Proposed townhouses in inner northern Melbourne, showing roof terraces. Road is at the top

A key challenge facing governments is finding ways to increase the supply of multi-unit housing in established suburbs. More and more households are prepared to trade-off space in order to live in locations with good accessibility, but their options are constrained by high prices due to limited housing supply.

Much of the problem is caused by opposition to new developments from existing residents. I’ve previously discussed some proposed multi-unit projects that were opposed on doubtful grounds by residents, like this one in the Melbourne inner suburb of Armadale and this one in middle ring Bundoora.

These two examples are major multi-storey developments with hundreds of dwellings but they’re on very large sites previously used for non-residential purposes. They have limited direct interface with existing residential areas and (literally) have rail-based public transport on their doorsteps.

Small projects in suburban streets often present greater difficulties. They’re usually two storey town house developments but can be more problematic because they’re much closer to existing residents and offer them no direct benefits.

Project

Consider this current proposal for townhouses in a precinct of primarily detached houses in inner northern Melbourne, 7 km from Flinders St Station as-the-crow-flies (see exhibit).

The developer proposes to replace 2 existing unrenovated detached houses on a 1,300 sq metre site with 12 three-level townhouses. It’s on a narrow but busy street with no on-street parking.

Each proposed townhouse has a single garage and a large “theatre room” in the basement; two bedrooms on the ground floor; living, meals and kitchen on the first floor; and 10 of the 12 have a “roof terrace” (hence ten of them effectively have 4 levels).

Although located in the basement, the “theatre room” has windows, so there’s every chance these will be used for some other purpose, such as for a third bedroom or office.

As well as one parking spot per dwelling, there’s the customary bicycle storage in each dwelling and the development is 1.2 km walking distance from the nearest train station. There’s no provision for visitor car parking.

Issues

An additional net gain in supply of 10 townhouses would make a positive contribution to metropolitan dwelling supply and consequently to affordability. Looked at from the point of view of existing residents though, the development would change the circumstances of its immediate neighbours substantially.

At present, existing residents have 2 neighbouring single storey dwellings on the site. Both are set back about 9 metres from the rear boundary. Were it to be approved as proposed, the development would increase the number of dwellings from 2 to 12 and the number of residents from around 7 or 8 to around 36.

The biggest impact would be on properties on the rear boundary, where the facades of 7 of the townhouses would be 3 metres from the boundary (with roof terraces set back 6 metres).

This is a very large increase in the number of potential sources of nuisance. Councils can usually ensure over-looking is addressed by careful design, but noise from multiple sources is likely to be a serious detriment for existing residents.

It’s exacerbated by the location of the living areas on the first floor (with bedrooms on the ground floor). The roof terraces, which are large enough for entertaining (2.4 x 4.0 m) but have no form of noise attenuation, would also be a source of noise.

Noise is a particular problem because of the difficulty of containing it effectively by design. As I’ve discussed before, the regulation and enforcement of domestic noise has failed to keep up with the move to denser living and electronic amplification of sound (see Get social to increase density).

The adequacy of resident and visitor parking is also an issue. The site is on one of the inner north’s narrow east-west arterials; so narrow in this case that no on-street parking is currently permitted in this location.

One car park per dwelling is likely to be inadequate for what are de facto 3 bedroom townhouses; likewise the absence of visitor parking for 12 households.

While the proponent would doubtless point to the rail station (1.2 km is well beyond the customary 800 metre standard for rail) and the provision of bicycle storage, residents and visitors are likely to ignore wishful thinking and increase pressure on parking on side streets.

Implications

For existing residents, developments like this come across as all downside; they get a big increase in the density of the neighbouring block (from 15 dwellings per Hectare to 90 in this case) with no direct and visible offsetting gain such as shops or community facilities like residents near this large project anticipate they’ll get. (1)

Nor can they realistically expect to profit from the opportunity to redevelop their own properties; almost all home owners in the area have invested heavily in renovations.

Considerate design that takes account of the particular circumstances of a project is extremely important with these sorts of developments. In some cases the configuration of the site and of the adjacent properties means that with careful design a larger number of new dwellings can be built.

In other cases, a satisfactory outcome will only be achieved with a smaller number of new dwellings and generous setbacks from neighbours. Both considerate design and a more considerate scale are needed.

I think this is one of the latter cases; 12 townhouses is too many for this specific micro-geography. I’d be surprised if Council doesn’t insist on substantial changes. (2)

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  1. At an average occupancy of 3 persons per dwelling the development has a density of over 250 persons per Hectare
  2. Council recently knocked back a similar proposal a few kilometres away.