Would Ormond be in danger of losing its character if a building of up to 13 storeys were erected over the rail station?
Would suburban Ormond be in danger of losing all this character if a building of up to 13 storeys were erected over the rail station (on the right of the picture)?

The Age reported yesterday that the Victorian Government plans to build high-rise towers over some of the suburban stations being redeveloped as nearby level crossings are removed (see High-rises plans for suburban stations to help fund level crossing removals). The paper reports the immediate plan is to build a residential tower up to 13 storeys above the Frankston railway line.

The apartment building with street-level retail would be built on North Road above Ormond station, and in a first for Melbourne’s mostly low-rise suburbs, will be built directly over the railway tracks. It would be significantly taller than other buildings in Ormond.

The Public Transport Users Association asked on Twitter if perhaps this is too much:

Development above railway stations is a great idea, but is 13 storeys (proposed at Ormond) too much in the suburbs?

Given the politics of redevelopment – and the preoccupation of Melburnians with building height – this seems a pertinent question. Even in the CBD, the height of proposed buildings is a perennial point of contention (although at much greater heights than 13 storeys).

The question suggests to me, though, that the idea of “the suburbs” needs to be re-evaluated. The suburbs once implied a sweeping vista of detached houses on large lots unblemished by multi-unit housing, non-residential uses, or people who were different.

But that hasn’t been the case for ages. We now know the suburbs – which for convenience I’ll define the conventional way as more than 5 km from the CBD – are more diverse socially and demographically than the inner city on most measures.

The detached house stereotype hasn’t been true for a long while either. At the 2011 Census, only 48.8% of occupied dwellings in the suburb of Ormond were separate houses, down from 50.5% in 2001. Flats, units or apartments made up 35.8% of the housing stock and townhouses made up 14%.

Ormond is in suburbia but it’s only 11 kilometres from Flinders St Station; it’s within the ring of suburbs defined by VISTA as Inner Melbourne (see map of rings here). In a city of 4.5 million – and projected to grow to 8 million in around 35 years – it’s now highly valued for the accessibility it offers to the rest of the metropolitan area, especially by rail. A lot of people want to capitalise on that accessibility and – as the Census numbers show – are prepared to trade-off “place for space”.

The key change though is the geography of jobs. Contrary to popular belief, the jobs aren’t all in the CBD and serviced by dormitory suburbs; the great majority are now in the suburbs. The “centre of gravity” of jobs is around 8 km south east of the CBD, in the vicinity of Tooronga station, East Malvern; it was 6 km 1981 (see Are the suburbs dormitories?).

The “average” job is around 16 km from the CBD, up from 12 km in 1981. Nearly a quarter of all jobs are more than 22 km from the CBD; half are more than 13 km away; and 72% are more than 5 km from Melbourne Town Hall. In fact the CBD, including recent extensions like Docklands and Southbank, only has circa 15% of all metropolitan area jobs.

And suburban jobs aren’t all low-skill or in declining sectors. Half of all the jobs in Melbourne occupied by graduates are more than 5 kilometres from the CBD; think of all those suburban hospitals, universities and office parks.

While the great bulk of suburban jobs are in relatively small centres (such as Ormond), around a fifth are in large concentrations like Clayton, Box Hill and Tullamarine. These are much smaller than the CBD but they indicate an emerging polycentric urban form with most specialising in one or more particular industries (see Are all suburban centres the same?).

I don’t expect the term ‘suburb’ is likely to fall into disuse any time soon, but we need to get over the idea that we live in a binary world comprising a tiny active centre on the one hand, and a giant inactive suburban dormitory suitable only for resting, on the other.

Here’s a better representation of contemporary reality: there are a number of key places in the metropolitan area where activities want to agglomerate and where the wider community is best served if they do. Because it’s extraordinarily expensive to build and operate transport infrastructure, these locations are likely to be characterised by a high level of accessibility to other parts of the metropolitan area.

They include the CBD and much of the inner city, but they also include places like Clayton, Tullamarine, Box Hill,Ringwood, Footscray, Sunshine, Knox, Broadmeadows and Dandenong.

So asking if a 13 storey residential tower is too much for “the suburbs” – as if the 2,400 square kilometres of built-up Melbourne that lies outside the inner city is all the same – is the wrong question. The “suburbs” is an idea that’s lost most of its usefulness.

The right question is whether or not a markedly higher concentration of activities is appropriate in a place such as Ormond, having regard to strategic considerations like the capacity of infrastructure. The question of whether or not 13 storeys is appropriate on a particular site in Ormond – in this case the rail station – is a consequential and secondary question that should have regard to urban design considerations.

I note though that, as pointed out here, the area surrounding the rail station is already zoned for commercial and mixed uses.