Though it favoured development and sought to do away with community opposition.
With increased capital flows into Melbourne, by the 2010s proposals for towers over 25,000 square metres had become an everyday occurrence. A planning minister was dubbed ‘Mr. Skyscraper’ because of the sheer number of towers he had approved. While some developers were in favour of retaining the rule, the majority of commentary agreed that it was time for it to be done away with. After a change of government the rule was changed with little fanfare as part of a ‘modernisation agenda’. It is perhaps no coincidence that the planning minister responsible for the change was also Lord Mayor of Melbourne in 1990-1991, a time when the council had no planning powers at all.
25,000 no more?
The 25,000 square metre rule existed for no good evidence-based reason. It was undemocratic by design, and sought to prevent Melburnians from having a say in their city. It came about because state governments in the 1980s and 1990s had taken powers away from the local council as part of their ‘pro-development’ agendas. The scars of the rule are numerous poorly designed towers in the CBD.
Just a few weeks shy of its twentieth anniversary we say goodbye to the 25,000 square metre rule as it was. The Melbourne City Council will once again have a say on developments over 25,000 square metres, and combined with a series of other planning scheme changes, the oversized towers of the recent past may be no longer possible. For heritage, it will be harder to get unpopular tower projects approved and smaller sites will become less attractive for developers. At the very least, the 25,000 rule as we knew it is no more, proposing a better urban future for Melbourne.
[Conclusion revised from comments.]
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