Melbourne’s developers are in a New York state of mind

The original: Manhattan is no Caroline Springs in the sky.The original: Manhattan is no Caroline Springs in the sky.

Melbourne’s developers are in a New York state of mind. Actually, it’s a delusion.

In their flurry to sell high-rise apartments, they have created hyperbolic fantasies about Manhattan and Melbourne that distort reality. Fantasy is too kind: they’re lying.

Melbourne is going along another model: Hong Kong. That city is vibrant and exciting in parts, but has many dense and grim neighbourhoods where skyscrapers block light and life from the streets.

The Upper West Side (UWS) development on the old Lonsdale Street power station site is the epicentre of the insanity, but it stretches beyond the central business district.

In New York City, for example, The Bowery is an area that fostered the Ramones, Patti Smith and iconic music venue CBGB. In Richmond it’s a six-storey apartment complex next to a bulk pet food superstore.


As a one-time resident of the Big Apple, and a frequent visitor, it’s both hilarious and disheartening that the elements that make New York City such an amazing place are being bastardised to sell a pup to locals.

“Time [sic] Square and Soho inspired, you can already feel the difference — its rhythm and energy, its colour and passion,” promises the brochure for Melbourne’s Midtown 282-apartment development, right next to the 700-apartment UWS megaplex.

Where to start?

New Yorkers don’t go to Times Square. Ever. And the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale streets is not Times Square. You are closer to a strip club than a Starbucks and the brightest neon lights aren’t on theatres but a fast food restaurant in front of a bus depot.

And Soho? You’ve got to be kidding. In Manhattan the posh area South of Houston Street is a forest of medium-rise structures, many without lifts. There are 20 neighbourhoods in New York City more densely populated than Soho, which is at the heart of the fiction being sold in Melbourne.

Forget Melbourne’s bulging city apartment buildings, such as the 388-metre Australia 108 complex set to join its little sister the Eureka Tower (298 metres), and a planned 72-storey skyscraper (226 metres) in blotting out the sun in Southbank.

In reality, more than half the housing stock in New York City is in small to medium developments, often ”walk-ups” without lifts.

“In the city as a whole, one to four family homes make up a very clear majority of all residential properties,” says New York University housing expert Sean Capperis, “and 59 per cent of residential properties in Manhattan, the largest share, have between five and 49 units.”

The data manager and research analyst at the Furman Centre for Real Estate and Urban Policy at the university could crunch numbers “all day” and still not get a vision of New York City as a place where residential skyscrapers dominate.

“I don’t have heights for them, but you can say that most are fewer than 50 units — they’re not going to be skyscrapers,” he said.

In Manhattan only about 5 per cent of residential properties have more than 100 units. (In New York City the proportion is down to 0.5 per cent). These Manhattan mega-complexes have what Capperis calls an “outsized impact” on the market, but still don’t house even half the island’s residents.

Manhattan’s tallest residential tower is actually shorter than Eureka Tower and Australia 108, although a skyscraper under construction will eventually top them both.

This is not to say that there aren’t areas of Manhattan where walking the streets makes you feel like you’re in the base of a canyon, looking up. But largely their avenues are wider than Melbourne’s street grid, and apartment buildings are set back from the street to allow sunlight to hit the ground.

The diverse mix of housing in Manhattan — tenements, walk-ups, low-rise apartment buildings — is supported by the services that you get when a city develops over decades, not years.

Melbourne is going along another model: Hong Kong.

That city is vibrant and exciting in parts, but has many dense and grim neighbourhoods where skyscrapers block light and life from the streets.

It’s what the developer of Midtown and UWS, calls the “vertical precinct”.

Far East Consortium is putting close to $1 billion of development into a tiny area and aims to build 2600 apartments on the site.

As The Age reported in January, almost 8000 apartments are proposed for a pocket of the city’s west, bounded by La Trobe, William, Bourke and Spencer streets, 3000 of them on this newspaper’s former office.

That’s an unprecedented explosion of housing — a Caroline Springs in the sky — which will have unknown consequences for the area.

It will be a lot of things, but it won’t be ”Manhattan-esque”.

So don’t buy the lie that they are selling: the concrete creation of a ”New York End” of the city to rival the ”Paris End” out east.

What the average New Yorker would say about it can’t be printed.

Daniel Ziffer is senior producer of Mornings with Jon Faine on 774 ABC. These are his personal views.

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