Building height issue continues to rise

The issue of building heights has become a significant issue, with a range of proposals for high rise buildings in and around the city centre has been rejected by Hobart City Council. As a result of public concern, a public meeting has been called to discuss the issue. Central to the discussion is a recommendation from the Hobart City Council’s Planning Committee that the height of all buildings should be restricted to 45 metres. There are buildings which already exceed that height and the fear expressed by many is that an uncontrolled height limit will destroy the fabric of the city. In fact, the issue is not simply one of height. Form, structure and density also play a part, as does visual impact and visual amenity (described as view cones). All are essential ingredients in this debate and these factors are at risk of being overlooked or discarded in a desire to set an overall maximum height limit for the city. The “K” block development at the Royal Hobart Hospital is a case in point. This monolithic structure abuts Campbell Street and dominates the surrounding landscape. It is a ten storey building and stands 68.5 metres tall. But just imagine if a similar structure had been built behind a three or a four-storey building.

In such a circumstance the impact would be far less intrusive from a streetscape point of view, although its height would still have some impact on visual amenity from a distance. The council in 2016 sought advice from Leigh Woolley, an architect and urban design consultant, who advised on the need to take such factors into account, as well as landform characteristics. These concepts were accepted by Council and were written into the Council’s Interim Planning Scheme as amendments to the Scheme, and these amendments were subsequently approved by the State’s Planning Commission. Council then sought further advice from Mr Woolley, who in 2018 provided a very detailed Building Height Standards Report, which took into account what could/ should be built in particular parts of the city. It truly is a seminal piece of work, and a vitally important planning document. It is a must-read. In particular, he noted Hobart was not built on a flat landscape but existed within a basin that reached up into the hills beyond. He expressed the view that there were 5 discrete zones (“cove floor”, “escarpment”, “cove face”, “hill face”, and “edge”) and that developments in each of these zones should be sensitive to the specific characteristics of the site, as well as to their form and substance (eg; height, bulk).

He emphasised in his report the concept of a “central” zone lying between the “cove face” and the “hill face” zones, and of the type and form of developments that could occur in this zone, analyses block by block. He made a specific recommendation that within the CBD the building height should not exceed 75 metres, due to visual amenity issues, and this recommendation has been taken up by supporters and critics alike without reference to other factors. Council officers, in a report to Council, recommended that this figure be reduced to 60 metres (a figure recommended by Woolley for different areas) and that recommendation has been amended yet again by the Council’s Planning Committee to 45 metres, (a figure also suggested by Woolley for yet other areas). Council has yet to make a final decision on this matter. In other words, the nuance that was the driver behind the Woolley report is in danger of being lost altogether. We support the Woolley Report recommendation. We recognise that further development can occur in the CBD without affecting the character and charm of the city and that such guidelines if accepted, would give proper guidance to developers. This diagram from the Woolley Report shows the zones as outlined in the report, together with existing buildings that already exceed his recommended height limits. The full report can be accessed on the Hobart City Council website.