Decades after we began talking about mixed use development, there is still only limited evidence of it being delivered. Australia is falling behind world trends, and with space in established urban centres at an increasing premium, it’s worth asking why we aren’t seeing more examples of genuine, high quality mixed use projects.
The term ‘mixed use development’ was coined to describe developments that blended multiple uses, from residential to offices, retail, medical, cultural, civic, recreational or even industrial into a single project. Ideally, the development offers continuous pedestrian connectivity. It is not confined to single structures and can refer to a multitude of structures with multiple uses within the one integrated project.
The term was never really intended to describe the provision of some limited ground level retail as part of an apartment project, but increasingly we seem to be satisfying ourselves that this counts as ‘mixed use.’ Surely this is not the benchmark we should be aspiring to?
The benefit of mixed use development ought to be that it caters for a mix of ‘live, work, play’ activities in an integrated manner. It should avoid the need for lengthy commutes from home to work to shopping and so on, but the actual mix of uses will always be dictated by the opportunities presented by the immediate environment.
In Australia, there are some high quality examples of genuine mixed use projects underway. Consider Lend Lease’s redevelopment of the RNA Showgrounds near the centre of Brisbane, or the plans for Yeerongpilly Green by Consolidated Properties. In Sydney there’s Darling Quarter, and of course Barangaroo by Lend Lease.
These are exciting projects, but what we aren’t seeing much of is a wider adoption of mixed use projects outside of the ‘mega project’ category. Australia’s inner city areas and middle ring suburbs are full of sites with excellent mixed use potential. Underdeveloped shopping centre sites or Council and Government sites are often in close proximity to public transport, major road networks and quality recreational space. Even ‘TOD’ (transit oriented development) opportunities have largely been realised with just the residential apartment dimension and little else.
So what are some of the factors that might be holding us back? This is by no means a comprehensive list but will hopefully provoke some further thought:
Are planning schemes providing enough flexibility for a wider mix of uses on the one site? Planning schemes once had fairly rigid definitions of land use for particular sites but in many cases, a more flexible approach to mixed use is being adopted. Increasingly this is less of a hurdle and many local authorities are more disposed to encourage mixed use than they perhaps once were.
Community opposition to just about anything is becoming the norm. Objections typically focus on scale (especially height) and traffic, but intelligently designed mixed use projects bring many benefits which should be capable of being sold to the local community more easily than some single use solutions.
If you think about commercial offices for example, larger users have tended to cluster in and around CBDs. There have been to date only a small number of users with sufficient ‘critical mass’ to anchor a mixed use project in the suburbs. Equally, prospective uses like higher education have tended to see continued concentration on existing central campuses rather than dispersal to decentralised campuses. Maybe if corporations and larger users started to adopt more decentralised locations, this could generate more demand for commercial space as an element of mixed use projects outside the city centre.
We are a small country in terms of our population which is perhaps insufficient to see more active mixed use development throughout metropolitan areas. But urban densities are rising and this should be creating more opportunities for mixed use projects across the metropolitan area, particularly in and around critical transport nodes.
Some of our property developers have their hands largely tied due to governance restrictions. A retail REIT, for example, can find it difficult to develop a retail site into a mixed use opportunity because this may not fit with the organisational charter.
Strata title has brought many benefits to Australian development but untangling strata in a mixed use project that incorporates multiple owners (typical of residential) can be a genuine deterrent as it ‘locks in’ the project configuration and makes future redevelopment problematic. This is a genuine hurdle, and to date we haven’t seen much single ownership of multi-unit housing to get around the strata issue.
These are just some of the possible factors holding back wider adoption of mixed use approaches to development, but they aren’t the whole story. I’m interested to know if readers have further suggestions.