Missing middle muddle

It's a perfectly natural / Expression of ill will but / When will hostilities subside?

There's a fraction, too much friction / There's a fraction, too much friction, yeah
Don't believe in opposing factions / What we need is some positive action
There's a fraction, too much friction.

Tim Finn song, Track 1, Escapade, 1984

The missing middle is term we are hearing a lot in this housing crisis. Originally coined to describe a lack of housing development in middle ring suburbs, it proves helpful in ways other than planning. It can describe middle density housing, missing in the ‘low-rise vs high-rise’ debate.

It could also describe a middle way compromise on housing policy, between federal Labor and the Greens that is so far MIA.

This week, the original missing middle planning issues; next week the missing middle typologies; and the week after, the missing middle policies, presuming that the current intransigence on both sides hasn’t resulted in détente and a commitment to better policies for a sensible number of houses, and protections for renters. No breath-holding here.

The missing middle

Our cities develop as a series of annuli spreading out unevenly from a CBD core. In designated areas near the centre, high-rise towers of 20 storeys and above continue to be built. Despite their unsustainability, that is not our concern here. At the fringe, suburban subdivisions seem unstoppable, and although an utter folly, it is not our issue today.

In between is the missing middle, existing low-density suburbs with plentiful services and infrastructure that could support many more people, if only a way to agreeably lift the density can be found. But the there’s many a slip twixt a cup of white flats and the lip of the LEP.

Missing middle rings have densities less than 10 dwellings per hectare, excluding commercial and civic buildings (schools, hospitals, halls etc), roads and recreation areas (parks and environmental assets). An increase in this density improves sustainability and provides more dwelling diversity, whilst leveraging off the existing amenity, precisely the point made recently in science-based proof by the NSW Productivity Commission and Investment Victoria.

The missing masterplan

Most Councils recognise these possibilities and have plans that set out the areas showing limits for mostly modest increases in development. But these are often too timid or limited for a State government’s liking. The political discourse overtakes a rational, dispassionate view of a strategic planner. The debate degenerates, often with a faction too much friction (apologies Tim Finn).

Residents mostly ignore participation in the framing of these documents, preferring to oppose individual developments on a case-by-case basis, which is frustrating for all sides. The right to object is seen as the right to oppose, and to refuse.

On the other hand, developers are often far too greedy, seeing oversized developments as some kind of ‘right’, either because they think something bigger doesn’t cause harm, or because they’ve seen it elsewhere and think it’s appropriate, or just because they are participating in Australia’s number one get-rich-quick scheme.

Without a suburb’s clear masterplan, explained, discussed and compromised by all sides (even if reluctantly), there will be bitter fights on individual applications. And they prolong the process, increase costs and raise frustrations on all sides. No wonder it’s nick-named FISH: fighting in someone’s house.

Muddling the middle

NIMBYs wage fear campaigns on any development, but particularly infill, based on a fear of change and the unknown. The common ‘big lie’ is to accuse local Councils of wanting to erase every house and garden, encouraging and facilitating developers to replace it all with ‘high-rise’.

Often combined with a barely concealed insinuation that ‘their’ suburb is going to be invaded by the ‘other’: people of a lower class, particularly migrants, that will devalue their property assets.

Wrong, and nasty, in every way.

Lest you think I exaggerate on that last point, I have prepared many boarding house applications (now called co-living which is marginally better). In every case there are objections with barely suppressed contempt for the likely residents.

In one Council meeting, in a very middleclass area, I was asked if a Church-sponsored building of 36 units for people in housing stress (particularly older single women) would have a security guard. No, I replied, but it will have a counsellor.

The power for NIMBY fear is so toxic that it cannot be beaten by argument alone. My only weapon of reason is a good case study.

Infilling the missing middle

There are always sites that can be found within existing suburbs that provide ideal opportunities for increased density without a loss of local amenity, or even better, to provide increased quality. Here’s some ideas, followed by some examples / case studies.

Under-developed suburban sites can be conjoined, sometimes into super blocks formed by the amalgamation of houses where new infrastructure (freeways for instance) leads to dilapidation

Brownfield and greyfield sites can be out to better housing uses. Brownfield refers to land that is abandoned or underutilized due to pollution from industrial use (petrol stations, car yards, warehouses and factories). Greyfield refers to underused real estate assets or land (office buildings, often governmental), a term coined in the UK in the 90s.

Shop top housing over existing buildings is very desirable, particularly as TOD (transport-oriented design), where the plentiful supply of services and public transport can dramatically reduce the amount of car parking required.

The six-pack mini superblock

This is a development of two very large (1,200 sqm) sites into a superblock, that allows for 12 large size high quality apartments. The original sites had small houses and underutilised areas (similar houses in the same street shown for comparison). Oriented to the north, they overlook a golf course (later itself redeveloped as a greyfield site).

Sydney’s Northern Beaches Council had very sensible regulations that allowed for a new dwelling for every 200 sqm, hence each site is a six-pack. Two joined together gave adequate basement carparking (mostly naturally ventilated) under the building footprint, allowing for deep soil and landscape on all sides. Yes, trees were removed, but replaced with local endemic species.

Revamped petrol station

We’ve designed re-developments for eight petrol stations, and most before EVs really got under way. This one had suffered a common fate: turned into a car-wash facility. We converted it into nine townhouses with rear parking, and four upside-down studios, without. It fits the scale of all the surrounding buildings.

The end units, with roof forms reminiscent of the local warehouses, but here pitched to the north, let winter sun into the upper-level living areas, with a bedroom below and a flex room on the ground floor for a home office etc. Ingenious owners of one unit used the flex room as the garage for their motor bikes.

Shop-top housing

The contributory item shopfront on New Canterbury Rd is maintained, and a wholly new building added at the rear, that rises to six storeys of boarding house rooms. Sensible considerations by Council allowed for the removal of the basement carparking in a previous scheme we developed for apartments. The site faces north to a busy road, so a second level outdoor area provides a buffer and external space, better than a roof garden under the flight path.

Parramatta Rd is much vilified as a river of ICE cars, and rightly so, but the new tunnel under, and a better planning code, is leading to a resurgence of sensible buildings. This co-living building has north-facing units onto balconies / sunrooms on the street, as well as an interior courtyard that provides respite from the frantic, noisy exterior.

Carparking is at street level from the rear lane. Currently under construction, the site has revealed construction quality in the adjacent buildings that would curl the toes of the building commissioner.

Next week: the missing middle housing typologies, just hinted at the schemes here.

Reference: Tone on Tuesday 166: Missing middle muddle: week 24/ 2023.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his.

Short pieces are published every Friday in A&D Another Thing.

Longer columns are Tone on Tuesday, published then.

You can contact TW at [email protected]