Thinking outside the Big-Box: Design strategies for intensification of Melbourne’s regional shopping malls

To meet the challenges of climate change and population growth, Australian cities are seeking to transform established urban areas into sustainable, higher-density environments. Victoria’s current planning strategy promotes more intensive use of existing activity centres and public transport networks however, in the ten years since Melbourne 2030 was introduced, very few strategic infill projects have been realised.

The large-scale mixed-use precincts pursued under the auspices of the Melbourne 2030 framework have been thwarted by complex design and infrastructure requirements, land assembly challenges, economic risk and community resistance to change. Another significant barrier has been the lack of design demonstration or envisioning of alternative development models that explicate the social, environmental and economic benefits of good quality sustainable design. Following the deferment of several high profile projects, such as the Coburg Initiative and Camberwell Junction, the viability of strategic infill redevelopment in Victoria remains uncertain and new approaches will be required in our transition to a more sustainable urban condition.

Distinct from the ‘high street’ activity centres that have grown around tram and train corridors, Melbourne’s regional shopping malls offer an alternative model for intensification. They represent large, consolidated land parcels, often well located in middle ring suburbs near public services and amenity. Dislocated from rail transport, shopping malls tend to be serviced by extensive bus networks however their mono-functional retail purpose heavily relies on car-based visitation.

The ‘big box’ forms are overwhelmed by grade and multilevel parking which represents an under-utilisation of these valuable sites in terms of built density and mixed use accommodation. Importantly, Melbourne’s major retail centres are under single ownership. With strategic partnering, as well as demonstration of good quality design proposals, ‘big box’ malls have the potential to judiciously transform into sustainable urban centres delivering a diversity of housing, employment and amenity.

A great deal of research has emerged recently around the social, environmental and economic benefits of regenerating shopping malls, particularly from the USA.

The significant difference between Melbourne and American contexts is that American malls identified for redevelopment are often failing economically and physically. Our largest retail centres have continued to expand, are financially very successful and have little incentive to change their current operations.  The question then becomes: can we generate innovative urban design proposals that are economically attractive to mall owners as well as achieve the imperatives for a sustainable city?

Lee-Anne explores this challenge through a number of speculative designs focusing on Chadstone and Northland Shopping Centres as case studies. It draws on a larger research investigation for the Australian Research Council called Intensifying Places: Transit-Oriented Urban Design for Resilient Cities, which aims to develop and test a range of urban design visions for transit-oriented development.

The research examines the location of Melbourne’s shopping malls within various metropolitan networks including their relationship to other central activity areas, public transport connections, socioeconomic distributions and built form development patterns. It speculates on the infrastructure investments that would be required to incentivise transformative urban designs that contribute to broader metropolitan needs, as well as examines specific opportunities for, and consequences of, higher-density development within and around the shopping centre sites.

Lee-Anne Khor, Monash Architecture Studio (MAS)
will be speaking at the 5th International Urban Design Conference – Hilton on the Park in Melbourne 10th – 12th September 2012

The FULL PROGRAM is now available on the conference website

E: conference@urbandesignaustralia.com.au   |  W:  http://urbandesignaustralia.com.au

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