Could major housing developments be outside activity centres?

We need to start thinking about new ways of increasing housing supply in the established suburbs. As I’ve noted a number of times now, activity centres aren’t delivering much and infill housing, though it’s putting in a sterling effort, is probably at full stretch. These strategies are still important, but additional sources of supply are needed.

Much of the current thinking confines major developments to a narrow range of locations, primarily activity centres and major transport corridors where key infrastructure, particularly rail lines, already exists. Many have argued these locations have the potential to accommodate enough apartments to house all of Melbourne’s projected growth for decades to come. I don’t doubt they could in theory, but in reality they’re not doing enough.

I think there are lessons we can learn from the study of infill housing I discussed last time. One is the decisive importance of land – developers working at all scales need to be able to easily acquire or assemble sites that are of an appropriate size and aren’t encumbered by high-value improvements.

Developers don’t want to be rejected or delayed by unhappy neighbours or sent packing by councils that impose restrictive limits and conditions on development. And they need to offer housing types that are attractive to the market in that locality – not everyone who’d be inclined to live in the middle ring suburbs would want to live in an apartment.

I think there’s another option worth investigating that addresses many of these concerns. Although it’s just an idea at the moment, it involves a reverse strategy – encouraging residential and commercial development in areas that usually have poor infrastructure, but large sites and compliant neighbours. Rather than require infrastructure to be in place first, it involves retrofitting infrastructure like public transport in order to create new living areas.

It relies on the existence of sites in the suburbs which are large, in single or limited ownership, have few neighbours, and are either undeveloped or have relatively low-value improvements such as warehouses. Some sites that meet these criteria are attached to large public sector organisations like tertiary institutions and utilities, but are surplus to requirements.

As an example, I’m familiar with a tertiary institution in an Australian capital city that’s located within 20 km of the CBD and has more than 100 ha of surplus developable land (that’s five times the size of Melbourne’s E-Gate). It is in a single ownership and already has the extensive infrastructure and services required to serve a student population and workforce of many thousands.

It’s in an attractive environment and could potentially be redeveloped as a major regional activity centre at relatively high densities. It isn’t near a train line, but is well-connected by buses to the rail network with the potential to add more to suit the needs of a very large permanent resident population. I’m aware professionally of some opportunities in Melbourne that are consistent with this example.

However most of the prospective sites are likely to be used at present for storage, distribution and manufacturing activities. They’re not brownfields sites though, because they’re not disused. The idea is that rezoning would provide owners with an incentive to redevelop their properties for intensive residential and commercial uses.

The extended area running through Clayton/Monash/Glen Waverley is a possible candidate in Melbourne. It has a number of large industrial sites that could potentially be redeveloped given an appropriate inducement. This region is particularly important because it already has the largest concentration of jobs in suburban Melbourne (albeit at relatively low density compared to the CBD) and is a prime candidate for development as a Central Activities Area.

While it isn’t well-served by rail, it could potentially be retrofitted as part of the proposed Rowville rail project. More plausibly, it could be serviced at a lower up-front cost by an expanded bus rapid transit system similar to that now connecting Monash University with Glen Huntley Huntingdale station.

The overall idea of retrofitting relies on the sheer size and intensity of projects to provide the incentive for redevelopment and to justify investment in infrastructure. The scale of projects would also be a key way of differentiating developments from neighbouring uses, some of which may retain their non-residential character, at least in the short term.

A singular advantage of large sites is the mix of housing could be better matched to the preferences of suburban residents than is possible in activity centres, where sometimes the only economic solution is high-rise apartments.

Government leadership and investment would be desirable and would be justified by the economic benefits of increasing housing supply closer to the centre and of concentrating it at higher densities. The impact on industrial land supply would also need to be considered. My understanding is Melbourne is over-supplied with industrial land, although that might not hold for all locations.

Perhaps the most problematic issue to many people would be the absence of existing high quality public transport, especially rail. I think there are three points to be made in relation to that point.

First, other than in the CBD, higher density housing developments have not yielded  a big increase in public transport use – apartment residents hang on to their cars if they can. So the disadvantage of a more remote location shouldn’t be overstated.

Second, as noted above, existing bus services can be expanded to better connect these and surrounding areas to the Principal Public Transport Network. What’s proposed are relatively big and intensive developments but they’re not likely to justify new rail lines.

Third, since activity centres aren’t delivering at the rate needed, the net sustainability of such a development might still be better than the alternatives, one of which is detached housing in the Growth Areas.

I’m not suggesting retrofitting as an alternative to the various strategies used at present to supply housing within the established suburbs. Rather, I suggest it as a supplementary strategy that might potentially pick up some or all of the slack in supply.


16 Comments on “Could major housing developments be outside activity centres?”

  1. Daniel says:

    “connecting Monash University with Glen Huntley station” – did you mean Huntingdale station?

  2. Very interesting post Alan. One of your most thought provoking in a while. Whilst in general I believe activity centre planning could be better managed (ie I believe planning controls do little to encourage development in activity centres in practice, rather than rhetoric) I also agree that other additional tactics must be taken to supplement activity centre planning.

    I also agree that too much emphasis is put on locating developments around fixed rail as if it is the only viable public transport option in Melbourne. Whilst I don’t hold much faith that BRT alone will provide much incentive to suddenly start taking PT I believe the entire PT network could be revitalised at costs less than current projects on the table (such as the metro tunnel) with much wider benefits, such as rethinking and redesigning mode-to-mode connections around stations and making sense of the currently erratic and ad-hock approach to a bus “network”. Some statistics that I always find indicate the benefits of this point compare how passengers arrive at rail stations in Toronto compared to Melbourne. In Melbourne under 20% of rail passengers arrive by bus. In Toronto, a city of similar density, with many other similarities to Melbourne approximately 80% of passengers arrive by bus. Simply put the bus network in Toronto works as a primarily as a feeder service, where as here planning mechanisms are not at all clear, a minority of services are feeders, usually poorly planned, others are fairly independent of the rail networks and others still actively compete with rail services, providing little actual benefits to anyone.

  3. Peter Parker says:

    Alan – interesting idea, but I’d exhaust underutilised areas near the railway lines first. Followed by areas along SmartBus routes.

    NIMBYism is likely to be less in Laverton, Fawkner, Narre Warren or Upfield than Camberwell, Brighton or Caulfield. A transient renter population is probably a plus. A difficulty is costs. People may sacrifice a house for a smaller dwelling in a ‘nice’ area like Elwood, but a new unit would likely be dearer than a house in somewhere like Laverton, and there’s less urban amenity, so the buyer is making some big sacrifices until that develops.

    A far underutilised area is Campbellfield – 15km from the CBD, established shopping centre, SmartBus and trains (but no station). Huge potential for people who can’t afford Brunswick/Coburg. Another, on the Sydneham line is Delahey, though the radio tower would need to relocate.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Good point. I’ve taken an overly pessimistic view of available sites. There is indeed quite a bit of land near major public tranport routes, mostly industrial, that could be retrofitted with a station, and such sites would have an edge in respect of transport infrastructure. I just want to avoid starting with a hard and fast “must be on rail” constraint (or even “must be on the PPTN” constraint).

      • Russ says:

        I’d argue there is a lot of under-utilised land near railway stations, mostly car-parks. It strikes me as incongruous that we can have difficulties constructing land in activity centres, and yet have acres of station (but also supermarket and workplace) car-parks that are single storey (and often government owned).

        That leads me to think we ought to incentivise development of carparks to increase land-use intensity: a per car park tax of $2000 x (Si – 0.5) where Si is the percentage of storeys devoted to car-park would be appropriate. Thus, 300 car-parks on undeveloped land would incur a $300,000 levy, whereas the same land developed into 3 storeys of car-park (800 spaces) and 2 of shops/apartments would attract a $160,000 levy (and significant rents).

        • Coburg is a prime example here. The first thing you’ll see as you exit the railway station is the back of one of the two Coles supermarkets separated by a large car park. This whole area is state owned. There’s another large carpark just south, and yet another on the opposite side of Sydney road by the football oval. I’m aware that there are quite a few big box shops in the area, but it seems a prime example of where car parks would be better off underground, opening up quite a large area for redevelopment.

          • Julian, the Coburg shopping centre carparks are not ‘State-owned’, but they are owned by Moreland City Council, as is the Coles site near the stations and some other key parcels of land in the activity Centre on both sides of Sydney. All of this was part of Council’s landbank it would tip in as equity to the now abandoned ‘Coburg 2020’ structure plan. And good luck putting those carparks underground in Coburg. Dig down about a metre and a half and you strike basalt – as we found at my place when the sewer line got relaid last year.

          • Sorry Harold, I should have worded that differently by ‘state-owned’ I meant council owned and the important point was more that they were not owned by private companies, nor individuals and therefore re-development should be fairly straight forward.

            As to the Coburg 2020 structure plan, despite a lot of misinformation about they have not been abandoned. The major developer, Equiset has pulled out due to disagreements between themselves and Moreland Council. They felt it wasn’t going to be profitable and Moreland council felt they were not giving enough back to the community in return for the control of land they would receive. If anything this shows that the council is determined to achieve goals from the plan even if it takes a lot longer and more negotiations with developers to do so. I personally hope they use this opportunity to review some of the plans and hopefully put a high-school back on the plot of land that used to house Coburg High School before Kennett forced its closure (although I’m not 100% sure that site was part of the land meant to be developed by Equiset).

            As to the basalt I can’t comment. There’s always the option to build rooftop carparks if it is the case.

        • Russ, I like your thinking of a levy (effectively on the developmental ‘opportunity cost’) of car parking as a price signal for activation/densification of a site. This would also be useful for activating the great under-utilised land resource of railway station car parks, as it would provide an incentive to either:
          a) offset the cost of the levy for charging for car parking or;
          b) fostering development above the carparks to reduce the levy.
          Option A in Melbourne would require the Government to alter its franchise agreement to allow the franchisee to charge for car parking however.

  4. Peter Hill says:

    I agree that the corridor joining Hungtingdale, Clayton, Monash and Glen Waverley is a possible large scale in-fill candidate in Melbourne and is a prime candidate for development as a Central Activities Area. In addition there are large “attractors” of activities such as Monash University and the major hospitals and clinics in Clayton.

    Much improved bus routes in separated lanes along the predominantly N-S and E-W road grid will be the mainstay of PT connecting this corridor with other regions The proposed Rowville rail project seems unfeasible in view of its very high cost engineering needs (grade separation along North and Wellington Roads at road junctions, and steep gradients in the Dandenong Valley) and limited access to its few stations. I recommend a light rail route from Camberwell via Chadstone and Huntingdale station to Rowville – the “Monash Light Railway”. Such a proposal has been outlined in the Town and Country Planning Association’s News Bulletin, which can be read on-line at The Monash Light Rail concept has been discussed in the TCPA Bulletins Volume 11 Number 1 (May-June 2004), and Volume 18 No. 1 (May 2011)

  5. Lynne says:

    To be fair that redevelopment at Coburg has been on the cards for a few years though.

    It’s always had me stumped why Coles are running two supermarkets there though, one was a Bi-Lo I think, but why convert it to a Coles when you have one a couple of hundred metres away, I guess they don’t want any competition coming in.

  6. Russell says:

    Your suggestion is what has been done in Subiaco ( ). My old school (gone) was next to the Government Printer (gone) which was next to a pipe maker (gone) next to a woodyard (gone) etc. You can see in the picture what it looks like now.

    I also wonder about carparks, but also the single storey 1950s/1960s residential development around the big suburban shopping centres. The nearest one to me (Garden City) is huge with cinemas, doctors, dentists etc, the local public library …. and all around it are ordinary old houses on blocks. Far better to concentrate high rise developments around there than on the planned ‘activity centre’ 4 miles away, where it is planned to put up high rise in a leafy, riverside suburb, because the trainline is nearby.

    (But why not just take some of those inner suburban golf-courses and run some highrise down those useless fairways – loads of land in the best spots)

  7. John Smith says:

    Re densifying the 100 hectare university – courageous suggestion, but no doubt the development would be howled down by people who prefer to see kangaroos browsing. On the principle that existing urban open space, however random and useless, however much it exists only from historical accident, must never be touched.

    On major centres away from train lines: this depends on having a serious network of quality frequent bus routes; but unfortunately there is little experience in Australia of taking buses that seriously. Making a trunk route 15-minutely, and giving it a fancy brand name, cuts little ice in attracting people from cars if it still running on arterial roads without priority at 20kph.

  8. […] argued before (here, here and here) that new housing supply within Melbourne’s established suburbs is excessively dependent on […]

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