Redevelopment site in foreground; Wills Court in background. Note 'light well' to apartments on facade.

Increasing density in Australia’s cities is a good and necessary thing, but it’s not going to go well if regulators, investors and residents don’t understand that living cheek by jowl brings problems as well as opportunities.

A new 32 storey building proposed by developer Highbury Focus has lessons for all Australian cities – if approved and built, the only access a quarter of the apartments in the existing Wills Court tower (see first exhibit) will get to light and air is via a 100 metre shaft with a cross section of just 31 sq metres. The Council officer assessing the proposal describes the shaft in her formal report as a “hole” and as “horrible”.

The plan is to build the new tower on top of an existing two storey ‘streamline modern’ style building (shown at front in exhibit) on the edge of Melbourne’s CBD, near Queen Victoria Market. It will be constructed flush against the mostly blank concrete façade of 25 storey Wills Court (shown at the rear).

The only source of light and air available to 48 of the apartments in Wills Court is from the balconies visible in the middle of the façade, which look at each other across a short light well. That’s fine for now, but the Highbury building will close off the outlook from those balconies, making them entirely dependent on the light well.

There’s some small comfort for these Wills Court residents. Highbury proposes its own light well of the same size (see second exhibit), giving a combined 20 storey light shaft with a cross section of 5m x 6m to serve both buildings.

The residents of Wills Court are upset, as this report in The Age records. One says he knew the adjacent site would be redeveloped one day but never expected anything like this. “Who would?” he’s quoted as saying, “Everyone told me property was always a good investment but now I’m looking at being one of a few people who actually loses money on it”.

Melbourne City Council has rejected Highbury’s proposal on a range of grounds, including loss of amenity for existing residents in Wills Court. The developer is taking the matter to court (VCAT).

Of course the owners of those 48 apartments in Wills Court knew at the time they purchased that a development just like theirs could be built on the site next door and was highly likely. Indeed, there’s a provision in their title indicating that windows in the upper levels of the blank façade of Wills Court are temporary and would be eliminated when the adjacent site was redeveloped.

But humans aren’t perfect. We’re renowned for our inability to correctly judge risk. We’re poor at seeing and responding to the long-term costs of present delights. We’re even worse when we’re young, as many inner city apartment buyers are.

I don’t agree with paternal Councils who oppose some rooms “borrowing” light from others, because I think purchasers know what they’re getting and are happy to make the compromise. But assessing possible future unknowns is much harder. It’s easy for a buyer to plunge ahead and commit to a first apartment with a lot of light and even a view, but be unable to imagine, or selectively ignore, the high likelihood it will literally all disappear one day.

Plans of proposed building by Highbury Focus (click for more)

Highbury appear to be within their rights vis a vis the light well, but it seems to me the ‘bad guy’ here isn’t the developer but the regulator. Highbury is seeking to work within the rules and constraints set by Council. The buyers of apartments in Wills Court should’ve been able to expect Council had carefully examined how their amenity might be affected by subsequent adjacent developments. They should’ve been able to rely on Council having imposed appropriate conditions on Wills Court’s developer.

But somehow or other, Council made the extraordinary decision to approve Wills Court with 48 apartments whose sole access to light and air is via a single balcony that, when the adjacent site was inevitably developed, would be reliant on a particularly slender shaft.

The Highbury proposal also takes light and air from the shaft but only for bedrooms – its living areas open up to the street. The joint light well is simply too small for four apartments on each level to rely on it, but had Wills Court also confined it to bedrooms it mightn’t have been quite the hell-hole it promises to be.

Now the shaft will undoubtedly be a cacophony of noise and heat from the split-system air conditioning units on all those balconies. Highbury is also proposing small balconies to bedrooms opening to the light well and they’ll doubtless be platforms for split systems too – after all, the light well will be unbearably noisy and hot.

The Highbury proposal might well be extensively modified on other grounds – height, set-backs, heritage, etc – but probably not because of the impact of the light well on Wills Court. Highbury appears to be within their rights on that score. However if the development does go ahead as proposed, the poor outcome for the 48 apartments in Wills Court – and that is by far the main negative associated with the Highbury proposal –will primarily be the result of Council’s failure to look after their interests.

I don’t think this stuff-up is due to density per se. These sorts of problems can happen anywhere including the suburbs. The peculiar issue with high densities however is many more people are directly impacted by a stuff-up.

Other aspects of the Highbury proposal also highlight problems with developing very small lots in and near the CBD, particularly urban design goals relating to the set back of towers from podiums. I’d like to look at that issue another time.