Media Botch

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

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

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

  1. 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…..

  2. IkaInk

    I don’t understand how people can claim Melbourne is void of parks. Within a 10 minute walk of the CBD you’ve got:
    * The huge botanical gardens along St Kilda Road
    * Birrarung Marr
    * Treasury Gardens & Yarra Park (separate, but attached)
    * Carlton Gardens (one of my favourites)
    * Flagstaff Gardens
    These are just the bigs one!

    You’ve also got:
    * Batman Park down by the river, between Spencer St and Kings Way
    * The front of the State Library, which despite not really being a park, is an outdoor grassy area constantly enjoyed by students
    * Lincoln Square
    * Argyle Square, both of which are used by students quite frequently.

    Yes there are a few blocks right in the middle of the CBD that are not within a very short walk of, and do not have any views of parks but find me another big city in the world without that feature in the CBD and I’ll eat my hat.

  3. Dylan Nicholson

    Ugh, Jolimont *train* yards, that is.

  4. Dylan Nicholson

    Industrial suburbs tend to be grim regardless of how many trees they have…I now live in Kensington which is mostly residential and not at all short of greenery, but the remaining industrial segment with lots of train and container yards is still something of an eyesore (fortunately not one I can usually see).
    Anyway, no disagreement about need for public open space, and especially green public open space. If they do end up covering over the Jolimont dock yards, I’d hope a reasonable percentage of it was dedicated to that end. And Docklands (which I don’t personally think of as the catastrophe that many here do, especially having been there while various festivals and markets and other entertainment events have been going on) could definitely use a decent size green space.

  5. Socrates


    You are right, I went too far in my comments. Inner Melbourne is probably the best of Australian cities for parkland, though the rest vary. It also varies a lot within each city. The Adelaide parklands are by nice, but many industrial suburbs in the north and south are grimly lacking in greenery. Also the dense pats of Hong Kong are concrete jungles, and you can’t see the mountains from ground level. You can from much of the st of the city though – most of the people don’t live in the main tourist and business area.

    Still it depends on who you compare yourself too. Australian cities are quite wealthy by world standards now, and not very high density, Yet we don’t seem to have any more parkland than average compared to many European and North American cities in my experience, and less than the most green I have visited, like San Francisco or Munich. Examples aside I still stand by my general point that if we increase density, we must focus on more public open space. See

  6. Dylan Nicholson

    Australian cities never had that much parkland? Really? While the CBD itself is a little lacking, most of Melbourne is a noticeably greener (even during drought conditions) than arguably most other comparable cities around the world. Hong Kong in particular struck me as devoid of any sort of connection with the natural environment – it’s simply not true that you can see the surrounding mountains for the most part when walking around the central section, or if you can they’re so distant as to add no real relief from the sea of concrete.

  7. Socrates

    Personally I don’t object to large residential high rise if that is what people want. The problem to me is not the trade off of space for place. It is the lack of a trade off of private space for public space. Here I think we fare poorly. Many of the overseas cities mentioned with high density still have parks and greenery in their CBD. Even in Hong Kong you can see the lush green mountains from almost anywhere. In Kuala Lumpur there is a huge, lavishly landscaped park right behind the petronas towers. They also often have wider roads and footpaths than Sydney and Brisbane have.

    This makes them feel less claustrophobic IMO. Australian cities never had that much parkland, and many “reserves” are now covered in concrete sporting facilities. I am not against high density, but I fear a blind conversion of current inner city suburbs with narrow streets and no parks to high rise residential may create some very unpleasant places. If we do this, we must improve our public realms. If we are going to trade off space, then at least make it a nice place.

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    Personally for anything that I can carry on my back or mounted to a bike, I’d still much rather ride than walk over that distance!
    But yes, re train from S.C. to F.St., the key word is *should*. But even with current patronage, working out which train is next and then avoiding being stuck on one that takes over 10 minutes to make the journey because of poor platform allocation is a challenge – with a huge increase in CBD population then unless somebody bites the bullet and replaces the whole management of our train system with a body that knows what its doing I can only see it getting worse.

  9. Tom the first and best


    I am all for improving bike facilities in the CBD and elsewhere.

    Bikes are less useful than walking for suitcases.

    Travelling from Southern Cross to Flinders St by train should be fairly easy. There are lots of trains that do that. They do not all leave from the same platform but they do run quite regularly (except evenings and Sunday mornings).

  10. Hamis Hill

    Sorry, to whom those aristocrats were related.
    Explains, apart from the quality of the teaching, why those students were sent to Scotland.
    Still Melbourne’s heritage.

  11. 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.

  12. Alan Davies

    Hamis Hill #21, 22:

    Interesting question! Doubt Edinburgh’s success was down to density though. Weren’t there other cities in the UK at the time that were as dense or denser but nevertheless didn’t have the buzz of Edinburgh? Doubtless a necessary condition but not a sufficient one.

  13. Hamis Hill

    OK, perhaps fifty of the greatest minds might be more accurate.
    But surely Melbourne can aspire the the thinking capital of Australia with more than a few of the greatest minds?

  14. Hamis Hill

    Will Melbourne follow its British heritage and follow the Edinburgh of The Enlightenment, the most densely populated city in Europe, a “Hot Bed of Genius” where one resident claimed to be able to meet, at any one time in the local market place, five hundred of the finest minds in the world?
    Come on Melbournites, put some meat on those pretensions of being the most intellectual of Australians.
    Make Melbourne the place to be for thinking Aussies and give them somewhere to live as well.

  15. Bill Bunting

    I have to say that I do not accept the kipfler argument at all.

    For starters it suggests a fixed supply of both potatoes and housing. False.

    There may be a fixed supply of land, but even then the premise is false as even slight variations in the land share can have considerable impact on the housing volume outcome. Further I refer back to #12 population densities. There are few places on earth where the Kipfler argument could not be more false than here in Australia.

    What Australia does have a severe shortage of is strategic regional planning. This can be solved relatively easily with a community development mechanism that equates to mining lisenses ie some relationship that treats communities as a resource from which business can profit. Figure that one out and there will be new communities springing up every where, and the urban sprawl problem disappears altogether.

  16. Alan Davies

    This article prompted some very interesting further commentary on housing (and potatoes – I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of a Kipfler before).

  17. Dylan Nicholson

    16, have you tried walking from Southern Cross to Flinders St on a hot day, with a heavy suitcase?
    Given the effective CBD now extends from the far-west edge of Docklands to, say, St. Vincents on Victoria St, that’s a distance of 4km – more than most people are prepared to walk if they need to get there in a short amount of time (for the average CBD resident it would likely take almost an hour, vs less than 20 on a bike. In fact I doubt it’s possible to do it in less than 20 during business hours by any means except private helicopter!).

  18. Tom the first and best

    The following paragraph is in my comment 15.

    The lack of outside access, without going to the street, is poor planning law not a density issue. All that is needed in a requirement for ever flat to have a balcony.

  19. Tom the first and best


    There are many trains (at high frequency), in both directions in both peak periods, that run between Southern Cross and Flinders St after having dropped off many of their passengers either at Flinders St or in the City Loop. The variance of platforms is the main issue.

    The CBD could do with better bicycle facilities but walking is a major mode of travel around the CBD, as the distances are short.

  20. 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.

  21. Dylan Nicholson

    BTW on a tangentially related note, due to Metro’s ongoing inability to manage its way out of a paper bag, I was forced to take a bus for part of my journey today.
    All I can say is that anyone who seriously thinks buses are an adequate substitute for fixed-track vehicles has obviously never travelled much on either. While I was largely persuaded that the economics of using buses for, e.g., the airport link made them the best choice, in this case economics be damned – they simply don’t compare to trains or light rail, and an internationally-regarded first
    world city like Melbourne deserves better.

  22. Dylan Nicholson

    Tom, people still need to get around the CBD area (and close surrounds). Just getting a train from Southern Cross to Flinders St can be an exercise in patience at peak hour.
    A big problem is a lack of good bicycle paths throughout the CBD, which for many people rules out that sensible method of getting around. Of course it could also be improved by better driver education, replacing Metro/PTV with a body actually capable of running a busy network well etc. etc., but one thing at a time…

  23. 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.

  24. 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.

  25. Apollo

    Don’t say ‘Asian city’ and scare the Anglophile Aussies away. Say New York style apartments. Some of my friends responded the NY style apartment ad just to find out that you can see your neighbour’s apartment directly through the window. It was hilarious.

  26. Tom the first and best


    People living in this area who use public transport are more likely to be using it in a counter peak direction because they live in the CBD and are travelling outside it and this is the opposite of the majority of CBD PT users. This means they are likely to be using services that are no where near full (unless they are trying to get a tram along St Kilda Rd).

  27. SBH

    Thanks Alan, I hadn’t read that earlier. very useful

  28. 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.

  29. Dylan Nicholson

    Meh, I’ve accepted MHL arguments are a waste of time at this point, with the possible exception of exemptions for bike share schemes.

    Don’t international students count as “small households of singles”?

  30. SBH

    “The people who buy or rent CBD apartments are predominantly small households of singles and couples”

    Alan do you have a reference? In a recent discussion with MCC I was advised that 60% of residents are international students. Which is good ’cause they shovel astonishing amounts of money into the economy.

    p.s. I awaited with breath abated for your piece on the recent work of M.R. Bambach, R.J. Mitchell, R.H. Grzebieta and J. Olivier. See you there Dylan.

  31. 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?

  32. Dylan Nicholson

    It strikes me as particularly silly to worry about the sort of apartments these buildings are likely to house, as the typical likely buyers/renters are educated, unlikely to be economically disadvantaged, and capable of making a sound decision about where they’d like to live on their own terms.
    Honestly my only concern is that if these new CBD dwellers expect to make regular use of our train network then the already now frequently poor delivery of services in and around the city is going to take a real hit. I’ve already given up on training into the city from Kensington on the days I have to take my son with me, and bought a tow-bar attachment for the bike instead.

  33. hk

    The statements; “The people who buy or rent CBD apartments …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.”
    …are totally agreed with. However more analysis and discussion also needs occur on providing the different energy and EFP ratings for the various apartments in the seven towers highlighted in the source articles in The Age by Marika Dobbins.

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