City Editor, The Age
Now, in a rich irony, Mr Echberg – a city architect and urban designer – and his co-owners in their modest four-level office and apartment tower have found themselves at the epicentre of the biggest and most rapid skyscraper-building frenzy Melbourne has seen.
One marker of the pace of change for the area? So rapid has development been that television reception is now partly blocked by one tall tower next door.
Mr Echberg calculates that no fewer than 30,000 new residents will live in eight city blocks bounded by Swanston, Victoria, Queen and Lonsdale streets once the last of the towers now under construction or approved by former planning ministers Matthew Guy and Justin Madden are complete.
Even if only half of the 17 residential skyscrapers planned or under construction are built, the influx of new residents will place unprecedented stress on an area that was for decades a development backwater.
And for Mr Echberg and co-owners in his strata-titled building, the result of this building tsunami will mean – if a 49-level tower proposed by Goodyear Properties is approved by Planning Minister Richard Wynne – being virtually surrounded by skyscrapers.
“Our recycled office building,” Mr Echberg said, in his submission to Melbourne City Council on behalf of the body corporate, “could be rendered uninhabitable by massive and poorly designed residential developments on three sides.”
Much of the construction in the area is by overseas developers and many apartments have been sold offshore – including the prominent Fulton Lane project in Franklin Street. In its first weekend of sales in Kuala Lumpur, two-thirds of the project were reportedly snapped up.
Melbourne City Council has acknowledged the rapid growth in the area, noting in its City North structure plan there were 12,000 new households built or expected around the Queen Victoria Market precinct.
Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said there was no problem with the proliferation of apartments in the area – quite the reverse.
“I am pretty comfortable with the rate of increase there at the moment,” said Cr Doyle, stressing that the huge growth in population meant there was urgency to construction of infrastructure like the proposed Melbourne Metro rail tunnel, and the upgrading of trams running on Elizabeth Street.
He also said the city needed minimum standards for apartments because, while in the main the market was delivering quality places to live, there were terrible units being built “at the very bottom end”.
But Cr Doyle labelled concerns over overseas investments in apartments in central Melbourne as the “dog whistle of development – that we are being overrun or overtaken. To me it’s a good thing. People can get a bit xenophobic about investment but they can’t take the buildings back with them.”
And he said there was real affordabilty for young people in the homes being built.
“You can get a very nice apartment for $600,000 – what can you buy in a house for that price? if we keep on building on the edges of the city, that is when you get real infrastructure problems.”
The planning minister, Mr Wynne, said that most of the large developments approved for the area happened under the Baillieu and Napthine governments.
Many, he said, had been made “piecemeal – without any regard for the area as a whole”.
He said high-density CBD living could be a positive, but that Mr Echberg was “right to sound his warning”, and that there had to be enough community facilities and services for residents for cities to thrive. “Melburnians don’t want to live in a city that loses its human scale,” Mr Wynne said.