How much housing can brownfields sites supply?

Examples of former industrial zoned sites now currently zoned residential. Images in clockwise order: Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula, Maribyrnong and Kingston (graphic from DPCD)

Governments like to point to disused industrial sites as a significant source of land for expanding housing supply within the established suburbs. Only recently, for example, the Victorian Government talked up the potential of Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend as a new “Growth Corridor”.

So-called brownfields sites can make a useful contribution to housing supply but the available evidence suggests their potential is over-stated. One of the risks of taking too-optimistic a view of brownfields is that the formidable obstacles to other sources of supply – like higher density housing in activity centres and infill developments – will tend to be neglected.

The potential of brownfields sites is limited by a number of factors. They might be in locations that are unattractive to the market (e.g. deep within an industrial area) or are expensive to service. Some have been contaminated by industrial processes and it’s possible another use might be preferred over housing.

Challenge Melbourne, the discussion paper prepared to kick-off the Melbourne 2030 process, estimated brownfields sites could contribute 65,000 dwellings over the period 2001 to 2030. While useful, this was well short of the estimated number of new dwellings that need to be constructed – for example, the latest edition of Victoria in Future projects the number of households in Melbourne will grow by 825,000 between 2006 and 2036.

Now the Planning Department has produced a new study which throws further light on the likely contribution brownfields sites could make to housing supply in Melbourne.

The department estimates more than 400 ha of industrial land was rezoned from industrial to residential in Melbourne over the last ten years. The exhibit shows new housing constructed on former industrial sites in Cardinia, Mornington Peninsula, Maribyrnong and Kingston.

That’s an average of 40 hectares each year over the last ten years. If each hectare was developed at a net density (say) of 20 dwellings, that would mean brownfields sites have contributed on average 800 dwellings p.a. to Melbourne’s housing task.

Compared to Victoria in Future’s projection that the number of households in Melbourne will grow by an average of 27,500 p.a. between 2006 and 2036, that 800 dwellings p.a. seems a decidedly modest contribution. In fact, it’s not certain that rezoning always leads to development and, where it does, what proportion of the site is used for housing. Many of the lots identified by the Department are in suburban locations so even my assumed net density of 20 dwellings per ha might be optimistic.

There are of course other non-industrial sites that could potentially be used for housing. For example, a major housing development was proposed for the former Coburg High School site in Bell St (although it appears to have fallen over). The trouble is there are likely to be many fewer such sites available than industrial sites. I’m not in any case aware of an estimate of their likely supply potential and the associated timing.

I applaud DPCD for producing this new study. There are still many questions around the supply potential of brownfields and other major sites, so I would like to see the department continue with this work. As it stands, the existing evidence suggests the Government should be very wary about over-selling the contribution brownfields can make to housing supply in Melbourne.

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9 Comments on “How much housing can brownfields sites supply?”

  1. Alec says:

    Density is key with the viability of brownfield sites providing much needed housing supply. I would hope that the government’s investigations into urban renewal in Fishermans Bend include scope for the entire Port of Melbourne area, as with coordinated replacement ports at Hastings and Geelong, that CBD-adjacent land could house in the order of 500,000 people if it were a clearly designated for very high density development (which Minister Guy has stated a number of times that it will be).

    I agree with the general thrust of your post that urban renewal of brownfield sites in low-density suburban areas has yielded little meaningful change to housing supply. However Fishermans Bend presents a special opportunity for Melbourne – 100 years of land supply right next to the CBD which could be used to create a “super CBD” stretching from Newport to Clifton Hill, Burnley to Footscray.

    • Alan Davies says:

      Agree that inner city brownfields sites like Fishermans Bend must be developed at high densities.

      Note though the Minister says there’s only 200 ha to be developed over 20-30 years.The CEO of the Property Council estimated a total yield of 10,000 – 15,000 dwellings over that period.

      The density envisaged for E-Gate of 6,000 – 9,000 dwellings, would yield 60,000 to 90,000 dwellings over 20 – 30 years at Fishermans Bend.

      • Alec says:

        Ah just read your excellent initial FBend entry. That makes sense. 10-15,000 dwellings sounds like it’s been copied and pasted from a rather unambitious document about Docklands’ development potential. This is much bigger – with room for much higher dwelling densities than Docklands. For this initial 200 ha area why not aim for 5,000 dwellings per year from the start of development and gradually reclaim industrial land further west and north as Port of Melbourne operations shift to Hastings and Geelong? Singapore and Hong Kong do this stuff every day because they don’t have to deal with stupid NIMBYs. We’d be mad not to take full advantage of Melbourne’s one inner city opportunity to do the same.

          • Chris G says:

            Stupid NIMBYs? NIMBYs might not be stupid. They could be citizens in a democracy with a deep understanding of their locality, connection to place and knowledge of local history. Hong Kong and Singapore are not democratic, so be careful what you wish for. One day a toxic waste dump will be put in your neighbourhood next to the port tunnel exit in your local park – all for perfectly economically rational reasons of course. Then who are you going to call a NIMBY?

          • Alan Davies says:

            Chris G, fair point.

  2. rohan says:

    Yes I have been a bit shocked that ‘brownfield’ sites in middle and outer-ish suburbs simply become housing subdivisions, maybe with only a slightly higher density than outer suburbs. Even the former Kodak site in Coburg, where there is an existing tall building, its going to demolished in favour of subdivision exactly like all the suburban housing around it – even though its about 1 km from Coburg lake, and Pentridge, where not one but two 16 storey towers have been approved. What a difference actual closeness to fixed rail PT and a busy activity centre seems to make. Still would have thought that there would / should be a requirement or at least encouragement for at least some terracy or smaller unit construction, but no, its just another land subdivision ! All the former defence sites in the inner west ended up the same. No take that back, the one near highpoint is very terracy, but then it has a tram and very close to shopping etc.

    On the other hand any ‘brown’ site in the inner or even just beyond inner suburbs becomes a high high density development – 6 storey blocks on Ch9 site and TipTop bakery in Brunswick yet to come, while of course there are plenty of towers in Forest Hill, Sth Yarra and now Footscray, and the redevelopment of the inner city housing commiss walk ups are very high density too, and 10 storey things popping up along sydney road.

    Seems industry prefers free-standing houses where surroundings are already like that, no idea or policies encouraging a large site to providing its own amenity / centre with higher density, or getting a bus route….

    • Alan Davies says:

      Thanks, the old Kodak site is an example of what I was getting at with my recent retro-fitting post. I don’t think it’s just industry/market preferences that lead to low density redevelopments on sites like that one. There’s now an entrenched view among some planners/councillors that major medium density developments have to be close to a rail/tram line, otherwise detached is the go. In my view, it shows how blinkering ideology can be.

      • Furthermore, continuing your points about the 400m/800m debate on walking distances from trams and heavy rail respectively it can be argued that the 112 tram is close to the Kodak site. Google maps shows me a distance of 650m from the South East corner of the site to the nearby tram, the streets above are more around the 800m mark.

        There is also the opportunity to extend the No.1 tram up Elizabeth Street. Thankfully it could be done without having the tram turn into Bell Street as there is the park on the corner near the current terminus that extends just past the Elizabeth Street intersection. It would obviously still have to cross Bell, but I don’t think that’s much of an issue given there are already traffic lights there.

        A very cursory look at the satellite photos to me indicates that there is actually a good opportunity here, extend the tram up Elizabeth, turn into Murray Road and continue to Northland. That route would bring the tram line within about 450m of the South East corner of the site, it would cross the 112 tram on Gilbert Road, stop outside Preston West primary, connect with Preston Station and the core of the High Street Preston shopping area and market, intersect the 86 tram along Plenty road then finally terminate at Northland.

        The route would be a 5.2km extension that would provide connections with two other trams, a train and two major trip generators. All through suburbs that are booming…

        Approximate numbers show a $60m price tag… now that I see that I’m not convinced…


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