The Carlton Housing Redevelopment

In 2006, the Victorian state government announced the redevelopment of the housing commission flats in Carlton, in Melbourne’s inner north. Tom Morgan and Sharkmouse discuss the development and consultation process that, even today, is still ongoing.

August 1, 2008

I am standing in the afternoon shadow of the tall Neill street flats, down on the sodden grass; standing in the entryway of a white marquee that shivers in the early spring air. I am clutching a cup of bitter Ethiopian coffee and feeling very much the outsider. It is hard not to – gathered under this canvas awning is a great cross-section of all the interested parties, all the liaison officers, all the youth and social workers, all the variously vociferous and mute residents, all the ministerial staff and parliamentary secretaries and planners and department apparatchiks; everyone, in short, with a vested interest in the Carlton housing redevelopment is here.

Well, all bar one. The models – with concrete towers picked out as innocuous timber massings – and landscape plans plastered across themarquee walls have all been seen before. The talk from the departmental heads is one of placation – words that stress the terrible and ponderous nature of the process that lies before them.

For the developer is noticeably absent, and nothing in the way of misdirection, of liaison committees and ‘visioning’ consultations, of bread and humus and chicken skewers and black spiced coffee can hide it.

Jenny Mikakos, secretary for planning, meanders through light pleasantries before admitting that “The process is about to start once a developer is appointed at the end of the year and contractual arrangements are finalised.” There are a few snorts of derision from the crowd. “And,” she continues, gamely, “I think, then, that we will begin to see it come to life in front of us…”

The residents’ suspicion is grounded – this is exactly the same line that they were promised last year, when they were just being relocated from their soon to be demolished walk-up flats. For many of them, the extra year – a year without capital works or even an indication of what is to come – is intolerable; a manifestation of the Department of Housing’s attitude toward them.

Yet it is not simply the residents who should be exercising suspicion. Carlton is important – as a suburb and as an estate. Carlton was the bulwark; Carlton was the point of embryogenesis for the gentrification of inner Melbourne; Carlton was where the war on these ‘slums in the air’ started, and where its first decisive battle was won.

And earlier, Carlton was the site of the Housing Commission of Victoria’s exercises in urban utopianism – and one of the core regions where slum-cleared land was gifted to private developers. In one of those premeditated acts that stress the unerring circularity of history, it seems that the suburb’s past – as a nexus of public and private speculation, of shady transfers of land to private equity to fund public works – is bent upon repetition.

Concurrently, there is a more recent exemplar for the events unraveling on the fallow ground between Rathdowne and Lygon Street; the re-development of the Kensington housing estate. The lukewarm reception – and apparent failure – of the department of housing’s first foray into the rehabilitation of Victoria’s housing stock holds lessons for the current development of Carlton.

In order to understand the possible trajectories of the current Carlton redevelopment, we must understand the history of the suburb, the original estate, and the processes that underpinned the failure of the Kensington redevelopment.


Carlton had originally been surveyed as a suburb for the upwardly-middle class fleeing Hoddle’s congested city-grid, and such qualities are marked by the palatial boom-town excesses of Drummond and the southern extremity of Canning Street. Yet Melbourne’s explosive growth drove the riche farther out and farther east, and prior to the stultifying 1890s the locale was tending towards a character of lower-middle class affordability, undermined by the mushrooming working class tenement houses on back streets and alleyways and the illegal laneways sunk into once grand blocks of land.

With construction and material growth peaking by the onset of the First World War, the suburb saw the transition from owner-occupied to rental properties, and the subdivision of existing properties into rooming and boarding houses. The downward spiral of infrastructure – characteristic of much of Melbourne’s inner north – led to official designation of much of its housing stock as ‘slum-housing’ by 1939 – the MCC’s housing plan of 1960 recognised this, and called for the destruction and reconstruction of much of old Carlton.

To this end, they found an ally in the greater Melbourne City Council, who – alarmed by the flight of urban residents to the suburbs – were eager to pursue a process of densification in the residential districts abutting the city proper1. Support was such that the council sided with plans to renew most of Carlton’s inner urban fabric, and facilitated the rezoning of the property that would become the Nicholson and Neill Street housing estates2. However, such action was tempered by a growing consciousness amongst a vanguard of intellectuals and young professionals – a consciousness of space, and an awareness of the prospect of the conservation of the built form and intimate spatial relationships of these inner urban regions. Politically astute and well-connected, these individuals – grouped into action collectives like the Carlton Residents Association – were able to shunt the public opinion of slum clearance from that of a necessary, utopian endeavour to a destructive and pointless pursuit.

This, however, did nothing to change the reality of the Neill and Nicholson Street housing estates. These flagship projects of the department of housing, like their great pre-fabricated siblings in Fitzroy and Richmond and Flemington, found themselves hemmed in by a rapidly changing and increasingly indifferent suburban environment; the old migrant residents displaced by the moneyed gentry, until these pebble-dashed towers – pockmarked like some engorged vision of a Sicilian’s retrofit of a workers cottage – stood as the sole memorial to the inner cities cheap, dense, stinking, crowded, boisterous, raucous immigrant communities.

And as they were engulfed by the tide of gentrification, there is a sense in which the flats – and by association, their residents – began to be seen as figurers for all the excess of such egoistic planning, for the horror of demolition, and the demarcation of so much of the stock of inner Melbourne as ‘slum.’ Classically, the estates in the inner city have always been treated as being apart from their host suburb – an island of otherness in an otherwise contiguous setting. Perversely;

“…the highly visible enclaves of high rise development separated by ample open space from nearby and better designed tracts of private mediumdensity housing served to increase the scope for the external labelling of public tenants… Residence in the high-rise estates actually increased the stigma of HCV clients…3


The Kensington estate – like most in Melbourne – saw its genesis in the decade between 1961 and 1971. The estate comprised ‘three twelve story towers, twenty eight four story walk-ups, one eight story walk-up with mid-way ramp, and an extra number of other flats in [nearby] Durham Street.4’ Redevelopment involved the demolition of all walk-ups, and one of the three twelve story towers – and their replacement with what was optimistically described as a ‘salt-and-pepper interspersion of public housing amongst public residences.’

Impetus for redevelopment had proceeded in fits and starts since the early 1990s – the Liberal government had, in its autumn years, taken the ponderous step of demolishing the northernmost residential tower; displacing just shy of hundred and forty families before a concrete plan for the future of the site had even been drafted5. The draft plan for the estate would not emerge until the reins of government had changed hands; the development calling for the wholesale demolition of much of the site, the relocation of three-fifths of the site’s population to alternative accommodation, and the introduction of 400 new private households into the locale6. Over the next six years, the site saw the refurbishment of the two remaining flats, the demolition of all walk-ups and the construction of mixed social/private housing along a new series of urban laneways. It also saw the dissolution of robust Vietnamese, Cambodian and Somalian communities7, the loss of 50 and 35 percent of the student population at the local catholic and state primary schools respectively8, and the closure of local business and services. Moreover, it saw a fundamental shift in the population demographics – the new built environment favouring childless families, the disabled, infirm and aged.9

This last observation is crucial; prior to the redevelopment, the housing estate comprised full thirty percent of Kensington’s population. Of that number, two thirds were families with children10. Moreover, like many housing estates, the ethnic and cultural makeup of the population was a melange, with sizeable East Asian and horn of Africa communities.

The incoming ‘new’ residents, who will effectively match the numbers of social or publicly housed residents, are predominately wealthier and, if such a term can be employed, ‘whiter.’ Certainly, the old reality of the estate being a realm of many tongues, with English employed as a lingua franca, has been eroded11.

Moreover, there is little provision for the return of families with children – in terms of new public residents only 50 school-aged children are forecast to move into the estate. As the impact study notes, this ‘means that opportunities for community building based on mutual support by parents and through children’s activities, including those centred on local schools, will be limited.12

As such, the Kensington site marks the transition from a substantial base of three-bedroom family units to a predominance of one and two bedroom apartments; this loss is only compounded by the overall reduction of public housing spaces. While this shift rests somewhat with the changing needs of public housing residents, and meshes with the hyperbole of supporting non-traditional families13, the cynic within realises that the reduction in footprint of the standard unit also benefits the winning tender. This shrinkage means that parity with pre-development unit figures can be maintained, at a lower cost, and with the remaining real-estate freed for use by the private residences. There is also the evident problem of re-housing larger families in this denuded stock – most horn of Africa families are large, with two or three children, and are unsuited to the shrunk spaces of these new developments. The knock-on effect is the loss of established families on the estate, and the loss of the social capital this engenders.

Although efforts have been made to re-integrate the surrounding streetscape into the estate, the site has fallen into the trap of demarcating social and private residences as separate entities. However, as the DEMOS14 think-tank notes;

“Street level mixing is preferable to separating tenures in different zones on an Estate. Although some residents felt that owners would rather live apart from tenants, residents of mixed streets did not perceive more problems with mixing than those of zoned estates. They were also significantly more positive about the estates overall. Given that street level mixing helps reduce the chance that certain streets of exclusively social housing will be develop a bad image, integration has advantages over separating tenures into different blocks.”15

How such sentiments mesh with the present reality of the private side of the estate, with apartments with enumerated features including ‘…Underground security parking – Access to beautifully presented common courtyard…’16 is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, in terms of attitude, behaviour, image and activity, the private elements of the estate turn away from their public brethren.

Moreover, there is nothing in the way of in-estate services or provision of small-scale retail business – nothing in the way of small milk-bars, grocers or garages that served the earlier estate. The project is entirely residential and relies on the gentrified services of nearby Macaulay road. This, again, is a missed opportunity to gel community cohesion by providing shared, democratic ‘levelling’ spaces. The absence of retail spaces is a similar concern in the current Carlton development.

There was never anything particularly attractive about the prefabricated textures and tectonic gestures of the old high-rise and walk-up flats17. What architectural joy existed in them was manifested in the slight ingenuity with which they manipulated their otherwise dull kit of parts. A key example of this is the (now demolished) eight story walk-up along Altona street – a unique structure that utilized a change in grade over the site, and a series of ramps leaping out to meet it, to effectively double the height of the traditional walk-up flat.

That said, there was never an expectation that these structures would exhibit architectural graces – they were functional objects, with a concrete purpose. The same cannot be said of the architectonic of this new estate; they are cheaply made, ugly and ungainly. While the old walk-ups hovered off the ground, separated from the plane by thin piloti, the new developments sit hungrily, aggressively possessive of the site. The apartment buildings are heavyset and over scaled, the terrace houses ape their Victorian forebears – but all is pretence, and beyond the mock Georgian facades lurk air-conditioners and baleful slab roofs.

Part of this rests on the shoulders Becton, the site’s sole developer. Part of it rests, too, on the piece-meal construction of the project. Both of these failings seem destined to be repeated on the Carlton site.

The Carlton Proposal:

Much can be made of the department’s guiding document, but such conclusions are inevitably conjectural; less answers than elliptical statements of near-fact. The currently available information is loose advice for tendering developers – proposed zoning, massing, pre-approved building envelopes and typologies. What it is not is a legible architectural vision – a discernable articulation of space and purpose that residents and concerned parties can sink their teeth into, can critique, can dissemble and reassemble into schemata more suited to their needs and wants and desires.

Until the winning tender is announced, there is little that the residents can do, but watch, breathless, from the sidelines, as the entire process alternately unfolds and unravels.

Their mute concern is justified. The Carlton redevelopment is volatile. Its success will be measured not against some pre-agreed baseline of service, but against the conspicuous weaknesses of Kensington. The policies developed here, in the shadow of the tall pre-fabricated flats, will be the policies that are marched out into other inner urban estates; into Atherton gardens, into North Richmond. They will be policies that – beyond the inescapable impact upon the lives of thousands of public housing tenants – will shape the nature and behaviour of the inner city; exercising an influence over the urban grain as profound as that of the original high-rise developments. And, like the tall prefabricated towers that define the Melbourne skyline and an earlier era of heroic engineering, these housing policies have the potential to both rescue and ruin the communities they dominate.

Yet beyond the policy, there is an architectonic opening – an opportunity to shape these essential spaces, to push them beyond the basal provision of pragmatism. An opportunity to acknowledge the towers as ‘homes’, rather than mere receptacles for the marginal and disadvantaged. An opportunity to re-integrate the repeated, ordered social-housing stock with the surrounding urban grain. An opportunity to acknowledge the uniqueness of each of these estates – the simple fact that, despite the department’s obvious intent, they are not interchangeable; Carlton is not Atherton, Kensington could never be Prahran. An opportunity to deftly address the issue of mixed tenure, rather than compartmentalising the sites into demarcated zones of ‘public’ and ‘private.’

One should remember that prior to their pariah status, the inner city high-rise estates were envisaged as engines of change; forces for the necessary densification of a metropolitan region threatened by the rapid expansion of post-war suburbs. The string of pebble-dashed monoliths that stretch in a wide crescent from the Bay to the Yarra Bend were urban statements with implications outside of the bare re-housing of slum-dwellers.

It remains to be seen whether commercial interests will be able to provide the sort of local sensitivity and wider vision that is so sorely needed. The only exemplar of such activity – Kensington – appears to have failed. Moreover, if the provision of Social Housing is a ‘test of values,’18 it is unclear what the proposed swamping of the Carlton estates with nearly five-hundred and fifty private tenants says of such shared public principles.

I must be clear that I am not cautioning against development, but against development along market principles. It is an inevitable fact that such developments privilege paying consumers over social elements – creating spaces and experiences that, while in line with a middle-class understanding of ‘European Living’19, are inimical and alien to the social tenants they purport to serve.

Our values are being tested. We can provide housing parity, and offset the cost with disassociated and materially distinct private housing, or we can exhibit the sort of courage that has not been seen since the last of the great high-rise flats scrambled skyward, and tear these estates away from their role as mere safety-nets, as the last refuge for the marginal and peripheral.

December will reveal the course Carlton is to take.

  1. page 155, The Gentrification of Inner Melbourne, W. Logan, University of Queensland Press, 1982
  2. “The commission demolished 275 acres in the city of Melbourne between 1935 and 1970, with the majority of that figure occurring in the last decade of that period.” – p. 17, The displaced, Centre for Urban Research and Action, 1977
  3. page 123, Housing Needs and Policy Approaches: Trends in Thirteen Countries, Duke University Press, 1985
  4. page 3, Re-located, 2003, office of housing – The Durham street flats remained unaffected by the redevelopment.
  5. Perhaps more intriguing is the Victorian Liberals ’85 election promise to auction off inner city housing commission flats, and convert a number of these properties into commercial and office spaces. It is frustrating that little information on this topic can be unearthed.
  6. “Kensington Estate Redevelopment Social Impact Study”
  7. The relocation of families has meant that the primary school where my daughter attends has reduced numbers. This will result in a funding cut next year which means class sizes will increase. Yes, our school numbers have decreased and the fantastic diverse cultural mix has dwindled. – page 76,
  8. Kensington Social Impact Report page 92, ibid
  9. Although some explanation for this rests with the changing demographic of those on the Housing Commission’s waiting list, there is the disturbing reality that there is little provision in the new units for anything larger than a two
    bedroom flat. This represents a drop in the number of three bedroom units from 296 to 23 and suggests that, while larger families posses a ‘right of return,’ this would be waived as they would be unable to be housed.
  10. Page 51, op cit, Kensington Social Impact Report
  11. Local business owners noted the ‘Anglo’ flavour of new residents, and the loss of ‘multi-cultural diversity’ in their custom – Page 124, ibid
  12. Page 154, ibid
  13. “The old three-bedroom apartments will be replaced with a range of homes that suit families today.” –
  14. DEMOS – A think-tank for ‘everyday democracy,’ with a focus on collaborative research, workshops, and novel ways of communicating research. See for further information.
  15. page 13, Living Together, DEMOS, 2005
  16. Frank Trimboli Real Estate – Brochure, 2008. Clearly, the appeal of the ‘common courtyard’ and the corresponding focus on security stress the implied otherness of the public tenants.
  17. Page 146, New houses for old : fifty years of public housing in Victoria 1938-1988, edited by Renate Howe, Ministry of Housing and Construction, Melbourne. 1988.
  18. Michael Lennon, Oswald Barnett Oration, October 14 , 2008
  19. The loaded code-word used to explain apartment living to the suburbanised Australian. In reality, the bellicose Australian, with ideas of privacy and independence, is ill prepared for the close proximity such living brings.

Tom Morgan

Tom Morgan is a graduate architect and academic from Melbourne, Australia. He is a PhD candidate at Monash University, and is one of the editors of POST Magazine.

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