As the search begins for next Victorian Government Architect (OVGA) it is an appropriate time to reflect on the nature of its role and how its function might be improved in the future.
The role of OVGA design review panel in the past has been to offer expert advice to the proponents of built projects that for reasons of scale, location or heritage status are considered significant to the state of Victoria. To date they have offered advice primarily on large publicly funded projects, citing the Royal Children’s Hospital and AAMI stadium as examples where their oversight has contributed to better outcomes for the city.
The OVGA’s state government funding means that they have been able to carry out their advisory role at no cost to the (largely public) projects that they advise. This arrangement will come to an end in September when the current funding model will expire, to be replaced by a fee for service model. This leaves the office in a compromised ‘limbo’ position; its services will be neither supplied free of charge, nor are they a mandated planning requirement. The unclear function of the office means that public projects are unlikely to be able to afford the design review panel’s expert advice, while private projects have little incentive to seek out the added oversight. Ultimately this arrangement will push the design review panel to the margins.
Given than Melbourne is undergoing a period of rapid inner city renewal, the present seems to be the worst time to be defunding and depowering programs of this nature. In the wake of the lacklustre outcomes seen in Docklands and Southbank, Victoria ought to be asking, how can we achieve better oversight for projects on the near horizon? The state ought to utilise its world leading experts in the sphere of planning, architecture and urban design to extract a better urban realm without crippling the momentum of the development industry. In order to do this we must pull the OVGA back from the brink of irrelevance.
The solution lies in incentivising developers to utilise the design review panel. If developers must now pay a fee to procure advice from the panel, these ‘customers’ must gain significantly more value from the process than they have previously. If such a balance can be struck this would help to generating a robust client pipeline and may solve the revenue shortfall that threatens the future of the program. In terms of extending the program’s value and influence, any design concession that the panel seeks to extract in the name of the city must be offset by value the developer stands to gain.
This transactional relationship between developers and a review board is not an entirely new idea. In the 1910’s the City of New York faced problems when rapid densification began compromising the quality of the streetscape. The issue was that the height and bulk of towers blocked light from reaching the street, depriving the neighbouring streets of air and sunlight. The government of the time responded by rewarding towers that pulled back from the street as they rose in height with height limit relaxations. They again offered relaxations to projects that included public space at ground level. The light and public space problem that faced New York in the 1910’s is not the same design quality problem that urban Melbourne faces now. What is the same, however, is relevance of an incentives-based framework.
In a more local context, the Adelaide City Council launched a project that rewarded development projects that used their equivalent of the design review panel with planning verdicts guaranteed within twenty days. This reduced the cost substantially for the developer and increased funding for the review panel. Learning from this South Australian example, the design review panel should have authority to provide its clients with value both in the form of planning relations and procedural advantages.
Furthermore, the design review panel should be equipped with the power to offer appropriate planning concessions to projects that offer outstanding design merit. If a proposal is deemed by the expert panel to be in the interests of the city, then there should be discretion to relax stringent height, setback or car parking regulations. Equipping the panel with such power would likely drive up design quality as developers may seek to make a profitable trade off between the likely design concessions sought by the review panel and the profitable square meter gains received as a by-product.
The added benefit of this is mode of operation is to fund the OVGA to continue its valuable role offering free advice to publicly funded projects. The potential fees accrued from the private sector projects will be sufficient to support the panel in their advisory role to projects of civic consequence. This would not only allow the office to continue to operate but further its reach into segments of the industry that could most benefit from design input.
It would be in the interest of the city to see the design review panel pivot from its role on the fringes to an important contributor in all new significant built work. The greater the influence that design can have on the development process the longer our city will maintain its status as one of the worlds most liveable cities.
Words: William Brouwers