TROPICNOW SPECIAL REPORT
You’ve probably never noticed Nellie St.
A short dead-end strip of bitumen that leads to the tree-lined Lily’s Creek walking path, it boasts just a few small houses and a couple of average apartment blocks.
You’ve almost certainly never needed to turn in and drive down it as you cruise along Martyn St on your way to someplace else.
Nellie St in Parramatta Park may be small in stature, but it holds big clues to the future of inner-city living in Cairns.
And that future is tiny, at least in comparison to the Great Australian Dream of a quarter acre block where freshly mowed lawns hosted backyard cricket matches and boozy barbecues with friends on weekends.
That quarter acre block of suburban Aussie dreams past – about 1000 square metres – is a kingdom when transposed on a housing development that was approved by Cairns Regional Council this week.
Councillors debated and voted on a development application on Wednesday that sought to chop an already small 405 square metre block on Nellie St into two tiny lots, one of which was just 170 square metres.
You could fit five of those lots into the traditional quarter acre block. And still have room for a pool.
The original proposal by the land owner at 2 Nellie St, via local architect Steve Gleeson, was rejected by town planners at Cairns Regional Council amid concerns about the amenity of the street and the impact on neighbouring properties.
After consultation with council officers, the project’s design was adjusted to meet a range of requirements contained in the CairnsPlan, released in 2016. That plan requires “setbacks of buildings and structures to maintain the residential character and amenity of the area and achieve separation from neighbouring buildings and structures”.
When it was put to a vote at the Planning and Environment Committee on Wednesday morning, only one of the eight councillors in attendance voted against it. Deputy Mayor Terry James, a building designer who works on residential housing projects, was chairing the meeting and was not required to vote.
Councillor John Schilling was among the most vocal supporters of the project, while Brett Olds was the only councillor to vote against it.
Cr Schilling argued that the project met relevant legislative requirements and any attempt to reject the application would lead to legal challenges that council wouldn’t win.
“We will see more and more of these applications because the cost of land and development these days are so high,” he said during the debate.
“If we want to see prices go through the roof so our kids can’t afford to buy property or they have to move away from Cairns then that’s what you’ll get if we don’t approve this type of project.
“We need to bring the costs of these sites down so the young people can afford to house themselves in the future.”
CR. OLDS: NOT CONVINCED
Cr Olds, who represents suburbs on the northern beaches where blocks are somewhat larger, was opposed the change, saying it didn't suit the character of Cairns.
“The proponents could knock down the existing house and build something better, maybe a block of units, instead of filling a driveway with a two-storey building,” he told the meeting. “Just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right. I’m against it.”
Seated in the row of other councillors, Mayor Bob Manning conceded this type of small housing configuration was the future of inner-city development in Cairns. He called the type of apartment accommodation more prominent in capital cities as “unnatural” but reminded his fellow councillors it was a lifestyle choice for an increasing number of residents.
“People move into flats and units that are sitting on top of one another and I find that fairly unnatural but yet there are people who want to live that way,” he said. “They don’t want the responsibility of yards and maintenance of areas.
“As we go into the future we are going to be seeing more and more people who will determine what their wants and needs are and then they’ll seek accommodation to satisfy that.
“Nobody is being forced to move into these small blocks. It just makes sense to infill in this way.”
The group of councillors appeared to miss one of the most relevant points in the high density, in-fill development debate: the cost savings to taxpayers.
In a submission to the Federal Parliament’s ongoing inquiry into the development of cities, Freemantle Council noted that urban sprawl costs the Western Australian Government $150,000 to provide infrastructure for every new lot in outer developments (in Perth) against $55,000 for infill development in urban areas.
Planz managing director and TropicNow columnist Nikki Huddy is one of the region’s most experienced town planners. Her firm’s motto is “creating great places for people”. According to Huddy, that ethos should be the guide for any in-fill urban development in Cairns.
“When you look at Nellie St, it’s highly walkable, it’s on the bike path along Lilly Creek, it’s a short distance to just about everything you need and it’s in the inner city, which is where high density development should be,” she said.
“When you think about the flooding we had on the Northern Beaches a few weeks ago, having a development on small lots like this also means that one or two fewer cars trying to get in to the city from the northern beaches, which is a very good thing.
RAISE THE BAR OF DESIGN AND BUILD
“Let’s not have a yes or no argument about whether we should have high density development in the inner city. Instead, we should shift the debate to focus on the standard and quality of housing.
“If we are going to do high density development in the inner city, we need to make sure it’s in the Cairns style. If we approve projects like the Nellie St development, we need to hold people to a standard that is tropical and livable and not a cookie cutter style from Melbourne or Brisbane.
“We do need to see more high density development in the inner city of Cairns but let’s lift the standard and raise the bar when we do it.”