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Feb 5, 2013

Is high-rise CBD living bad for our cities?

High density living in the city centre is an increasingly popular option for some Australians and scores well on sustainability, but there’s still suspicion of this new-fangled way of living

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Vision of the apocalypse! 250 Spencer St is No. 5. (exhibit from The Age)

About a month ago, The Age ran a story titled City apartment ‘frenzy’ about the large number of new apartment developments proposed for the western end of Melbourne’s CBD.

A “FRENZY” of apartment towers granted planning permission in one corner of Melbourne’s CBD could squeeze thousands of new residents into four city blocks and change the character of the city.

The proposed concentration of developments – many of which include tiny one-bedroom apartments – could see Melbourne follow the lead of Asian cities such as Hong Kong for extreme density, according to a prominent planning academic.

Associate professor in environment and planning at RMIT, Michael Buxton, said: “It’s changing the character of the CBD that people love irrevocably and it’s wrecking historic value.” And property experts fear a glut of apartments could affect property values and rents.

There’re lots of button presses in these opening paras – “squeeze”, “concentration”, “tiny apartments”, “extreme density”, “wrecking historic values” and even a reference to those scary “Asian cities”. There’s also “glut” and the spectre of lower “property values”.

Then just last week The Age followed up with a report, City within a city for Age site, that the new owner of 250 Spencer St (ironically, the former site of The Age) has received permission to build “a massive apartment development with an expected population of a small regional city.”

I think frenzy is an extreme term in this context. It’s a strong and emotive word, not least when capitalised. It either means anger and rage (a la Hitchcock), or tumult and turmoil.

The fact is it’s very unlikely all the proposed projects (see exhibit) will proceed and those that do will almost certainly be staged. Financiers are risk-averse – projects don’t start unless a very large proportion of units have been pre-sold.

So rather than developers building speculatively and risking a glut, supply is actually dependent on real demand. The developer of 250 Spencer St makes it clear that it’s expected to take more than a decade to build-out the project.

Notwithstanding the way it frames the issue, The Age actually acknowledges this point deep within the first story (para 11). The writers state that “history shows many projects never get built”.

But even if there were a glut, it’s not self-evident the effect on property values and rents would be the universally bad thing the story implies. Developers and investors would doubtless be unhappy, but renters and home-seekers would very likely welcome the improved affordability.

It’s true the proposed towers are tall. The developers of the 1.2 hectare site at 250 Spencer St envisage one of the six proposed towers will be 220 metres high – a long way short of the Eureka Tower’s almost 300 metres, but considerably higher than nearby Southern Cross Station.

There are some locations where tall buildings aren’t appropriate, but this isn’t the suburbs or even the inner city. It’s the Central Business District! It’s the established high-density part of Melbourne with plenty of tall office towers and, more recently, tall residential buildings.

In the context of a metropolitan area of more than four million people, the ultimate population envisioned for these four city blocks if and when they’re fully developed is modest. According to The Age only 7,800 apartments are proposed – so probably around 12,000 residents.

There’s no risk this area will turn overwhelmingly suburban Melbourne into Hong Kong!

But in the context of the CBD, that’s a lot of new people. These extra residents will go out to shop and socialise – they’ll bring life to a part of Melbourne that’s currently unattractive and offers little in terms of urban values (have a look at 250 Spencer St in Google Street View).

It’s true that tall multi-unit buildings generally use more energy than medium density ones, but this is the CBD. The disadvantage of height (e.g. elevators) is swamped by the sustainability benefits of place.

The CBD is about as good as it gets when it comes to walkability because it’s very dense and has a mix of uses. It’s by far the largest concentration of jobs in the metro area and it’s the centre of the radial metropolitan public transport system. Traffic congestion and the high cost of parking discourage car use.

It’s true new CBD apartments in Australian cities are small – even “tiny” – compared to traditional housing stock, but they’re no smaller than those in comparable cities in other countries.

The people who buy or rent CBD apartments are predominantly small households of singles and couples, mostly professionals (a big point of difference relative to Hong Kong, making the comparison questionable).

They know what they’re doing. They choose to live in the CBD because it’s accessible and exciting. They trade-off space for place.

There are nevertheless issues with large buildings, like possible adverse wind effects, street activation and overshadowing that need to be managed properly. But the basic principle of high-rise CBD living has considerable merit – there’s another side to this story that warrants the attention of readers of The Age.

250 Spencer Street
Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

The Urbanist is edited by Dr Alan Davies, a principal of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy, Pollard Davies Consulting.

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34 thoughts on “Is high-rise CBD living bad for our cities?

  1. Bill Bunting

    It is unfortuneate that Australia has failed to connect fully with the European form of population compaction, ultimately following the US urban sprawl model. In sydney the European model produced areas such as East Sydney, Paddington and The Rocks, but then was abandoned. Possibly the reason for this is that Australia is not suitable for farming everywhere as Europe is so the need to conserve farming space was not a factor at the time of that early development. So rather than having a community structure based on small tightly arranged two and three story building villages spaced a few kilometres apart, we have the expanding fringe structure which progressively applies property value pressure at the core, which ultimately leads to ever higher central apartment blocks.

    The optimum for of highrise from a livability perspective is the pyramidal form, but because of the way land is managed this structure type has never been utilised for residential in the way imagined even a century ago. So instead we have the high rise narrow footprint apartment building design really for maximum investment return rather than livability. However they do serve a purpose for a percentage of the population, for a portion of their life.

    The real question is how far should a city go down this road. I’ll come back to that, I have to do some work.

    In between time have a look at West Edmonton Mall which was built originally on the outskirts of a city of 400,000. Whay was it so successful?

  2. Alan Davies

    SBH #4:

    Covered all that stuff before (Who lives in the city centre?). More than half of Young Singles moving into the Core are from overseas.

    Have already secured my copy of Bambach et al and will write something in a week or two. As the abstract shows, it’s about more than risky behaviour – I’m particularly interested in what it says about the effectiveness of helmets.

  3. Alan Davies

    Former Premier of Victoria, John Cain, weighs into this debate with a contrary POV.

    The Herald Sun obliges with a deceptive visual comparison of Melbourne and Manhattan.

  4. Bill Bunting

    Depending upon which figures one uses this is the population density of the main areas of the world to which we Australians feel connected.

    Europe 1.38 hectares per person
    United States 3.12 hectares per person

    Australia 33.4 hectares per person

    so then you have to wonder why we are adopting a housing strategy more suitable for

    China .722 hectares per person.
    India .265 hectares per person.
    Bangladesh .0981 hectares per person.
    Maldives .0931 hectares per person.
    Hong Kong .015512 hectares per person.
    Singapore .013371 hectares per person.

    …in one of our most beautiful cities of the world.

    Indeed this high rise push comes at a huge cost. My daughter is currently living in a 16 story building in St Kilda which is smack up against one of Melbourne’s many charming buildings, the College of Anaesthatists. Part of the immense charm of Melbourne is its relatively low profile city centre. It is this very feature that makes the city work, providing a land value ratio that allows the small business cafe culture to thrive. If Melbourne allows the building of 63 story apartment blocks it will be making all of the same mistakes that make Sydney the zero charm zone that it is. It was only the activism of Jack Mundy that rescued Sydney city’s last heritage zone from falling to the developer and architect’s modernisation blarghhh.

    You have to ask the question “does Melbourne need to modernise”? I say not at all.

    A friend of mine is currently working on an apartment complex near central station in Sydney. He reports to me that these apartments are tiny and utilise space sharing to work as complete living places for a space cost over $300,000 per apartment. This clearly benefits the developer dominately. And the interesting thing that he pointed out is that in order to go outside you have to actually leave the building and that puts you out on the street. Now in Sydney UBD that is not such an appealing prospect. Sydney does not have the variety of venues that Melbourne has, and everything is over priced. If it weren’t for Sydney’s harbour and beaches it would be one of the least appealing cities on earth.

    If Melbourne goes down the high rise path it will in 40 years destroy everything that makes Melbourne CBD worth visiting simply by the process of property value creep.

    My advice……………Don’t go there.

    Renovate and retain. Do not replace.

    One of my alltime favourite “charms” of Melbourne is the Rowena Cafe. This little piece of creativity epitomises the spirit of Melbourne. Sydney just does not know how to do this. In fact legislation creep has entirely ruled out the possibility of this type of development ever happening here.

  5. Tom the first and best


    Do you live in the middle of the desert?

    Do you think that most Australians should?

    If so, say so. If not, do not use desert area in argument in comparisons of population densities.

    Anyway, lower densities are more of an argument (with limitations) against migration obstructions (“immigration control”) than for lower densities of existing Australians.

    I support heritage controls. However there are lots of non-heritage buildings that can be replaced.

    The Melbourne CBD has its laneway culture (long dead in Sydney) and these are largely protected by heritage and other planning controls.

    Land value is far more complicated than you suggest. Being close to employment, entertainment, transport and other services are major factors in the popularity of the inner suburbs and the CBD. Density allows more people to live closer to these desirable things and thus actually lowers the cost of living there. It is true that allowable density makes land more expensive than similarly located land but this is because more people can live on the one piece of land sharing the cost of the land.

    Most of the growth in Housing is not going in where it removes vibrant cafe culture. It is replacing, in many cases old industrial uses that left the CBD long ago. The power station and old Age building (where the age used o be printed) are prime examples of this. The street scape will be more pedestrian and thus shop customer friendly and so there will be more space for small business cafe culture and other such things.

    A city that that does not adapt to changes in culture, demand and the general realities of life is going to gradually loose desirability as a place to live and thus jobs and activity.

    $300,000 is a fraction of the price anybody would pay, in a competitive market, for any house anywhere near either the Melbourne or Sydney CBDs. It allows more people to live close to the CBD at a more affordable price.

    “Space sharing” is a rather imprecise term. If you mean they have shared facilities like pools, gyms, entertaining areas than it is a good thing which allows more people access to bigger, higher quality facilities than they could have in there home, without them having to go to commercial or municipal services of a similar nature.

    The “legislation creep” (just plain old poor legislation and regulation) in Sydney/NSW is more of the problem than density is. Density does not make for poor legislation and regulation.

  6. Hamis Hill

    @ Alan Davies, in prior centuries to the Enlightenment, Edinburgh was a centre of government and “Auld Reekie” (A testament to the number of coal fired chimneys supporting that dense population) as the locals called it, benefited from the Auld Alliance with France to the extent that French architects oversaw the building of seven storey housing all along either side of the Royal Mile, a volcanic ridge leading up from the Palace of Holyrood House to the Castle.
    This unique arrangement accounts for the density and the ability to step out into the market place at the cost of a few minutes walk.
    And perhaps the existence of five universities in Scotland at the time, to which universities the aristocracy of Europe were happy to send their children for an education, helped.
    The University of Edinburgh, a late starter in 1582, was established by JamesVI, to which many of those European aristocrats were or became related.
    Mass literacy, as a result of a desire to have the Bible read, no doubt helped.
    But all this is Melbournians’ heritage and there is no reason why they cannot aspire to replicate this heritage in Melbourne.
    The multi-culturalism is there, the overseas students are there, the state capital is there and surely face to face conversations over a meal and coffee are there.
    University lectures were held in coffee shops, in English, so that passers-by could listen in and contribute as they felt necessary.
    Melbourne might try something similar, the students certainly would be stimulated.

  7. melburnite

    High rise living isnt bad per se, but as previous commenters pointed out, transformation of an area to high density living should perhaps also include open space, green space, PT enhancement, services etc.

    Comments on this particular area – may end up providing many of those, but we just dont know. Where’s the plan or requirement ? The power station site will have an internal shopping arcade (completely enclosed, not exactly nice), and park space on top of the podium (which will have some screens to reduce the wind effects – thats a new one, wonder if it will work – actual trees are shown in the drawings, but of course not much soil depth, and not much sunlight, so unlikely to ever be more than shrubs). The Age site towers appear to have the same podium greenery, though may suffer from same wind issues, and both podium green spaces will only get sunlight at lunchtime since they are flanked by towers. In fact the power station site green space will now be more overshadowed by the the Age site towers.

    The Age site image shows street trees, but of course dont exist yet on Lonsdale, and willl be tiny when, and grow slowly since they will be in the dark except for high summer. I suppose there will be shops in podium of age site, but of course what is needed is a supermarket of some sort, and other services like child care (even though most occupants will be young singles), banks and doctors, all those things that Docklands is only now just getting.

    Given that nearly the whole block at street level will be overshadowed most of the year, and possibly suffer from strong winds, luckily the Flagstaff gardens are only a block away. I predict the podium greenery will be rarely used, just maintained as something nice to look at. Other services we can just hope that plans provide spaces that can be used these ways, though if its all retail, they will be expecting higher rents…..

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