A car-free development

Local resident Sally Cowan. Photo Jay Turko
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A St Kilda building has been approved without a car park in an attempt to curb car ownership and provide more affordable apartments, writes Jay Turko.

Melbourne’s population has hit five million, and by 2050 it is predicted that it could be as high as eight million. 

Recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures for Victoria show that from 2006 to 2016, inner city Melbourne experienced one of the largest growth rates, second only to Tarneit, with a population increase of 26,200.  The city as a whole increased by 964,556, more than any other capital. 

Census figures also show that the number of commuters from Greater Melbourne to the city has increased by 182,000 from 2011, with almost three quarters opting for the car to get to work.

In March a developer was granted a permit to build an eight-storey apartment building in St Kilda, with no car parking.  The first of its kind for the City of Port Phillip, it goes against the 2018 Victorian Building Regulations, which state that any new building must provide car parking to its inhabitants.  The St Kilda project will be the largest building to be built without a car park.

The site at St Kilda road. Photo Jay Turko.

The structure, to be built at 36 St Kilda Rd, will host 13 apartments and, under the current regulations, would require 26 car spaces.

However, State Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning does allow for variations to car parking provisions, with amendment VC148.  It affects section 52.06 of the state building regulations, allowing a building to reduce car parking requirements when being built on land that is within 400 metres of metropolitan public transport services.  It is on this basis that the Council Planning Committee was able to propose the changes and allow council to vote on it.

In the March 27 meeting, all but one councillor voted in favour of the proposal.  Councillor Alan Bond disagreed with the idea as he believed it would put strain on the surrounding streets and turn the building into an “Airbnb or a backpacker establishment”. 

Other councillors present were more optimistic though, with Councillor Ogy Simic looking at the project as an opportunity.  “You can’t lack imagination when looking at this proposal.  It is an important way for us to look at new developments and is an incredible opportunity for us to have this model in our municipality and to be able to point to it when it does work.”

While being new to the City of Port Phillip, the building style is not new to Melbourne.  Brunswick-based architect Jeremy McLeod from Breathe Architecture designed the Nightingale and Commons buildings in Brunswick, which has used a similar model.   Neither of the buildings offer car spaces, encouraging the residents to utilise the nearby public transport and the network of bike paths when moving around locally, taking some of the strain off our roads. 

“People will buy into it knowing what they are buying into.  We’ve seen the Nightingale model works, and we can work towards something different in our municipality as a case study for what can be done differently,” Councillor Simic added.

Residents of the new building will not be short of options either, with five tram routes passing through the St Kilda Junction tram stop, just over 300 metres away.  The 246 bus route runs up Barkly St and Punt Rd, and Windsor train station is within walking distance.   

Encouraging a new car-free way of life is going to be important for Melbourne’s already strained traffic infrastructure moving forward.  The latest Census data shows that 84 per cent of households own one or more motor vehicles, and if these rates continue with predicted population growth, it could result in several million more cars on the roads, contributing to excess traffic and pollution. 

“There is a new generation of people coming through who aren’t tied to the idea of having their own car,” said Councillor Louise Crawford.  “The reality is, over time as we densify, the capacity to own a car in a new build and park on the street will not exist in a decade.”

“If we are looking to change things, it doesn’t improve without taking a bold step and trying new things.  We are seeing CBD living as becoming more popular, whereas once upon a time it wasn’t.  How we get around when you are close to everything you need is changing,” Councillor Crawford said.

Unlike previous buildings that have been built without car parking, this building will provide four spaces, all occupied by electric cars.  They will operate under a carshare system to be managed by the body corporate.  This will appeal to potential residents who can do away with the car they own for the occasional trip.  Added to this, the area is full of car share, ride share and now scooter share applications, all operating within St Kilda Rd precinct.  The building will also provide 20 spaces for scooters and a generous bicycle locker.

Occupants of the building who do want to own a car however will not qualify for residential parking permits, as per the City of Port Phillip’s Parking Permit Policy.  Addresses with buildings built after 1997 do not qualify.  This provision was introduced as it is assumed that any building built after 1997 would need to be designed with car parking provisions to be approved. 

When casting their votes, all councillors acknowledged the parking issue but only Councillor Bond expressed his concerns.  “It is a noble idea.  It sounds great where everyone shares cars and gets around on bicycles, but the reality is these people are going to have cars and it will impact other members of our municipality, transferring the car parking issue to the neighbouring streets.” 

Sally Cowan, a resident of the adjacent road, Octavia St, was also concerned.  “It is hard enough already finding parking on my street.  In the evenings all the spots are taken quickly, and I sometimes have to park on Crimea or Charnwood (neighbouring roads).”

When asked about the building’s design though, Sally was positive.  She rarely uses her car and is thinking about getting rid of it.  The cost of registration and upkeep can be steep and the increased rent to live in the inner city all add up.  “For the few times that I really need a car I could use the Flexi Car which is right out the front,” she said. 

Sally does not qualify for a residential parking permit and her house share only has off street parking for one vehicle.  One side of her street is for permit holders whilst the other side is two hour parking between the hours of 9am and 7pm, making it difficult to leave her car for long periods of time.

It is for these reasons that the building regulations demand that parking be provided, but the recently released Victorian Planning Schemes Design and Development Overlay is providing alternatives for developers.  The recent Port Phillip Planning Scheme allows development to go higher, which is why the skinny block at 36 St Kilda Rd will rise eight storeys and is sympathetic to the challenge of providing parking on difficult sites.

To the joy of the developer and the owners alike, the estimated cost savings to remove car parking per apartment in the Nightingale and Commons projects was approximately $30,000.  This was supported by local resident and builder Pat Howard.  Mr Howard owns a small building company, UrbanCon, and believes the saving could be large.  “Doing away with the initial civil works would certainly provide some cost savings,” said Pat.  “I just hope they are passed on to the consumer.”

Many feel that our traffic infrastructure will not keep up with the demand in the coming years.  Roads are already at capacity, with the traditional ‘peak hour’ now being two hours in the morning and three hours in the evening, according to RACV travel advice. 

Innovative ideas will be needed to combat Melbourne’s population and traffic woes in the future but curbing the trend of car ownership is a start.  In his closing statement to the Planning Committee, Councillor David Brand said:  “It’s a win, win, win for the whole city.  It’s a win because we have fewer cars in the city, it’s a win for people who want to pay less for not having a car and are getting rewarded for it, and it’s just generally a good idea.”