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.