Are Victorian architects aware of what restrictive new residential zones mean for the profession? Colleen Peterson argues that the impacts will be far-reaching and detrimental.

Many architects will be familiar with the recent adoption of three new residential zones in Victoria that will replace the existing Residential 1, 2 and 3 Zones over the next eight months. On the surface, the zones appear to be a relatively benign translation of the existing zones with the potential inclusion of a series of mandatory controls, including height and density, to give ‘certainty’ to suburban Melbourne about how its residential heartland could be further developed.

The new zones – what do they mean?

At first glance, the Residential Growth Zone (RGZ) encourages development up to four storeys and would typically be found at the edge of activity centres. The General Residential Zone (GRZ) allows for moderate levels of residential growth, typically in the order of two to three storeys; while the Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ) allows for one- to two-storey developments, no more than two dwellings per lot, and the potential for councils to prescribe minimum lot sizes of, say, 500m2.

Whilst the NRZ is a highly restrictive zone, the advisory note on the implementation of the proposed reformed zones clearly articulate that the NRZ would only be applied to ‘…areas where single dwellings prevail and change is not identified, such as areas of recognised neighbourhood character or environmental or landscape significance.’ As a consequence, concern over the highly restrictive nature of this zone was limited, as most people assumed that it would be applied only in heritage areas and other sensitive areas affected by overlays.

What has occurred to date, and would appear to be likely to be approved in the coming months, is the widespread approval of this highly restrictive zone to the majority of residential land in established residential areas. This has significant implications for the supply of housing in Victoria, the economic contribution of residential development to the State and, specifically for architects and designers, the loss of a substantial area of work, medium-density housing projects.

Where have they been applied?

In August 2013, in the City of Glen Eira, we saw the Minister for Planning approve a zone regime that puts 84% of that municipality’s residential land into the NRZ. This effectively shuts down the supply of medium-density housing in most of that municipality. Following hot on the trail of Glen Eira are other local government areas seeking to lock between 70% and 90% of their residential land into the NRZ. Councils such as Boroondara are proposing to put 80% of their residential land into the NRZ and, in addition, require a minimum lot size of 500m2. This means that lots need to be 1000m2 to build even a dual occupancy. The Council is proposing to lock away land fronting main roads, land abutting tram lines and bus routes, and land within easy walking distance of activity centres. It is likely that the Minister will form a decision on Boroondara’s proposed application on the zones before Christmas 2013.

Councils that have proposed a more rational approach to the application of the zones, such as Stonnington and Whitehorse, are now feeling significant political pressure to change their approach given the proposals of other municipalities.

Drawbacks of the NRZ

The overuse of the Neighbourhood Residential Zone (NRZ) will have the following effects:

  • Limit housing choice
  • Reduce housing affordability
  • Have a negative impact on sustainability by locking away significant portions of Melbourne with good access to public transport and social infrastructure
  • Have significant negative impacts on the Victorian building industry and the Victorian economy (ultimately with job losses)

In this context we should be concerned that the application of the new zones will have significant and far-reaching impacts for Melbourne’s liveability and economy. While I appreciate the new framework will provide clarity for property owners and the community, it is vital to ensure that the interests of all parties are balanced in the way the new zones are applied.

The inevitable cumulative consequence of the extensive use of NRZ will be that medium-density housing supply will be limited across Melbourne; effectively forcing the majority of new entrants into Melbourne’s housing market into high-rise development in places like Fisherman’s Bend or to the outer fringe.

As baby boomers seek to down-size and their children enter the housing market, demand for diverse forms of housing in these heavily restricted areas will continue to grow. However, the limited development opportunities available in these areas as a result of the excessive use of the NRZ will attract high prices, reducing housing affordability across the board.

Liberal application of the NRZ will also result in flow on negative economic impacts to the housing industry, which is an important component of the State economy. Smaller to medium scale builders will have a significant decline in the opportunities presented to them for medium scale multi-unit development and, in turn, this sector will experience job losses.

The reduction in supply of land suitable for smaller residential projects (and by this I mean anything from three units to three-storey apartment buildings) will have a significant impact on architects and designers, many of whom operate within the medium-density housing sphere.  With fewer projects available, the supply of work will shrink, leaving many professionals and allied industries without work.

It is essential that pressure be placed on the State Government to see the difficulties in its approach. I would encourage contacting the Premier, Treasurer and Minister for Planning on these issues. Details on how to contact these ministers can be found here. There is no doubt that mounting pressure is starting to have an effect on the government’s position and all design professionals have a vested interested in making their voices heard.

For more details, get involved with the debate on social media and follow me at @colleenpeterson and look for the topic #badplanning.