We’re facing significant challenges in the housing and real estate market these days. And still it seems hard to convince people that change is necessary to respond to the enormous challenges of climate change and the affordable housing crisis. This is especially true in the real estate industry, where trends and practices have developed over many years and are a little set in stone.
So how does one trigger change? Sometimes unwittingly when an unusual or noteworthy event captures people’s attention. One great example is a planning battle that was fought by an architect in Melbourne, Australia.
Jeremy McLeod, director of the architecture studio, Breathe, is committed to providing affordable and sustainable housing to the Melbourne community. When Jeremy tested these objectives with his first project, The Commons, a mid-sized condominium project in the heart of Melbourne, the project was an unequivocal success, as it quickly sold out, won various awards for sustainability, and was completed on budget.
Sustainable, affordable and pretty gorgeous, people wanted more just like it. And so, with a waiting list of over a hundred people, Jeremy decided to pursue a second project right across the street and went about getting a planning permit to begin the project. The planning permit was approved. And then a neighboring developer challenged it in court. Breathe was building apartments that were 20% bigger, 20% cheaper, and substantially better than traditional apartments in the area, and better than the developer was planning to build. As you can imagine, other developers were concerned that this was going to create issues in the market.
Well-funded and with a powerful legal team, the challenging developer was successful and Breathe was stripped of its planning permit for the building, Nightingale. This put them back to square one, with the task of starting the long planning application process from scratch again. For Jeremy it was a devastating moment and one that nearly broke him and his team.
The public response
While the loss of the permit was beyond disheartening, it unexpectedly became a turning point for the project, bringing waves of public support. The press heard of the permit challenges and became very fired up over the loss of the permit. The idea of shutting down a project that had high community aspirations – affordable, carbon-neutral housing for first-time home buyers in a very expensive housing market – did not sit well with many and got lots of attention. It seemed objectively contrary to the goals of the community. As a result, it worked to spark a powerful public response.
This outcry was only strengthened when the reasons for the permit loss were highlighted. In the Appeals Court, the issue turned over the car parking, namely the fact that there wasn’t a parking lot in the basement. However, the project is on a train line, with a bikeway leading to the CBD right next to it, and 30% of future residents didn’t even have a driver’s license. At least 40% of future residents had already committed to either getting rid of their car or parking it in one of the many lots in the area. All in all, it was a decision that didn’t seem to make much sense.
The result was that support for this type of carbon-neutral, affordable housing literally grew overnight. The waiting list for Nightingale went from 125 to 400 people in one day. Now, there are 8,500 people on the waiting list.
It was a difficult and unusual way to gain support, but the seemingly unfounded stripping of Nightingale’s planning permit was ultimately an incredibly effective way to raise support for a new type of housing. This battle brought some central issues to light, helped frame important topics for the community, and drew attention to what types of changes were possible. In Melbourne, the community responded with resounding support for innovative designs and a new housing model. Hopefully, this is momentum that will carry over to other communities and areas.
If you want to learn more, listen in to to Eve’s interview with Jeremy about this project and the work that Breathe is doing.
Image of Nightingale I, Melbourne, by Eve Picker