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Great expectations: Apartment life in Canberra

By Maryann Mussared - 20 January 2017 50

Apartment blocks line the main road into Molonglo

In Part One of this two-part article on housing in the capital, I am looking at apartment living. There has been a lot of talk about affordable housing recently, or should it be rebranded ‘unaffordable housing’? With the last ACT election there were vague promises from both major parties to do something about the plight of first home owners, but I predict that there is very little currently in the pipeline to assist young Canberrans keen to take their first step into the real estate market. Something that has also become apparent is there are older Canberrans who are considering downsizing, but have found it difficult to find something suitable. Single level housing stock suitable for downsizing is extremely limited.

As building development moves ahead at a break-neck pace in Canberra, it is probably time for us to think about rebalancing our expectations with reality. Apartments are increasingly promoted as being one solution. There are lots of apartments in Canberra but apartment living, which is in effect communal living, is not for everyone, although I do know many who love living in the city and in an apartment.

Would you give up your car to live in an apartment on the light rail line?

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There is also the issue of when to buy. Buying off the plan has positives and negatives, with some comparing buying a new apartment to buying a new car: the minute you pay for it, it loses a percentage of its original value. Given there is very likely going to be an oversupply of apartments in the near future, it is just possible that prices might nosedive at the worst, or at least settle on a lower level.

House prices have gone through the roof, and competition to buy land is high. Certainly the great Australian dream of a three-bedroomed house and quarter acre block (1000 sq metres) has become just that and is now out of reach of most people in Canberra. This is simply because it is almost impossible to buy land that size. For some, by the time they have saved up enough money to buy the house of their dreams, they move in and then realise it is time to retire and the hunt is on for somewhere suitable to downsize.

The 2016 sale of blocks of land at the Ginninderra Estate, Holt last year was an eye-opener. Blocks as small as 250 square metres (sometimes called cottage blocks) sold for $250,000 which means if you had been able to buy four blocks together you may just have achieved 1000 square metres – the old quarter acre – for a cool $1,000,000. The enthusiasm with which these small blocks were snapped up will certainly impact on the whole of West Belconnen when it opens up for land sales later in the year. Notably, land sales in Moncrieff and Throsby also reached much higher than expected levels in 2016, enough to send some buyers scuttling off to Murrumbateman where 1,000 square metre blocks can be bought for just over $300,000. There are numerous reports that show how much land prices have increased in living memory, and I am sure there will people who read this who remember, and it wasn’t so long ago, when you could buy a perfectly nice home on a reasonable smaller block for under $100,000.

Ginninderra Estate - lovely Brindabella views with a surprisingly high price tag

So if that ‘Australian dream’ is no longer realistic, what are the alternatives in Canberra?

There have been many complaints right across the media about way too many apartments being built, but at least an apartment is a way into the real estate market for many first home buyers. If you are considering buying and living in an apartment, what do we have to consider?  

The first apartments (then called flats) were built in Canberra in 1934. I was delighted to see one on the market recently and went to have a look. Although the early design may not suit everyone, they have high ceilings, and there is a graciousness that only age and good design can provide. Storage would be an issue, but back in the 1930s, people didn’t have so much ‘stuff’. There are still a few blocks of flats dotted through Barton and it was these lovely old buildings that provided housing for single people who came to live and work in Canberra. These buildings have now mellowed, are close to all the obvious inner Parliamentary Triangle amenities, and are surrounded by grass and lovely trees.

The oldest block of flats in Canberra was built to last

Regrettably, what is being built now in Canberra presents a somewhat different picture. Most will agree that housing is expensive and most agree that lots and lots of apartment are being built, and in all sorts of unexpected places. Arguments for high density housing along Northbourne Avenue supports the sort of density that is necessary for the light rail to be a success. Well, I wonder how anyone can explain what has happened in Molonglo? I drove through the new suburbs after an absence of some months and felt as though I was on another planet. Are these apartments being built in anticipation of a light rail line coming their way – in say, 2030? The new area of Molonglo (top image) may actually suit many people, especially when the roadworks have been completed and some shops built.

In the near future there will be lots of choice for apartments, especially along the entry to the centre of Canberra, as well as Belconnen and Gungahlin town centres, and Campbell. The apartments will be of varying quality, some may be deficit in planning and good design, and many will just not have enough storage or parking. Apartments are also seen as great investments so big blocks of apartments will inevitably have a lot of tenants. Most tenants are excellent and under their obligations, although there are sometimes issues with non-compliance with Body Corporate rules. But for the light rail to work, this is what has to happen. If the density isn’t there, the light rail will not be used and we all know the majority of Canberrans voted for the light rail.

The issue is not only about where we live, but how we live. Apartments in Canberra are subjected to regular criticism, whether it is about poor design, poor construction, too many tenants, the potential nightmare of airbnb being allowed, ambient noise, poor location, or being too small.

Whether this criticism is justified or not, anyone who is considering moving into a strata-titled apartment building or townhouse development needs to examine their own expectations. As an owner-occupier, and even as a tenant, you will need  to carefully consider the Body Corporate rules. For some smaller developments, this might be a short list, but for larger developments (and remember the mega apartment blocks are on their way with pools, gyms, shared entertaining spaces and associated high body corporate fees) you will want to make sure there are rules to cover all the obvious: pets; usage of common property; parking; cleaning of pools and communal entertaining spaces; and rubbish handling.

If you are buying into an established building, take time to request to read the minute book. I did when I bought my strata title property and to my horror and relief found the only problems were with the owner and tenants of the property I was purchasing. So at least I knew that would not be an ongoing problem. Then there is the issue of management of the building. Strata managers do what they are instructed by the Executive Committee of the Body Corporate. Most people who buy into apartment blocks are amateurs when it comes to managing multi-million dollar buildings, and in some cases, badly built or poorly finished buildings may result in a long wrangle with builders and developers. If there are no specific rules in place, then the list of rules default to the standard one provided under Strata legislation, and that probably doesn’t cover everything. Just remember when you have read the rules, you might be quite prepared to abide by them, but it only takes one owner or tenant to break ranks, and you will be up to your neck in conflict.

I do speak from experience. I have moved homes many times: (house, townhouse, cottage, apartment, and company title flat) more times than most people have had a hot cooked breakfast and I have experienced it all. If one person can contravene the rules, dozens can.

There are some very successful high density living models. The Danes got in right as early as the 1960s with their interesting community housing model.  They had started to get discontented with housing even back then and did something about it. Denmark, Sweden and The Netherlands can all provide excellent examples of co-housing; a concept that allows collaborative planning and management of  community activities and shared spaces.

There has been a lot of coverage, both positive and negative, of the Nightingale model of apartment living in Melbourne. The basic idea is like-minded purchasers collaborate as a cooperative or syndicate, incorporating collective planning and participation. Built on established transport routes, only limited parking is incorporated as it is anticipated people will use share cars or public transport. From what I have read about the massive new Geocon mixed use development, ‘Midnight’, on Northbourne Avenue at Braddon, not only does it (and a number of other large developments) have a really silly name, but it also has the potential to contribute to turning what was once a pleasant tree lined avenue into a wind-swept over-developed canyon*. As I sit in increasingly common traffic jams on Northbourne Avenue, I gaze up at the balconies of recently completed apartments facing Northbourne and marvel at what people manage to store on these small outdoor spaces.
 
The proposed design of ‘Midnight’ has already been criticised for not providing enough car parking spaces, as everyone will walk, or use the light rail [Editor’s note: Geocon have contacted the RiotACT to point out that the development delivers 200 new public car spaces to Braddon (in addition to resident and hotel guest parking)]. I am not entirely sure where people will go to from ‘Midnight’, unless they work in Woden and buy in anticipation of the completion of Stage 2 of the light rail. The concept of being a non-car owning community will come as a shock to many. We don’t yet have the population to support a car-sharing venture like GoGet nor do we have an integrated public transport system that will transport people seamlessly from their home to the many different centres of employment.

So if you are considering where you are going to buy, and you yearn for peace, privacy, space to grow your own vegies, a couple of dogs, cat, rabbit, and the odd ferret, then apartment living don’t appear to be a good fit.

In Part Two, I will look at emerging trends in alternative housing and what is going on in nearby regional cities.  

In the meantime, it would be great if people shared positive experiences or their favourite current gripe of communal living.


Pictured at top, apartment blocks line the main road into Molonglo. Middle, Ginninderra Estate ? lovely Brindabella views with a surprisingly high price tag. Above, the oldest block of flats in Canberra was built to last. Photos: Maryann Mussared

* Geocon disputes this criticism of the Midnight development and has provided the following statement in response: “Maryann Mussared’s comments about the design of Midnight in Braddon are ill-informed. Firstly, it is a building in scale with its surrounds that will be the same height as the existing building it replaces. By no stretch of the imagination could it be described as “massive”. Secondly, how can it be asserted that Midnight will contribute to “overdevelopment” when there is already a building occupying much of the site? Finally, the development delivers 200 new public car spaces to Braddon (in addition to resident and hotel guest parking). Replacing a silent edifice and a windswept, private carpark with a vibrant new complex embracing its proximity to light rail and the Braddon precinct will add life and amenity to the area.”

Geocon has also provided an architect’s statement from Fender Katsalidis Architects, the firm that has designed the Midnight complex. That statement appears in full in the comments below.

What’s Your opinion?


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50 Responses to
Great expectations: Apartment life in Canberra
BunLover 11:26 am 21 Jan 17

rommeldog56 said :

JC said :

So how much are you paying in maintenance of your property? Including water and maintenance of your block and physical maintenance of your house?

No where even close to that differential. Many people do most maintenance on houses themselves.

Apartment owners only have to pay contents insurance. The “home” part of it is covered by body corporate/strata fees.

I was a reluctant apartment dweller, always wanted to live in a house with a garden, dogs, vegie patch, fruit trees etc. Divorce changed that. I moved from a home in the outer burbs to a unit in the inner burbs.

I currently have zucchinis, cucumbers, tomatoes and herbs growing on my balconies, my lemon tree in a pot has fruit, and my neighbours are much quieter.

Yes, the upstairs neighbours smoke, which is annoying, but we have an agreement that they only smoke on one balcony, and I can close that door. In return, if I am having people around, we go to the other end of the apartment.

Life’s not that hard people!

Maya123 10:49 am 21 Jan 17

The trouble with apartments, is that if there is a smoker it ruins it for the other people living there. I remember visiting an apartment (a more upmarket one too) and when I walked into the foyer I could have ‘cut’ the air with a knife because of the smoke. The flat of the person I visited stank of smoke, but they didn’t smoke. The output from this smoker (and there might only be one) had seeped into the public area and other flats.
Years ago I lived in a flat and the smoke from the neighbours downstairs seeped through the floorboards into my flat. Fortunately those neighbours were often away. I am not the only person to experience this, as I found this comment on another forum, “It was the only downside of living in an apartment – the smokers downstairs. We got the smoke through the floorboards and our balcony overlooking a beautiful park was pretty much never used because of the smoke.”
Here is a link to Strata concerns about smoking which was interesting: https://www.lookupstrata.com.au/factsheet-strata-smoking/

Another option in the survey should have been:

Would you give up your car to live in an apartment on the light rail line?

– Not until smoking is banned in apartments and the ban enforced.

This includes sections about smoking in apartments:
http://www.tobaccoinaustralia.org.au/chapter-15-smokefree-environment/15-6-domestic-environments

rommeldog56 10:00 am 21 Jan 17

JC said :

So how much are you paying in maintenance of your property? Including water and maintenance of your block and physical maintenance of your house?

No where even close to that differential. Many people do most maintenance on houses themselves.

JC 9:47 pm 20 Jan 17

rommeldog56 said :

A good article, well done.

What I dont get is that on my stand alone house on a 846 sq m block in the burbs, my Annual Rates are about $2,500pa and going up rapidly. However, when I look to downsize, I find that the combination of Annual Rates and body Corporate fees on a unit/townhouse for those I’ve looked at, are well over $5K pa – and these are only average priced/quality developments, not Kingston Foreshore type locations.

In fact, the ACT Labor/Greens Govt has increased Annual Rates on units by 20% this fy and by 15% next fy. I just don’t see how that will encourage people to downsize into a cement jungle or facilitate affordable housing.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing suggestions.

So how much are you paying in maintenance of your property? Including water and maintenance of your block and physical maintenance of your house?

dungfungus 9:43 pm 20 Jan 17

Charlotte Harper said :

Geocon has also provided this statement from the architect behind the Midnight development:

Fender Katsalidis Architects

We stand on Elouera Street and look west. We see Northbourne Avenue, one of the key avenues of the Griffin plan for Canberra. Appropriately for its urban stature this tree-lined boulevard exerts a strong symbolic presence reinforced by its width and landscape.

Now we look east. There is Mort Street and Braddon, once a mix of industrial and car yards, now a melange of different activities and lifestyles, a bit rough-and-tumble, and all the better for that.

Only a hundred metres separate them but they are completely different environments and experiences.

The Midnight project sits between Northbourne and Braddon. Midnight links them, but doesn’t merge them. Instead Midnight responds to the character of each.

The city-changing transport infrastructure of the light rail will run along Northbourne Avenue right past Midnight. The Elouera station will be just outside. The light rail will help transform Northbourne Avenue from a car-dominated road into a pedestrian-inhabited boulevard. Midnight will be one of the first developments to actively reinforce those urban possibilities. Its incorporation of activities and facilities will support and encourage public use and pedestrian amenity.

Those amenities form part of the active ground floor of Midnight. Set below street level to create a sense of enclosure and focus, the main entry into this building of different uses contains cafe, dining, retail and hotel activities. In response to both its inherent qualities, and as a place to commence a light rail journey, this will become a great meeting space, a place of interchange and discourse, of relaxation and contemplation. A precinct for living, working, staying and visiting. A mix of uses not loudly declaring itself but instead revealing themselves as we enter and pass through the building.

Connected as it is to the hotel, the ground floor will have an internal dynamic which will sustain its presence through all hours of the day. Leading off from there into the site is a public courtyard, faced by a sculptural formation of hotel rooms. Intriguingly landscaped, lapped with still and falling water, this space will be a tightly composed place of light and shade like no other in Canberra. Set away from the bounding streets, this will create a connected public space in the very heart of this important site.

In this way the mixed-use buildings forming Midnight have been crafted to foster interaction through a multiplicity of uses whilst successfully separating those uses where needed.

The physical presence of the building responds to the different characters of its locale. The Northbourne Avenue face of the building is composed of large horizontally proportioned facade subdivisions in response to the urban scale, horizontal emphasis and axial nature of that street. By contrast the Mort Street face is composed of a series of elements of smaller scale, reflecting the grainy multiplicity of Braddon.

In between sits the Elouera Street face, bringing together aspects of both the Northbourne Avenue and Mort Street faces of the building and, in doing so, creating its own character of repose and reflection.

Midnight will represent a great diversity of living, staying, working and visiting opportunities in a place which will be an active reinforcement of the new public life of Northbourne Avenue and the presence of Braddon.

Amen.

Charlotte Harper 8:34 pm 20 Jan 17

Geocon has also provided this statement from the architect behind the Midnight development:

Fender Katsalidis Architects

We stand on Elouera Street and look west. We see Northbourne Avenue, one of the key avenues of the Griffin plan for Canberra. Appropriately for its urban stature this tree-lined boulevard exerts a strong symbolic presence reinforced by its width and landscape.

Now we look east. There is Mort Street and Braddon, once a mix of industrial and car yards, now a melange of different activities and lifestyles, a bit rough-and-tumble, and all the better for that.

Only a hundred metres separate them but they are completely different environments and experiences.

The Midnight project sits between Northbourne and Braddon. Midnight links them, but doesn’t merge them. Instead Midnight responds to the character of each.

The city-changing transport infrastructure of the light rail will run along Northbourne Avenue right past Midnight. The Elouera station will be just outside. The light rail will help transform Northbourne Avenue from a car-dominated road into a pedestrian-inhabited boulevard. Midnight will be one of the first developments to actively reinforce those urban possibilities. Its incorporation of activities and facilities will support and encourage public use and pedestrian amenity.

Those amenities form part of the active ground floor of Midnight. Set below street level to create a sense of enclosure and focus, the main entry into this building of different uses contains cafe, dining, retail and hotel activities. In response to both its inherent qualities, and as a place to commence a light rail journey, this will become a great meeting space, a place of interchange and discourse, of relaxation and contemplation. A precinct for living, working, staying and visiting. A mix of uses not loudly declaring itself but instead revealing themselves as we enter and pass through the building.

Connected as it is to the hotel, the ground floor will have an internal dynamic which will sustain its presence through all hours of the day. Leading off from there into the site is a public courtyard, faced by a sculptural formation of hotel rooms. Intriguingly landscaped, lapped with still and falling water, this space will be a tightly composed place of light and shade like no other in Canberra. Set away from the bounding streets, this will create a connected public space in the very heart of this important site.

In this way the mixed-use buildings forming Midnight have been crafted to foster interaction through a multiplicity of uses whilst successfully separating those uses where needed.

The physical presence of the building responds to the different characters of its locale. The Northbourne Avenue face of the building is composed of large horizontally proportioned facade subdivisions in response to the urban scale, horizontal emphasis and axial nature of that street. By contrast the Mort Street face is composed of a series of elements of smaller scale, reflecting the grainy multiplicity of Braddon.

In between sits the Elouera Street face, bringing together aspects of both the Northbourne Avenue and Mort Street faces of the building and, in doing so, creating its own character of repose and reflection.

Midnight will represent a great diversity of living, staying, working and visiting opportunities in a place which will be an active reinforcement of the new public life of Northbourne Avenue and the presence of Braddon.

Charlotte Harper 8:31 pm 20 Jan 17

We’ve received the following correction from Geocon:

“Maryann Mussared’s comments about the design of Midnight in Braddon are ill-informed. Firstly, it is a building in scale with its surrounds that will be the same height as the existing building it replaces. By no stretch of the imagination could it be described as “massive”. Secondly, how can it be asserted that Midnight will contribute to “overdevelopment” when there is already a building occupying much of the site? Finally, the development delivers 200 new public car spaces to Braddon (in addition to resident and hotel guest parking). Replacing a silent edifice and a windswept, private carpark with a vibrant new complex embracing its proximity to light rail and the Braddon precinct will add life and amenity to the area.”

Masquara 6:30 pm 20 Jan 17

I had been inside several of the much-reviled old guvvie apartments and townhouses on Northbourne, and recently was inside a new private one. The old ones looked ugly from the outside but were very functional inside, particularly the little three-level townhouse complex that I think dated from the 1950s. Given the choice, I would have preferred the old ones by far. The new apartment I visited was tiny, had low ceilings, and didn’t even have a full-length window in the living room. Canberrans are being ripped of by developers (and the government ) left right & centre …

Treelopper69 1:26 pm 20 Jan 17

Apartments on Northbourne, that’s an outrage! I say we leave the decrepit, derelict flats that swarmed the entrance to Canberra instead.

Alexandra Craig 12:44 pm 20 Jan 17

Rollersk8r said :

Especially in an area like Wright you’re out in the middle of nowhere – with no amenities.

It’s only five minutes to Weston Creek. And surprisingly it’s quicker to get to work (Parl Triangle) from Molonglo than it was to get to work from Braddon. Apparently we are getting local shops at some point which will be convenient for when we run out of milk etc but other than that I haven’t really thought about it. Maybe I’m relaxed about these things but I guess if you buy in a new area you need to realise that it won’t have everything that you want straight away.

pink little birdie 10:55 am 20 Jan 17

e) I would keep my car but live on the light rail and use the light rail for commuting if I worked in Civic.

Specifically we have chosen our last 3 houses close enough to work to walk/ride/single bus to work. It’s enabled us to go down to 1 car between my husband and I (on the 2 nights we needed 2 cars we arranged lifts for one of us)

It’s not a stretch to say the majority of people who use public transport for commuting to and from work also have cars.

Alexandra Craig 10:45 am 20 Jan 17

I bought an apartment in Molonglo. I spent years looking for a house in Canberra and just couldn’t find anything within budget. I was buying on my own too so that alone limited what the bank would lend me. I really didn’t want to buy an apartment but realised after about two years of looking that as a first home buyer my options were buy an apartment or just don’t buy a home at all. Not entirely fair but I guess that’s the current state of the housing market.

One pro of buying where I did is that I have the nicest view ever! Rolling hills, the aboretum, black mountain. So pretty. Perhaps that view won’t exist in 10 years but with any luck I will have bought a house by then 🙂

Rollersk8r 10:36 am 20 Jan 17

I certainly understand the trade-off of apartment living vs a traditional house and yard, i.e. proximity to work and amenities like shopping centres, restaurants, cafes, the lake etc.

However, I cannot imagine anything worse that living in one of the apartment blokes in outer Gungahlin or the Molonglo areas. Especially in an area like Wright you’re out in the middle of nowhere – with no amenities.

dungfungus 9:44 am 20 Jan 17

“We don’t yet have the population to support a car-sharing venture like GoGet ….”

Or a tram to nowhere.

rommeldog56 9:03 am 20 Jan 17

A good article, well done.

What I dont get is that on my stand alone house on a 846 sq m block in the burbs, my Annual Rates are about $2,500pa and going up rapidly. However, when I look to downsize, I find that the combination of Annual Rates and body Corporate fees on a unit/townhouse for those I’ve looked at, are well over $5K pa – and these are only average priced/quality developments, not Kingston Foreshore type locations.

In fact, the ACT Labor/Greens Govt has increased Annual Rates on units by 20% this fy and by 15% next fy. I just don’t see how that will encourage people to downsize into a cement jungle or facilitate affordable housing.

Anyway, looking forward to seeing suggestions.

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