Box Hill’s skyline will dwarf that of Hobart or Canberra within three years, with 11 towers approved or under construction and dozens more to come.
The suburb in Melbourne’s leafy east has been the city’s hottest property market for two years, real estate agency Savills says.
Developers have been targeting low-rise commercial buildings for conversion into residential skyscrapers.
A further $2 billion of development is planned, Savills director Clinton Baxter said, and a “staggering” 149 residential projects were now at different stages of development.
David Morrison from the Whitehorse Active Transport Action Group, which says high-rise development threatens to turn Box Hill into ‘a modern-day slum’. Photo: Luis Ascui
Together, Mr Baxter said, they would would provide 5500 new apartments.
“The developers descending on Box Hill are typically of Chinese background, with an acute appreciation of Box Hill’s appeal to the Asian market,” said Mr Baxter.
“They have the expertise and financial resources to produce projects of this scale rapidly.”
But many people who live there say Box Hill’s development frenzy is handing developers “obscene” profits, and could create a “modern-day slum” and “transport chaos”.
One former councillor, Tanya Tescher said long-term residents were there “for the surrounding landscape, and not to be faced with towers looming in their backyard”.
“This is not the CBD, it is suburbia, and that is what people living in the area want.”
Other community groups fear that the rise of the tower blocks gave no thought to accessibility and would make it harder for people to get around.
“We need to allow easy access through and around Box Hill for cyclists, people with disabilities, mums with prams and people with mobility aides,” said David Morrison, from the Whitehorse Active Transport Action Group.
“How do we get there? We make sure that we have adequate provision at street level through setbacks and the ability to cut through laneways and buildings.”
Box Hill is one of nine metropolitan activity centres in Melbourne, well served by public transport and meant to deliver jobs, housing and services.
Whitehorse Council wants to encourage taller buildings in “a major development precinct” near Box Hill railway station and Whitehorse Road.
This week, a panel of planning experts appointed by the Andrews government began hearings into Box Hill’s future.
Among those giving evidence was retail property giant Vicinity, which owns the Box Hill Central shopping complex and 50 per cent of Australia’s biggest shopping centre, Chadstone.
Lawyers for Vicinity told the panel it wanted to expand Box Hill Central to include high-density residential and offices, and to go higher than the 20 storeys it would be allowed.
Vicinity argued in its submission it had “5.5 hectares of developable land immediately above and adjacent to the rail station/bus interchange” – the equivalent to almost three blocks in Melbourne’s CBD.
The company queried why the biggest buildings in Box Hill would be built away from the railway station, on busy Whitehorse Road west of Nelson Road.
Also presenting to the panel was Ms Tescher, who won office at last year’s local elections opposing towers in Box Hill. She resigned earlier this year.
She warned that residents in Box Hill and nearby Mont Albert did not want more towers, yet felt powerless to stop them.
Meanwhile, developers of large buildings can, she said, “afford a QC to defend their interests”.
She told panel chairman Lester Townsend that no other metropolitan activity centre had allowed the heights seen in Box Hill. The recently completed Whitehorse Towers are 36 and 26 storeys.
Sunshine’s highest approval was 15 storeys, in Ringwood it was 15 levels, in Frankston 17 to 18, Dandenong 12 and Epping 10 to 12 storeys, she said.
“Why is Box Hill the only metropolitan activity centre among all of these which is proposing to [support] high towers?” she asked.
“There is no rationale for this except for allowing developers to make obscene profits.”
The Whitehorse Active Transport Action Group warned the new skyscrapers would become “slums”.
It noted that the recent approval of a number of high-rise towers to accommodate 4400 people amounted to the population of a medium-sized country town being added.
More tower approvals would “further stretch the local infrastructure,” the group said. “A modern-day slum will be the inevitable result.”
And the projected influx of residents and visitors from higher-density development over the next decade would, the group warned, “result in transport chaos if the current … transport infrastructure [was] not reviewed and greatly improved”.
According to Hale Consulting forecasts, public transport usage at Box Hill interchange is tipped to rise from 16,300 rail passengers, to 31,300 in 2039. Bus patronage is tipped to rise from 13,700 to 30,000 over the same period.
Helen Harris is another former Whitehorse councillor who gave evidence at this week’s hearings.
Box Hill had been designated as high density for about 50 years and the suburb’s trams, trains and buses made it an ideal development centre, she told Fairfax Media.
She said suggested height limits for areas simply did not work unless they were mandatory.
“From bitter experience as a councillor, I found it extremely frustrating that developers would breach the suggested height limits and that VCAT [the state planning tribunal] would approve those extra height limits,” Ms Harris said.
Now secretary of the Box Hill Historical Society, Ms Harris wants Planning Minister Richard Wynne to place mandatory height limits over Box Hill.