One take on how Melbourne's CBD might look in the future. Source: Skyscraper City

Daniel Ziffer, a senior producer with ABC radio, got stuck into Melbourne property developers via the pages of The Age yesterday for pretending their buildings create the ambience of Manhattan in Melbourne (Developers tall tales are all pie in the sky).

Referring to the claim made by the marketers of the 282 apartment Midtown complex that it is “Time (sic) Square and SoHo inspired”, Mr Ziffer archly observes:

New Yorkers don’t go to Times Square. Ever. And the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale streets is not Times Square. You are closer to a strip club than a Starbucks and the brightest neon lights aren’t on theatres but a fast food restaurant in front of a bus depot.

I agree with Mr Ziffer about this cringe-worthy tendency. In fact I’ve complained about it myself (Why are “Tribeca” and “Madison at Upper West Side” in Melbourne?)

But Mr Ziffer has a bigger target in his sights – he doesn’t like all the high rise towers approved for the CBD. He says Melbourne’s embrace of high rise is at odds with Manhattan, most of which is relatively low rise five and six storey buildings, many without a lift.

He says Melbourne isn’t emulating Manhattan but Hong Kong. That’s undesirable because Hong Kong has “many dense and grim neighbourhoods where skyscrapers block light and life from the streets”.

Referring to the possibility that 8,000 units in total might be constructed in the area bounded by Spencer, Bourke, William and La Trobe streets, he says:

That’s an unprecedented explosion of housing — a Caroline Springs in the sky — which will have unknown consequences for the area.

I think Mr Ziffer has made a fundamental mistake here. He’s comparing the entirety of Manhattan and Hong Kong with just a small part of Melbourne’s CBD.

Manhattan’s land area is 60 sq kms. That’s an area equivalent to a 4.5 km radius circle drawn around Melbourne Town Hall, extending almost as far as Hawthorn railway station in the east, Brunswick Rd Brunswick in the north and into the Bay in the south. It corresponds reasonably closely to the customary definition of inner city Melbourne.

However the western end of the CBD and the area behind Southbank where most of the existing and mooted high rise development is proposed covers only a fraction of that area. Even a 1.5 km radius circle around the Town Hall covers only 7 sq km.

In the order of 76 sq kms of Hong Kong is developed for housing use. That’s only a small part of the Special Administrative Region but it’s an order of magnitude larger than the relatively tiny precints in and around Melbourne’s CBD that’re slated for high rise housing.

These small precincts provide many benefits for Melbourne. They increase the number of citizens who can afford to enjoy the amenities of the city centre. In doing so they increase overall housing supply and improve affordability across the metropolitan area.

It’s also very sustainable living. All those thousands of units are necessarily small and hence minimise their embodied and operational impact on the environment. They’re located in a part of Melbourne with exemplary walkability and public transport service. Moreover, the cost of parking strongly discourages car ownership.

Melbourne is not Hong Kong where towers house families. The residents of these new buildings will mainly be young, well-heeled and living alone or as a couple. With so many of them in one place agglomeration will work its magic and create a lively and diverse streetlife in the immediate precinct. That will be to the benefit of everyone who chooses to visit the area.

The idea that the various high rise developments in and around the CBD are ‘vertical sprawl’ – or “Caroline Springs in the sky” –  is asinine. All residents are just a brief elevator trip from street level, they’re living right in the middle of the largest concentration of jobs in the metropolitan area, and their predominant mode of travel is by walking and public transport. If there’s a “mall”, it’s the entire CBD!

I agree however with Mr Ziffer that Melbourne isn’t like Manhattan, although for different reasons. The dominant built form in inner city Melbourne (i.e. the 4.5 km radius) is one and two storey terraces, more recent three story walk-ups, and low rise industrial and institutional uses. It doesn’t have the mix of five and six storey buildings and mid rise that forms the streetscape of much of Manhattan.

Mr Ziffer says “only about 5% of residential properties in Manhattan have more than 100 units”. I’ll bet the proportion is no higher in inner city Melbourne, in fact I’d expect it to be considerably less. The demography of inner city Melbourne and of these new high rise towers however will be much more like Manhattan’s than Hong Kong’s.

The image of Hong Kong that's meant to scare us!