What a city block in Melbourne's CBD could look like under certain assumptions (source: Report by Leanne Hoydl)

The Age warned its readers yesterday that a “scathing new report” by a Melbourne City Council employee says high-rise towers in the CBD are far more densely populated than those in five other international cities.

High-rise apartment towers in central Melbourne are being built at four times the maximum densities allowed in some of the world’s most crowded cities, including Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo.

The report referred to by The Age selects a city block in Melbourne’s CBD (see exhibit) and hypothesises how it might be developed under the comparable planning rules in Vancouver, New York and Hong Kong. (1)

The key finding is Melbourne tops the list; its relatively “weak” planning controls mean the block could be developed with as many as 4,300 apartments.

The report is the outcome of a private study tour undertaken under the Churchill Fellowship program by Melbourne City Council planner Leanne Hodyl. A report of a study tour isn’t the same as a scholarly research document though.

The report doesn’t justify why the benchmark cities were selected out of the hundreds and hundreds of potential candidates. Nor is the reasoning behind the selection of the particular block in Melbourne’s CBD explained; or why the comparison wasn’t made with real development precincts in the comparator cities.

The numbers assumed in the report are exaggerated too. The report says there are already 2,500 apartments either existing or approved for the block; the correct number is somewhat smaller i.e. 2,331. (2)

There’s a much bigger problem though: the total of 4,300 apartments is arrived at by assuming the two remaining ‘vacant’ sites on the block will together accommodate a further 2,069 apartments (i.e. an average of around 1,000 each).

However there’re no approved developments for these two sites and as far as I’m aware no serious proposals. The claim that they would deliver more than 2,000 apartments between them is simply based on following “existing development patterns within the block” (one of the invented towers is 95 storeys; that’s more than the Eureka Tower’s 92 storeys!).

But that’s an unconvincing assumption. Consider that the average size of existing and approved developments on the site is only 446 apartments. The largest development is the proposed 541 apartments approved for 450 Elizabeth St. The “existing development pattern” implies, at most, half the number of apartments assumed in the report for these two sites. (3)

Another issue with the report is that it makes its case based on a tiny sample i.e. one city block. There will always be a high level of variability at the micro level; what matters is how a system works as a whole.

The block selected for this report is around 2 Ha; that means it’s miniscule in the context of the 700 Hectares of modest residential density covered by the entire CBD, or the 3,600 Ha covered by the City of Melbourne. (4)

The report doesn’t make any reference to the benefits the community derives from higher housing supply. High density housing in the city centre is good for affordability and good for sustainability. Compare the price of apartments in the centre of the cities cited in this report and I expect Melbourne would look very good; as it does compared with Sydney’s more tightly regulated market.

As I discussed last week, there’s room to improve how residential towers relate to each other (e.g. separation distances) and to the rest of the city (e.g. podiums), however it’s vital the new state government adopts an objective and cool-headed approach to this issue and takes action on the basis of strong evidence.

The new Minister for Planning will come under pressure because Melbourne City Council isn’t happy he is the decision-maker on large projects in the city centre rather than the municipality.

Any contemplated changes should be assessed in the context of the social benefits provided by higher densities. The Minister should take note of this new report which estimates height limits in Auckland can in some circumstances add NZ$18,000 – $32,000 to the cost of building an apartment. (5)

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  1. The block is bounded by Elizabeth, Franklin, Stewart and A’Beckett streets. The author also visited Tokyo and Seoul but hasn’t included these two cities in the comparison with this block; that’s not explained.
  2. There are 677 existing apartments on the site in two developments at present; and a further 1,554 apartments in three approved developments. There are also two remaining ‘vacant’ sites on the block. Existing: 410 Elizabeth St – 488 apartments; 89-93 Franklin St (Franklin Lofts) – 189 apartments. Approved: 450 Elizabeth St – 541 apartments; 97 Franklin St – 511 apartments; 58-64 A’Beckett St – 502 apartments
  3. Presumably there’s some sort of slippery-slope argument that “anything’s possible” on this site up to the limit set by CASA; but even the former Minister, Matthew Guy, who The Age’s associate editor Shane Green says was known as “Mr Skyscraper”, knocked backed a proposal for 749 apartments on the site at 58-64 A’Beckett St.
  4. And positively microscopic when considered against the 250,000 Ha covered by the built up area of metropolitan Melbourne
  5. The MOTU report also estimates other costs e.g. increasing the ceiling height to 2.55 metres could add NZ$10,500 – $18,000 per apartment (double for 2.7 metre ceiling).
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