February 11, 2015 by Dymphna 39 Comments

How to build a slum

Panoramic image of the docklands waterfront area of Melbourne

I’ve been keeping a close eye on the Melbourne inner-city apartment market, and right now, there’s red flags going up all over the place.

I’m talking CBD high-rise apartment towers. It’s a funny market. It seems to be marching completely to the beat of it’s own drum. And I’m not sure I like where it’s going.

We’ve seen a massive quantity of new apartments come on line in the past couple of years. But the bulk of these apartments seem to be marketed directly to foreign buyers – particularly the Chinese.

And there seem to be a lot of questions about the quality and ‘liveability’ of these apartments. The AFR was running a report last year that 40% of new apartments were less than 40 square metres.

Barely enough room to swing a cat.

And now someone sent me a link to a report the Melbourne Council has done.

Leanne Hodyl, who is the co-ordinator of city plans and policy at MCC, has stuck the boot into the architects and developers behind Melbourne’s high-rise boom.

She reckons “weak, ineffective or non-existent” rules mean that apartment towers in central Melbourne are being built at four times the densities allowed in other major cities – like New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Yep. Cities that have come to epitomise over-crowding. In Tokyo they have people with white gloves to gently stuff you into overflowing trains. These cities have rules that create 4 times more space that we’re getting in inner Melbourne right now!


As Hoydl says,

“There was general consensus from the planning and design experts that I interviewed… that the densities being delivered in central Melbourne are too high and many questioned whether they could deliver long-term liveable outcomes…

[Melbourne] enables the approval of tower developments that are very tall and that squeeze out the space between buildings, with little regard on the effect on the residents within, the impact on the streets below or on the value of neighbouring properties…

There is legitimate concern… that developing at these extreme densities will have negative, long-term impacts for Melbourne, eroding away Melbourne’s celebrated liveability. It will create a legacy of apartments that are of poor quality – homes that lack access to light, air and an outlook – and diminish the quality of the streets and parks below by blocking sunlight, increasing wind drafts and obstructing sky views. The quality of these public spaces is critical – even more so as these city residents retreat from their compact apartments to use the city’s streets and parks as their ‘living room’.”

If what she’s saying is true, the rules mean we’re effectively building a slum. These apartments might not be too bad now, but once they get a bit older and a bit dirtier they could go downhill very quickly. And without views, light or air, they’ll be horrible places to live.

And it’s changing the nature of the city as well. As Hoydl says,

At the same time, the density of these developments is resulting in a rapid and unpredictable increase in the population living in the central city. These residents need adequate open space and community services to ensure that they can enjoy a good quality of life.

There are currently no policies in place that link the density of developments to the provision of this essential infrastructure, resulting in a significant funding opportunity being missed…

Instead, Melbourne’s planning controls offer ‘cheap density’ to developers as they are able to build unlimited density with limited need for a community contribution…

This is really a disaster in the making. Once you ‘slumify’ an area, it’s very hard to undo. High-rise apartment towers aren’t quick knock-down and rebuild jobs.

And it’s appalling to hear that the mechanisms aren’t in place to plan for lifestyle or to hit the developers (almost all of them foreign companies) up for adequate infrastructure contributions.

Seems like a total failure of policy.

Now normally the market will help you avoid outcomes like this. If you build crappy homes, no one will buy them.

But these are very unusual times. As I said, a large bulk of these are being marketed directly to foreign buyers. I wonder if these buyers are aware of how small these apartments really are, and how out-of-step they are with the rest of the Australian property market.

I wonder if they realise how crap the resale prospects on a high-rise shoebox actually are.

And it’s all just happening so rapidly. The brochure probably looks fantastic, but it probably leaves out the high-rises going up next door that are going to block out all the light.

The market doesn’t always get it right, and in this case seems to be failing miserably.

This is when you need governments to step up and make some tough decisions. The future of our cities and our way of life is at stake.

Time to pull the finger out.

And if you’re thinking of buying in this market, well, you really need to have your wits about you.