By David Schout
Stories continue to emerge of struggling CBD residents living next to large-scale construction. Each tale raises the question of whether local government is doing enough to protect the people they say matter most.
Sitting inside the ground floor of Michelle Redfern’s CBD townhouse, forklifts whiz by and workers bark orders just metres away.
Across the thin laneway that is Nicholson Place, a 65-storey, 594-dwelling tower is being built.
Upstairs on the first floor, a gantry runs directly outside the townhouse residents’ lounge room windows.
Eighteen months into construction, there’s around another 18 to go, and the triple-glazing cannot muffle the commotion outside.
“Most of us are okay with noise,” Ms Redfern told CBD News, “us” being a small group of townhouse owners just off Little Lonsdale St’s western end.
“It’s like people who buy a house near an airport, you know there’s going to be noise, right? We’re in the city, we’re not expecting the quiet bliss of a country retreat.”
But she didn’t expect things would get to this point.
Back in 2013, when she moved in with partner Rhonda, their north-western corner of the CBD was considerably quieter.
They heard word that the site at 299 King St would be developed, and weren’t overly surprised.
They knew that came with the territory of living inside the grid.
However, they were never consulted in-person, despite the three-year works about to impact their lives.
And if not for the insistence of their small owners’ corporation, face-to-face meetings “would not have happened.”
When work got underway, Ms Redfern said things were worse than she had imagined.
“I was really shocked,” she said.
“You know there’s going to be disruption and noise, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s the blatant disregard for residents who are literally living, working and sleeping within three metres of their site that has shocked me. It’s made me very unhappy and frustrated.”
“During working hours, we can cop it. But it’s the extended hours, it’s the rolling up of workers any time from 6am congregating outside our door, smoking … it’s the walking up and down the gantry looking into our home, feeling like we’re living in a very noisy, disrespectful goldfish bowl, with no right of reply, with no way of having our home protected.”
Ms Redfern’s key concern is the lack of protection she and other residents receive from the City of Melbourne as a result of what she claims are developers breaking permit conditions, particularly related to noise.
Two other large-scale projects are taking place across the road on Little Lonsdale St, making it one of the CBD’s busiest construction areas.
As Melbourne entered a fifth lockdown due to COVID-19, many workers were again confined to working from home, which had compounded the problem.
The City of Melbourne told CBD News that it was well aware of the issue, and had “increased proactive inspections” of job sites during lockdown.
However, the council allowed weekday construction on CBD job sites for up to 14 hours a day (6am to 8pm) during Melbourne’s extended second coronavirus lockdown last year, despite growing frustration from mostly housebound residents.
It made the decision “under delegation” without going before councillors, a decision both the planning chair and deputy planning chair said at the time was wrong.
Cr Rohan Leppert called it a “terrible, terrible policy”.
Fellow CBD local Michael Munson told CBD News last year that the “levels of noise and rumbling” in his Little Collins St building had been “pretty horrific” during lockdown.
“There’s disruption in pretty much every part of our life,” Ms Redfern added.
“And what I want to be very clear about is that we’re not naive. We know disruption like this is happening. But where is the council? Where is the state government? When it comes to the residents, the ratepayers and business owners — because I am all three — when they want Melbourne to be the most liveable, walkable city. It’s not liveable, and it’s not walkable.”
Ms Redfern said that it had become increasingly tough to convey to the council the extent to the issues she and other residents were facing, and “how absolutely detrimental this blatant disregard for our wellbeing is.”
“Right now, it is really difficult for a resident to deal with council. We get bumped from site services to wellbeing, back and forth. Honestly, they’re sick of us and they’ve essentially told us that. We cannot get face-to-face meetings, we can barely get anyone on the phone.”
In June the owners’ corporation for their small group of townhouses pooled funds for an independent acoustic report to measure noise from the construction taking place near them.
It concluded that noise levels were “shown to be prolonged and excessive”.
“Due to the greatly increased prevalence of working from home conditions, the levels and their associated durations outlined in this report are considered exceptionally high,” the Audiometric & Acoustic Services report read.
However, the council has defended its position in regards to this particular site, and said it was “monitored regularly” by officers.
“To date, council has received noise complaints for construction at Nicholson Place from one individual,” a spokesperson said.
“Council officers have been involved in three onsite meetings with the individual and two with the builder to address any issues. A further acoustic report from the owners’ corporation found a minor exceedance of appropriate noise levels in one location, however no complaints have been received relating to this location.”
However, Ms Redfern said the situation had become so bad that neighbours looking to sell or lease their place simply couldn’t.
And while she said the CBD is a “beautiful place to live” (admitting she “rarely leaves the grid”) she too had considered moving.
“Yes [I have]. But I’m digging my heels in. This is my home, and it’s my business.”
She said that as a “well-resourced, well-researched and well-supported” individual, she knew her rights and continued to fight for them, but feared for vulnerable CBD residents who may not have the capacity to do so.
“There are so many residents who are not in that position, and they are being impacted so extraordinarily.”
She was determined to remain in the heart of the city she loves, but said the current situation had taken a toll.
“This too shall pass, but at what cost in the meantime?” Ms Redfern said.
“So yes, I do want to ride it out. I don’t want to not live in Melbourne … but I want council, and I want the state government, to intervene and do better.” •