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Property Developers

Property developers organise the subdivision of vacant land at an opportune time for resale, the speculative construction of buildings for lease (wholly or in part), or the construction of residential estates as ready-made suburban areas. Such activities involve the packaging or repackaging of land for sale, almost invariably for the purposes of maximising profit; this usually requires the developer to invest capital and/or labour in the property. In Australia, perhaps more than in other comparable countries, property developers have been allowed a great degree of freedom from legislation or regulation, and Melbourne has arguably been the least controlled of all State capitals in this regard. Property developers have operated in Melbourne since its foundation, their activities typically tied to the periodic booms and busts that have affected the city's growth and character throughout its existence.

Government policy has, however, always played a key role in their transactions and plans. In the first years of Melbourne, the New South Wales Government ensured that land prices and speculation would shape the city's development when it allocated blocks of land for sale according to Robert Hoddle's grid plan in June 1837. Lots were largely purchased by speculators who saw no need to invest further in their land; in most cases, value grew rapidly before the first crash of 1841. In this four-year period, the value of well-positioned land in Melbourne soon became apparent, as in the case of John Gardiner, who made close to a £578 profit on land at the corner of Elizabeth and Little Collins streets. Since this time, it has been common for speculators, vendors and landlords to aspire to higher rental and purchase prices for well-known sites in Melbourne (particularly in the Central Business District) or those with a higher passing trade, such as corner plots.

Development in Melbourne has not been entirely without regulation: the 132-foot building height limit in force for the first half of the 20th century, until it was lifted in 1956 by the developer-friendly Bolte government, had a major effect on curtailing the size of urban developments. The high-rise boom, which coincided with the lifting of this law, as well as the apathy most Australians felt towards their largely Victorian-era streetscapes, meant that property developers were able to operate unchecked in some areas of the city. They targeted prestigious addresses, such as the 'Paris end' of Collins Street, in pursuit of maximum office space. A pro-development Melbourne City Council encouraged them in this with zoning and other inducements. Seventy-six new buildings were erected in central Melbourne between 1963 and 1971, and areas such as St Kilda Road also succumbed to development.

Most land, however, and particularly that in the suburbs or on the urban fringe, is not immediately attractive, and vendors need to fuel prospective purchasers' imaginations with plans and projections to inspire them to buy. Property developers have organised the subdivision and sale of vacant suburban land since the mid-19th century, with the 1880s seeing unprecedented expansion as the rise of efficient public transport from the 1860s facilitated individual projects of much greater size and scope. Projects such as the 1889 Hopetoun estate, near present-day Broadmeadows, were the epitome of large-scale subdivision, although the 1890s depression ensured that few were completed. Large-scale projects reappeared in the 1920s, now altered in form by the rise of the motor car and often discernibly influenced by the Garden City movement. The Leslie and Merrilands estates at Reservoir were typical examples, both designed by Saxil Tuxen to appeal to aspiring suburban home-owners with areas delineated for social and community facilities. At the same time, smaller-scale developments such as those created by the Griffins, Woodcock and McCormack, and other innovative planners of the period sought to create attractive housing plots for middle-class buyers by using curvilinear streetscapes, maximising views for each allotment. A.V. Jennings was to take such designs in a different direction, beginning in 1933 with the Beauville estate in Caulfield, which was a 'community development', providing facilities for prospective tenants in addition to tailored housing. This approach, inspired in part by American and British planning innovation, was emulated during and after the 1940s by government agencies seeking to create new suburbs on the outskirts of the city. A connected response to this kind of development has been the construction of new facilities in new suburban centres, beginning with shopping centres such as Chadstone (1960), erected by the Myer company. The spread of the suburbs in the 20th century - and the high price of land in the Central Business District itself - led to the creation of new projects and systems in outer areas by property developers eager to generate higher prices for their land.

In the 1970s and 1980s skyscrapers such as Nauru House, Collins Place and the Rialto Towers (promoted as a landmark) were popular among property-developers in the Central Business District. The 1980s also saw the rise to prominence of 'big-build' property development in both city and suburban areas, using overseas capital and promoted by government as a way of attracting international investment. The Como project in South Yarra, initiated by Singaporean businessman Jack Chia, was one high-profile and controversial example of this. The State Government also became more directly involved in 'megaprojects' such as the construction of Melbourne Central, above what was formerly known as Museum station, on Crown land.

Since the 1970s property developers have encountered unprecedented opposition from community and local councils antipathetic to large-scale speculative developments that encroach on community, though these projects are often nevertheless completed in some shape or form. Developers continue to attempt to appeal to the public imagination. Builder and developer Bruno Grollo, seeking approval and funding for a planned 113-storey tower on Batmans Hill in the late 1990s, used familiar rhetoric in promoting the development as beneficial to the community at a 'grass-roots' level (particularly in offering potential employment to thousands of Melburnians) and as offering the city a new landmark - the tallest building in the world. His attempt was ultimately unsuccessful.

David Nichols