Is 16-storeys OK in the inner city?

More people want to live close to the cosmopolitan city centre but this conflict over a development in Fitzroy North shows existing residents zealously protect what they've got

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Proposed building on Queens Pde, Fitzroy North
Proposed building on brownfields site, Queens Pde, Fitzroy North

The developer of an 8,000 sq m industrial site in inner city Fitzroy North wants to erect a 16-storey apartment building, but the City of Yarra wants the Planning Minister to impose a six-storey limit on the site and a four-storey limit more generally throughout the municipality.

The proposal is for two food and drink premises at ground level and 476 apartments, made up of two studio apartments, 243 one-bedroom apartments, 188 two-bedroom apartments, 39 three-bedroom apartments, and 4 four-bedroom apartments (i.e. 754 bedrooms). The developer is proposing to provide 445 car parking spaces, including visitor parking, in a two-level basement.

The Mayor says Council’s opposition is “not a NIMBY thing”; rather, she says the proposed development in Queens Pde is “inappropriate”. What that seems to mean is explained by community group Protect Fitzroy North:

(It’s) way out of kilter with the neighbourhood character. The proposed monolith would tower and glower over our neighbourhood. The development would block the city skyline from all parts of Edinburgh Gardens. At night it would block the city lights. The development would become the highest and biggest building in North Fitzroy – our landmark. At over 50m it would be more than 10m higher than the current highest landmark, the St John’s Church Spire.

This is ultimately a familiar story about newcomers versus locals. We’ve seen this sort of conflict plenty of times before e.g. in the Melbourne suburbs of Armadale (see How can density be increased?) and Bundoora (see Do residents see the benefit of urban renewal?). In my view there’s a strong case for this development on the scale and in the form proposed:

  • This is a large industrial site. It’s defined as a Strategic Site under the Planning Scheme i.e. it’s intended that it will make a significant contribution to development in this neighbourhood. There’s no height limit.
  • There are no serious heritage issues with demolishing the existing warehouse buildings. The proposal retains the existing art-deco façade on Queens Pde even though it’s heritage value is questionable. There’re no “little terraces or pubs” on the site at risk of demolition.
  • The location is very well-served by public transport. The tramline in Brunswick St is 100 metres from the western corner of the site and the Nicholson St tramline is 400 metres away. The Smith St tramline is 400 metres from the eastern corner.
  • The location is a walker’s paradise. It’s 100 metres from Brunswick St, 250 metres from WT Peterson Oval and Edinburgh Gardens, 600 metres from Clifton Hill activity centre and 600 metres from the Smith St strip. It’s within reasonable walking distance of the CBD – I know because I commuted five days a week on foot for a couple of years to and from Spring St/Exhibition St from a location 300 metres further north.
  • The proposed building is a good neighbour. The ‘pyramid’ form means the top storey is relatively small and located well away from the boundaries. Building heights step down to the boundaries adjacent to existing housing.
  • While it’s considerably taller than its (existing) neighbours, the stepped-back terraces and roofs are extensively landscaped to soften the visual impact. Larger buildings have traditionally been located on major roads; Queens Pde is a boulevard with four traffic lanes plus service roads on both sides.
  • The southern side of the building where shadowing is most likely to be an issue is occupied by Queens Pde. Shadow will not fall on the (little used) open space reserve on the south side of Queens Parade.
  • The development helps to address the shortage of small dwellings in the municipality relative to the out-growth in one and two person households without dependents. It might be inner city, but only 14.6% of dwellings in the City of Yarra have one bedroom or are bedsits (38% have three or more bedrooms).

That’s not to say there aren’t other issues to be resolved e.g. residents think the proposal has insufficent parking. I think if anything it has too much for this location, but those sorts of essentially technical issues can be negotiated; they’re not make-or-break matters like a reduction from sixteen storeys to six.

Protect Fitzroy North reckons it’s a “bully building” and “refuses views”. So this is primarily about residents wanting to maintain visual amenity, especially “neighbourhood character”. There’s no threat to the way of life of existing residents or to the existing stock of historic terraces; this is about maintaining the look of the neighbourhood. Residents bought into the area in part because they liked that look; as far as they’re concerned they didn’t just buy a dwelling, they also bought the streetscape and the viewscape. They feel this development – and most others – would irrevocably change that look for the worse.

On the other hand, as Melbourne’s population increases, more residents want to live close to the centre where there’s better access to jobs, services and people. This in part reflects the shift in preferences away from suburban space and amenity toward cosmopolitanism. But housing is in short supply in the inner city relative to demand for a number of reasons e.g. because much of the historical stock is single story terraces and detached houses; because very large areas are subject to heritage overlays; and because despite what they say, residents generally oppose all new development. Restrictions on supply have a negative impact on affordability both locally and throughout the city.

What it boils down to is a huge site like this so close to the city centre is rare and precious. It needs to contribute to dwelling supply and affordability in accordance with its potential. In that way it can help compensate for the restricted scope for redevelopment elsewhere in the area. Residents are right that 16 storeys will be visible from a considerable distance, but that reflects the changing locational preferences of Melburnians. Residents didn’t buy a legal right to the streetscape or a right to a view when they purchased their dwelling.

This strikes me as a sensitive and well-designed response to the site and the location. The application has gone to Victoria’s planning tribunal (VCAT) because Council failed to make a decision. Council knows it’s probably acceptable under its own planning scheme but it wants the court to apply the law. Meanwhile Council can be seen to oppose it and, if the application is given the green light without substantial change, they can all blame VCAT for “over-riding” the Council.

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4 thoughts on “Is 16-storeys OK in the inner city?

  1. Claudia

    Areas change. The idea you will buy property in an area and it will be frozen in time just for you from that point forward is just downright bizarre. It is not just inner cities experiencing this, people all over Australia city and regional see their areas change. It’s part of life and everyone has to play their part in progress. If anything the inner city areas like Fitzroy do extremely well out of this process – they have a much more powerful activist base that works on things for them when development is proposed. Yet they still complain. Try living in an outer area where the farmland is turned into all sorts of things from malls to housing and local residents have zero sway. Where are all the articles about them and the extra population and choked roads and heights? Fitzroy is in a very cushy position in regards to downplaying it’s share of carrying the load of a growing nation.

  2. Teddy

    None of the residents objecting to this will be swayed by any of the (arguments you have made Alan. No matter how eloquently you have made them, or how scholarly and comprehensive you have been – they are all totally irrelevant.

    Only rarely are these disputes ever in any sense about “visual character” or “neighbourhood amenity”, nor any of the thousands of issues resident activists and their beholden local councilors use to disguise their real concern.

    The activists will no doubt be pointing their accusatory fingers at “evil developers” too, but their own position is little different. Put simply, the scarcer the housing stock in their area is, the more valuable their own property will be.

    This is all about greed. And you can’t really blame residents for taking that selfish position either, it’s not only encouraged by the real estate dominated local media (Domain et al), urged on by Greens Party activists (who typically form an unholy alliance with wealthy property owners and hijack these disputes), but its at the heart of the very fabric of urban Australian life. Sometimes it is even spelt out, as it was in my own local paper (in the inner west of Sydney) recently. The headline read “Homeowners fear development will drive prices down.”

    It should have said: Poor people: Stay away!

    Housing become more affordable? The horror! The horror…

    1. Jacob HSR

      I posted on The Urbanist that height limits should be lifted in certain industrial suburbs – where nobody currently lives anyway.

      And someone, not Alan, kept opposing the idea! I concluded that he must be a home owner and does not wish to make houses more affordable.

      Look at MEL airport. There is a 9 storey hotel and an 8 storey carpark there. So it is ok to have a 9 storey building 17 km from the CBD?

      And a 10 storey apartment block in Doncaster?

      Why not next to Keon Park station?

    2. lethell

      What rubbish! I bought in the then unfashionable, working class inner suburb next to the one I grew up in because I loved its character though it was at that time despised by the eastern suburb, private school types who are now buying into it. Huge apartment blocks mean that nineteenth century streets are becoming choked with cars, parking meters have appeared so you have to pay to go to the market and coffee shops have driven out the hardware and op shop.
      I oppose these developments because the huge population influx is destroying our neighbourhood character and increasing traffic, all to the benefit of vested interests and the inconvenience of long standing residents. I don’t intend to sell so the increase in value of my home is not an issue but I certainly couldn’t afford to buy here now. Home extends to the local area and people have a right to object to the destruction of their home for the sake of big developers’ and their political allies’benefit.

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