At the Global Retail Real Estate Convention last week organised by the International Council of Shopping Centres in Las Vegas, urban strategist Chris Leinberger kicked off a discussion by talking about the industry’s new buzzword: the TOD. The TOD is an acronym for Transit Oriented Development. TODs are mixed-use, high density, pedestrian and cycling “lifestyle centres” situated on vacant land near railway stations. The idea has been around for at least five years but is suddenly big in American planning circles. Leinberger, a visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, described them as the biggest structural change in urban development since the 1950s. “[The TOD is] one of the most important trends of our time,” he told the Vegas conference. “It is a structural shift in development”.
This structural shift is looking an increasingly attractive option in the era of high petrol prices and TODs are taking off rapidly in the US. City planners in Washington DC, Portland, Seattle, Austin and Denver all have TOD projects in various phases of planning or completion. The idea of living, working and shopping within walking distance of public transport is clearly an attractive idea whose time has come. And now, slowly but surely, the idea is crossing the Pacific.
Car dependent Australian cities face many of the same problems encountered by US urban areas and local authorities here are starting to look at Transit Oriented Development solutions. The urban sprawl of the South East Queensland corridor from Coolangatta to Noosa in particular, is straining at the edges as it copes with large internal immigration from the southern states. Authorities are now looking to TODs to play a key role in achieving social, economic and environmental sustainability in the region. In 2005, the State Government released its South East Queensland regional plan (pdf) for the 21 year period 2005-2026 and it identified several planned TODs which would be located in existing public transport hubs of Milton, Bowen Hills, Buranda, Woolloongabba, Cleveland and Albion.
The plan called for a taskforce to implement the TODs. Each development will incorporate high density housing, commercial development to encourage employment opportunities, open spaces, and seamless integration between the transit node (railway or bus station) and the community. However the taskforce will face some considerable difficulties to make their plans a reality. They need to bring the community with them. While professionals have been exposed to this fairly new concept, it has not yet gelled in the larger community. Yet TOD has the potential to significantly change the lifestyle for the whole community. A number of the TOD sites such as Milton, Woolloongabba and Albion contain a substantial number of character houses. These low density Queenslander style houses are protected from local development, making it difficult to implement TOD-style development.
The TOD closest to where I live is at Albion, about 6km north of Brisbane city. Albion is an older suburb, somewhat disconnected from its nearby inner-city suburbs of The Valley and Bowen Hills by the vast expanse of the Mayne railyards and the natural geographical boundary of Breakfast Creek. In recent years, property values have skyrocketed as younger buyers are attracted to its proximity to the city and its railway station. The suburb’s population grew by five percent in 2006. Over five years, the proportion of residents between 25 and 39 years of age has increased by almost six per cent. Because of its changing demographic and infrastructure, the area around Albion station has been identified for a TOD. Surprisingly then, Brisbane City Council’s 2005 draft Albion Neighbourhood Plan does not discuss the TOD in any detail.
The proposal was devised to make sure that Albion’s heritage and unique characteristics are protected. It promoted the area on Sandgate Road known as “Albion Village” as the core retail, restaurant and entertainment precinct. It spoke about protecting the character and heritage values of Albion and providing easy access for pedestrians and cyclists to public transport, parks, Breakfast Creek and Brisbane River. But the only reference to the TOD states a goal that “development in the Station Precinct, be in keeping with the precinct's role as a transit oriented development”. While the plan does not define what the TOD is, it does mention that “future opportunities for land…to support mixed use, high density residential development…may occur in the medium term when the flour mill redevelopment is substantially occupied.” The flour mill development is the key phrase here, and is at the heart of Albion’s TOD.
The flour mill is Albion’s dominant landmark. Situated next to the station, it is a large derelict six storey building with two massive nearby silos. The Flour Mill was built in 1930 and was constructed by the Stuart Brothers for the princely sum of £8,500 just as the depression was about to bite. The original five-storey brick structure housed the mill in the eastern section and storage and parking was located in the western part. Additional buildings were added after World War II including a laboratory and boiler house. In 1957 the mill began to package self-raising flour under the retail name “white wings” which was the first Australian brand to introduce cake mix to the local market. The two iconic silos were added in the 1960s.
In 1983 the mill was bought out by Defiance Milling who ran it until 2002 when they were taken over by Allied Mills a conglomerate controlled by the multinational food group Cargill. Allied quickly bought out many of Australia’s old milling companies including Defiance, Geo. Fielder Co Pty Ltd, Gillespie Brothers Holdings Ltd, Mungo Scott, Bunge Australia, White Rose Flour Mills, Sunshine Mills, Murrumbidgee Milling Co-operative, McLeod’s Milling and Great Southern Flour Mills. The market was ripe for consolidation. Predictably the Albion Mill closed within two years and has been derelict since 2004. Once Albion was identified for a TOD, negotiations began in earnest for the site.
Property developers FKP began public consultation on development of the flour mill site in April 2006. FKP Property Group, founded 30 years ago in Queensland, describe themselves as a “top ASX200 performer” with offices in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. For the half-year to 31 December 2007, FKP reported a 33 per cent increase in net profit to $73m. In 2006, they agreed on a $7.5 million purchase of the site. They submitted a development application to the Brisbane City Council for the site in August 2006. The plan, according to FKP’s Queensland commercial development manager Angus Campbell, was to turn the site into “an urban hub”.
In November 2007 the State Government confirmed to the Brisbane City Council that agreement had been reached with FKP to build a multimillion-dollar footbridge to the railway station; the final component needed for the development to proceed. The 1.3 hectare site would be transformed. The ground floor retail space would include cafes and restaurants, a major supermarket, medical centre, newsagency, deli, bakery and grocers. Announcing the plan at Albion station, State Premier Anna Bligh hinted at its TOD possibilities when she said: "It will transform what is not a particularly attractive area into a first-class precinct providing a vibrant place where people can live, work and socialise only eight minutes’ train ride from the City”.
In January 2008, FKP Properties formally announced a $280 million mixed-use development on the site. The plan would keep the heritage listed mill and its silos which would be a focal point for a mix of buildings linked by public plazas and community spaces. It also called for twenty thousand square metres of office space to be spread over two commercial buildings, one 12-storey and the other a five-storey campus style building.
Then deputy mayor David Hinchliffe hailed the project as “the key to Brisbane’s future”. He told the ABC that if “we keep building out further and further into the suburbs, it's going to lead to congestion of our arteries.” He said all Brisbane’s roadways would be clogged up. “That's why smart growth like the Albion Mill project has to be the way of the future,” he said. Project architect Richard Kirk was similarly enthusiastic. He said the Mill redevelopment was a great opportunity to re-work one of Brisbane’s much loved landmarks. “Historically the site began as a part of the Albion Village," he said. “And it was the main intent of the project to re-connect the site back into the Village”.
But not everyone is impressed by the redevelopment. Town planner Tristan Peach was disappointed the residential component was aimed at the luxury market and thought it would be difficult for the small shops to compete with the planned supermarket. However he conceded the development would improve what he called Albion station's "desolate feel". Sociologist and writer Mark Bahnisch was more scathing. He described the project as “the victim of a tussle between the Council and developers, eventually to be resolved mostly in the latter’s favour - with the token addition of a modicum of public housing.” Bahnisch disputes the architect’s blurb that the development is “soulful”. At Larvatus Prodeo last month, Bahnisch wrote: “We can only imagine what the mill might have looked like if someone with the same vision which transformed the Powerhouse had cast an eye over it.” He continued: “Sundering the link between developers’ donations to political parties and the planning process can’t come quick enough, but it will have already been too late for Albion’s heritage”.
Albion's heritage was sealed when the council approved the application this year as a “mixed use” TOD. A marathon sitting of Brisbane City Council on 29 January recognised that the proposal presented significant issues. It was noted that the new 12 storey building will dwarf the sense of history of the old mill and therefore failed to adhere to the TOD principle of “development of a place through design”. There were also issues raised about the volume of traffic, noise levels, the lack of open space and bikeways, all of which were also contrary to TOD principles. Nevertheless, for better or worse, the plan was approved.
Albion upholsterer John Ward believes the changes are for the better. Ward has been a businessman in the area for more than 20 years. He said Albion was developing into a destination for more than local residents, with the Albion Village restaurant strip proving a major drawcard. "In the early days you could walk down the street and run into people you knew, but now you don't," he said. "The traffic has gotten a lot heavier and there has been a lot of changes". Ward said the changing face of Albion had resulted in many of the older houses being restored and a noticeable surge of new development occurring. "There could be a few changes around the area but what people have done around the area is a huge improvement to what it was yesteryear,” he said. People had better get used to the changes and a new word. A TOD, however imperfect, is coming to Albion.