The draft Fortitude Valley Neighbourhood Plan was recently approved by Brisbane City Council. Undoubtedly one of its most controversial features is the proposed 30-storey building height in the Valley Heart Precinct which is considered to be an iconic colonial heritage area, “a rich tapestry of new and old buildings, streets and lanes, cultures and character which make it distinctly ‘the Valley.” To achieve this height, the draft Plan encourages the amalgamation of typical Valley lots in order to consolidate sites of 2,000 m2 to 3,000 m2. The towers will be located on podiums “identifiable” at ground level.
This new building type is a completely new beast in the Valley context. As explained by Chris Buckley, planning consultant and a member of the Queensland Heritage Council, “ the Valley is a place of small shops and commercial buildings in contrast to the City. Buildings in the Valley – for example, on Wickham St and Brunswick St – are smaller, plainer, lower and on smaller sites. The McWhirters and TC Beirne buildings stand out in the Valley, yet are relatively small by CBD standards.”
While the intention behind the proposed heights increment addresses urgent urban and sustainability issues –the need to increase
building densities in inner city areas with significant transportation hubs in order to accommodate population growth projections while reducing the urban sprawl- the chosen building and public space types for a heritage context such as the Valley Heart Precinct raises a few a questions.
Particularly when long ago, the Fortitude Valley Urban Vision prepared for Council in 2007 clearly stated a series of principles which should guide renewal and densification in an area like the Valley: “ this vision aims to identify, release, and connect the latent mid-block spaces to form a rich and diverse percolating public realm that encourages diverse uses, retains heritage built fabric and contributes to a distinctive quality of place for the Valley………..it aspires to a built form that provides mid-block connections, preserves the fine grain fabric, reuses heritage and character buildings, provides strongly built urbane scaled streets, and accommodates density.”
As architects concerned with the production and preservation of quality urban environments, one of the questions that interests use the most relates to which are the most adequate building and public space types that should be implemented to achieve higher densities while preserving scale, adequate uses mix, cultural features and character, specially in our own Brisbane context.
For this purpose we conducted a brief examination of two iconic inner city areas where increased urban densities have been implemented in very different ways. These areas Petrie Bight in the city and the Woolstores Precinct in Teneriffe. Both areas are closely linked to Brisbane’s history and tradition and therefore showcase substantial heritage buildings, enjoy Brisbane River frontages and have great public space potential.
Due to its proximity to the waterfront, during the last 20 years the Petrie Bight area has been intensely developed mainly through
the implementation of the Podium/Highrise type. The result of this building frenzy are numerous competing towers with an average of 38-storeys height, along with Brisbane’s highest dwelling density (approximately 380 dwellings per hectare) .
Predictably, and as encouraged by the podium/highrise type, everything faces the waterfront while city streets are left out from the public space network. Howard Street clearly illustrates this problem. The resulting streetscape has lost any sense of scale and is now reduced to service lane status.
The lack of mixed uses and active frontages are just some of the side effects of the use of the podium/highrise type. The highrises have actually created a barrier isolating themselves from the immediate urban fabric. Additionally, private recreation spaces located at upper podium levels have sucked dry almost all street activity, effectively alienating residents from the public realm at ground level. The riverfront walkway is all the public space left but also isolated from the internal cityscape.
On the other hand, the Woolstores Precinct in Teneriffe has been an emblematic example of respectful and cautious urban renewal strategies. Both heritage buildings and the existing streetscape character have dictated the density, building typologies and heights to be applied.
Just as Petrie Bight, and mainly due to its proximity to the waterfront, thisarea has seen intense urban renewal and densification in the last 15 years. But unlike Petrie Bight, existing building types and heights have been maintained and new related hybrid types have been implemented, some which include reusing existing heritage buildings. The result is a significantly increased density (approximately 190 dwellings per hectare) that is able to maintain character, an adequate urban scale, active street frontages, healthy connectivity and a varied public space network . Vernon terrace is a good example:
In contrast to Petrie Bight, the waterfront is not only well integrated into the urban public space network, but is not the only public space alternative available for residents. Streets such as Vernon Terrace are common providing a healthy mix of uses and activities where traditional and contemporary architecture follow a common thread.
Petrie Bight vs. Woolstores
As briefly discussed, both the planning approach and the resulting cityscape cannot be more different. The Petrie Bight area has
been lost to extreme density, cluttered competing highrises and dead streets. On the other hand, the Woolstores Precinct remains a characterised, active and diverse area in constant evolution. But perhaps what is most interesting is to compare how these different ways of applying renewal and densification in inner city environments can render such contrasting spatial qualities, while achieving not very dissimilar densities.
As shown on the diagrams above, the density achieved in the Woolstores Precinct is half of that presently achieved in the Petrie Bight area, but still significantly high for Brisbane and international standards. However, the startling contrast in spatial quality is evident in the streetscape sectional diagram. While Petrie Bight’s podium/highrise type has destroyed urban scale and dried out city streets, the application of adequate building types in the Woolstores area has produced a coherent and improved urban context where character, scale, activity and public space have been enhanced.
The implementation of the podium/highrise type seems to have come at a great cost in the Petrie Bight area, whereas the increase in density does not seem to have been that significant and positive for the city. Wouldn’t it be better to achieve densification levels that are still high and adequate – such as the ones currently present in the Woolstores Precinct- while preserving healthy sustainable neighbourhoods which provide invaluable expressions of unique (and scarce) Brisbane character?