Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The TOD Top Ten

Despite concerns over fuel prices, resource scarcity, population growth and housing affordability, there is still large amounts of land near shops and railway stations that is not utilised to its 'highest and best' use.

While high-density apartment blocks in outer suburbs are beyond the 'human scale' and are not supported by market demand, there is much to be said for medium densities such as small-scale low-rise apartments, townhouses, villas and semi-detached houses.

Of these, the most promising is the villa. They were built in large numbers in the 1960s and 1970s certain suburbs such as Reservoir, Carnegie and Chelsea. Typically part of a small group (3 to 8) they provide adequate privacy and space for smaller househould, including a private yard, carport or garage. Because villas are typically single-storey, their construction and maintenance costs (ie body corporate) are lower than two storey townhouses or even multi-storey apartments. Despite this the space, amenity and ease of maintenance offered is intermediate between an apartment and a house and thus likely to be of wide appeal.

Where in Melbourne could such transit-oriented residential developments be located?

While people discuss about what they need in a suburb, the three big things are good transport, shops and schools. Villas are less likely to contain children than seperate houses so the first two are relatively more important than the third. For 'good transport' we can read train, and for shops, we can read 'large supermarket plus some specialty shops'.

We are lucky to have a large number of such suburban centres near railway stations in Melbourne. Unless you've been to Perth (where railway stations can have no nearby services except for bus stops) this benefit is not sufficiently appreciated. The sort of centres I'm talking about are generally Melbourne 2030 major activities centres and include places like Heidelberg, Mentone, Ferntree Gully, Glenroy, Carnegie, Noble Park or Chelsea.

However only a minority of the suburban population is within walking distance of a station and a smaller minority is near a railway station that has a reasonable retail and commercial area such as those listed above.

Increasing the proportion of the population near such well-serviced centres is the tenet of the Melbourne 2030 plan. In the public mind this was associated with higher densities in prime suburbs and frequently met with NIMBY resistance.

A look at any street directory indicates there are a number of areas that could attract higher housing densities but are not normally considered transit-oriented centres. My criteria for such potential TODs is that it have a railway station and supermarket within about 1 kilometre of one another. The area in between is thus walkable from both and could lend itself to more transit and pedestrian oriented housing. Minimum parking space regulations would be abolished in such areas due to the likely higher use of other modes. And this in turn could reduce costs for businesses and developers, providing a possible incentive to invest.

So without further discussion, here's my list of the top ten potential transit-oriented development areas:

1. Lalor. Some areas are within walking distance of the Lalor Shops and either Thomastown or Lalor stations.

2. Fawkner. Includes railway station and shops on Jukes Rd. Sydney Rd presents some barrier for pedestrians but some houses are within walking distance of both.

3. Keilor Plains/Centro Keilor. A small area is within walking distance of both. Main roads again present barriers for pedestrians.

4. Watsonia/Diamond Valley Shopping Centre. A busy road nearby but abuts the generally affluent and green north-eastern suburbs.

5. Narre Warren/Fountain Gate. Has the Southland problem - the shopping centre is just beyond a reasonable pedshed of the station. However some areas half way in between are in the pedsheds of both.

6. Berwick/High St Berwick. Main constraint is limited land supply in area in between as much is used for school, retirement and medical uses.

7. Merinda Park/Thompson Parkway SC. A small section of Endeavour Drive is walking distance to both.

8. Seaford/Safeway Seaford. A small area is within walking distance of both but again supply is limited.

9. Cheltenham. Only noble Frank Fisher-style public transport martyrs would say that Southland is within the pedshed of Cheltenham Station. However some land is within the 800m pedsheds of both. Much is currently taken up in car-oriented commercial uses.

10. Williamstown. Major shopping strip within walking distance of three stations. Already high-rise (housing commission) tower in area. Area considered historic, so future development would need to be sensitive to this.

Laverton just missed the list. While parts of the suburb are walkable from Central Square Shopping Centre (Altona Meadows) the freeway presents a major barrier and makes foot access from one or the other to nearby houses unattractive. Cranbourne is another possibility though the station and shopping centre may just be too far apart. People in medium and high density sacrifice personal space for access/amenity, and standards regarding the latter need to be higher than for houses.

Numerous places where shops are declining or stagnant present development opportunities. Examples include Moorabbin (once conceived of as a major Box-Hill sized centre) and Glenhuntly. Many smaller centres are restricted by the lack of a large supermarket; these include Murrumbeena, Edithvale, Oak Park and Blackburn. Kmart Campbellfield, though car-oriented, would present some opportunities with a station; and of course Southland is a no-brainer. High through traffic can sometimes reduce local centre amenity (Moorabbin and Ormond), but low through-traffic can also lead to decline (or may be an expression of it) eg Laverton and Patterson.

Other TOD opportunities include Westall Station around which there is significant new housing being built. This is best described as commuter-oriented development; unlike a true TOD there is no substantial retail. Bus services are limited and residents are almost certain to drive to get even basic food items.

Williams Landing (near Laverton) is another to consider. It illustrates that 'ending (and building elsewhere) is preferred to mending' as Laverton shops sit vacant (Zone 1 notwithstanding). If infrastructure is timed right it could be a true TOD, rather than a TAD (Transport After Development), as ocurred with Roxburgh Park and to some extent Sydenham/Watergardens.

The most outstanding TOD opportunity, however, is Caulfield. The transit provision is good, with train frequency never worse than 15 minutes until midnight seven days a week. Caulfield is a desirable suburb with a potential NIMBY element. However this is mitigated by an underused racecourse that has made itself unpopular with residents by restricting public access to its parkland. Evicting the racecourse (the land is publicly owned) and replacing it with 50% TOD (station end) and 50% parkland would be a fair compromise that would benefit existing locals and new residents alike.

To summarise, some readers will be intrigued that most of the areas listed above are regarded as 'cheap' suburbs well beyond the 'latte belt'. While Williamstown and Cheltenham are exceptions, most of the rest (eg Lalor and Fawkner) have little natural beauty or recreation and are a fair distance from Melbourne CBD (Zone 2) and so-called 'good schools'.

Reflected in house prices is that most of the above areas aren't exactly high-demand suburbs. However that won't stop people moving into them if they're the best of the affordable choices and offer all 'must have' services. Rail is the clincher; rail suburbs like Lalor or Keilor Plains are better commutes to the CBD than desirable but bus-only suburbs such as Beaumaris, East Bentleigh, Wheelers Hill or Templestowe.

The other benefit of the cheaper suburbs is that they have less natural or manmade heritage; NIMBYs shed tears over Camberwell but the locals of St Albans, Laverton or Keilor Plains are likely to accept and even embrace development especially if there are other benefits such as improved retail, transport and recreation facilities.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

A fantastic post Peter. When I read the title I assumed an entirely different set of stations would be named. As far as my knowledge goes the only stations that have had these developments proposed were South Yarra and Camberwell. And they were NIMBY'd back to the stone ages.

I still thought that Richmond and Footscray represented easy pickings for these. Richmond in particular. It's desperate for a make over. There are converted warehouses to the north, retail to the east, light industrial to the south and parkland to the west. Not a single terrace dweller to complain. I suspect it's only a matter of time before these proposals start popping up. Eddington highlighted Footscray in particular.

But casting the net further afield? I hadn't thought of that. I recall a couple of years back a proposal to put tower appartments up in Mitcham. It was fairly well ridiculed at the time. Who would want to live in them? Being from the area I also doubted it's sensibility. How quickly things change. I've travelled the world now and I've seen the potential of these things. And I've noticed the glaring need in Melbourne.

Mitcham station is surrounded by the type of low value commercial use (storage warehouses)and dingey car parking that typify the potential locations you talk of. And it has great local amenity.

So how do you go about it? I'd seperate it into two parts. Part one - lead the horse to water. Part two - make it drink.

Part one is going to take some "courageous" policy making for a start. Traditionally apartments in Australia have been small. Tiny compared to our detached houses. They would have to start to get bigger to successfully attract long term tennants. But the developers will want to maximise the profits. They will argue that the only apartments they have sold in the past were tiny, so that's obviously what the people want. It's the sort of chicken and egg arguement that cripples good ideas like this for decades. Having said that, I think this fight is already being slowly won.

Part two - how do we make people want to live there? Because the myth of the quarter acre block seems to live on. We re-visit the chicken/egg with your previous post about "wasteland stations". But I'm not too concerned about that. The government is making large predictions about the extra million people expected here soon. But where are they coming from? Balwyn? No, more likely Bangalore. Immigrants from poorer nations are more likely to see the value in these developments. And young people increasing live a lifestyle that doesn't allow room for tending to large gardens. I know I'm losing that battle. Policy planners should not be worried about whether there will be demand for them. The apartment glut of the nineties has all but disappeared now. Even if we manufacture another one chances are it won't last a decade.

I'd keep an eye on the Doncaster Hill development. It's not rail based but it is fairly sweeping in it's attempt to accomodate the goals of Melbourne 2030. The way I figure it, all your plan needs is a single successful example before the gates start opening. Peak oil will do the rest.

What I like most about your post is that you ask the question "why don't we?" And as the old adage goes - don't ask the question, don't make the sale.

2:36 pm  
Anonymous Peter Parker said...

Thanks Anon. Agree with you about Richmond and Footscray.

Both stations are pretty much islands, and as I've mentioned before the Richmond station precinct is unattractive lifeless; the area's urban vibe is nearer the tramlines than the station.

Since you commented I've added some more - mainly on Caulfield Racecourse which doesn't even need much demolition to get things started.

However there are some very cheap-looking new apartments abutting the Frankston line at Glenhuntly; sadly these don't seem to have done much for the Glenhuntly Rd shopping strip which is as tatty as ever.

To get approval, the Caulfield development deserves to be more classy but should attract a residential population that can pay for it (you will even get CBD views - just like you can from the station platforms).

I'm not suprised Mitcham tower didn't get up. The economics for buyers and developers didn't add up.

The problem with apartments is they're dear. Their per-unit sale price is about the same as a house on a standard block.

People grizzle about house prices but really if you stick to established homes in outer areas they are quite cheap, even below replacement cost sometimes.

An eastern suburbs outer suburban house (OK not Mitcham but still along the rail line) might cost $300k. The same distance west (Werribee) houses go for under $200k.

Without the house the land might be worth $100k (Werribee) or $200k (eastern suburbs). So you're getting the house for $100k, which is less than the cost to build it ($150-200k).

Buying established is almost ALWAYS cheaper than building and you're likely to get in a better location near transit as well.

What does this have to do with units? If you can buy a house on block for $300k, then why would a mass market buy a new unit for that amount? You wouldn't unless the unit could offer better amenity.

Being 5km rather than 25km from the CBD might help. As might the beach, a popular cafe strip, shops and good transport. Then $300k (or even $500k) for a unit might make sense, because you're gaining amenity for the space you're losing by not getting a house for that amount.

Without these amenities (and the areas I've highlighted (excluding Williamstown and Cheltenham) are mostly fairly basic) people will be scratching their heads and asking 'why buy a unit when a house costs the same'. And it's a fair question.

House prices set a maximum limit on what can reasonably be charged for units. If a house costs $400k, then surely a unit couldn't fairly be much more than $300k, unless it was very special.

The problem is that high rise = high costs. Building new is expensive and per-dwelling costs of high density are as much if not higher than single storey houses and units.

Developers like high-rise because it maximises the number of units on a given land, and therefore profits. But if they're still as dear as houses then buyers aren't going to buy (again unless there's something special about them).

By highlighting some cheaper areas then these constraints become more severe and comparisons with house prices are even less flattering (for the unit).

Nevertheless with a growing population and low vacancies there will need to be extra building, even if the economics of doing so are so lousy at the moment.

And the best way to improve housing affordability is for the government to scrap the first homebuyers grant and directly build homes directly adding to supply (it doesn't matter very much who eventually buys or rents the additional stock).

Where better (or cheaper) to put this extra housing than in the areas highlighted above? But it can't be high-rise because this equals high cost, so a low-rise villa type development may be more cost-effective. While this reduces potential patronage such more modest development may mitigates NIMBY issues.

And so I think through all this we've addressed some of our curent housing affordabilty and transport problems!

9:01 pm  
Blogger RVB said...

I've often considered Preston Station to be ideal for a 'transit hub'. There are plans afoot for a redeveloped area around there, but the state government appears reluctant to fund grade-separations.

Another case in point is Thornbury station. Now if Thornbury was moved to where the railway crossing @ Normanby Road is (close to shops and abutting a popular bus route...route 510), and the grade separation took place, it would become more viable and attractive. It also means that network planning has taken place since the bus-stop is right there.

8:22 pm  
Blogger Bonito Club said...

Good idea to move Thornbury station south to Normanby Avenue, close to shops and the bus route and a short walk to the St Georges Rd and High St trams. Plus you could then close Croxton station. The new Thornbury would be more used and more connected.

3:25 pm  

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