A potted history of Melbourne warehouse conversions

Fitzroy, Richmond and Collingwood have been hot spots for warehouse conversions since the 1990s. Photo: Jessica Shapiro JLS.

By Peter Barrett

Remember cringing at those real estate ads spruiking “New York-style” apartments in inner Melbourne? The ’90s and 2000s were a golden era for warehouse conversions, when abandoned factories and industrial vaults all over Richmond, Collingwood and Fitzroy were being transformed into trendy, urban residential pads equipped with the latest shiny, modern appliances faster than you could say Guru Josh. But their story goes back much further.

In the late 1960s and early ’70s, Age librarian Michelle Stillman remembers being dragged around the grungy backstreets of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Brunswick by her architect father Allan, who worked with Sir Roy Grounds, inspecting warehouses fellow architects were converting for themselves and members of Melbourne’s artistic community.

“It was cheap housing [back then] and gave artists ample studio space to work in,” she says. “One that I particularly remember was a conversion being done for a lead dancer with the Australian Ballet – a specially sprung wooden floor was being installed for a dance studio where once trucks used to load goods.”

Rob McGauran, adjunct professor of architecture at Monash University, says the redevelopment of the jam factory in South Yarra and several arts venues in Fitzroy were among Melbourne’s first conversions, led by architects such as Graeme Gunn, Len Hayball and the late Andrew Reed. “Architects often used them as offices originally as they were cheap and they allowed a studio culture important to the way they practiced to be able to flourish.”

Fast-forward to the late ’90s. Senior auctioneer with Jellis Craig, Simon Shrimpton, remembers working for real estate firm KP Smyth which, he says, was at the forefront of subdivision of larger warehouses in the inner city, commonly offered as empty shells. A hotspot was Oxford Street in Collingwood, known as the Foy and Gibson precinct. But they weren’t easy to sell at first, says Shrimpton, because most people didn’t have the “vision” for how it could be done. This included many of the banks.

“It’s funny how things have changed in time, though,” says Shrimpton. “Anything that’s residential or mixed use warehouse property that’s fit for residential purposes – most of the banks don’t look at it any differently than they would now at a regular Victorian terrace house.”

15 Argyle Street, Fitzroy: A modern-day warehouse conversion success story.15 Argyle Street, Fitzroy: A modern-day warehouse conversion success story. Photo: Supplied.

The first buyers, he says, were builders undaunted by those empty shells. Many bought three-to-six at a time, fitted them out and sold them on. How things have changed. “Everyone wants a shell these days,” says Shrimpton. “I think over the last 20 years, with the advent of shows like The Block and other building and renovation TV shows, even the general market and most of the public have got a much better idea these days about how to go about the construction process, how to piece it all together.”

Something else has changed, too. Sky-rocketing land prices and other economic imperatives mean today’s developers are more likely to build high-rise apartments than mess around with three-storey-and-under warehouse conversions, which are subject to more onerous planning regulations. As a result, these character-full conversions are in short supply, driving prices higher.

RMIT’s Michael Buxton, a professor of environment and planning at the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, says the more recent trend for developers to knock down or gut warehouses in order to build more profitable high-rise apartments is threatening to erase an important part of the city’s industrial heritage and identity. “It’s just crazy that we’re not protecting these,” he says. “Once they all go we’re going to rue the day.”

15 Argyle Street, Fitzroy: Mix use homes are still sought after in Melbourne's contemporary market.15 Argyle Street, Fitzroy: Mix use homes are still sought after in Melbourne’s contemporary market. Photo: Jellis Craig

According to Nelson Alexander’s Rick Daniel the entry-level price for a 60-to-65-square-metre conversion in Collingwood or Fitzroy is $700,000 to $750,000. He recently sold a two-level conversion at 49/183 Kerr Street, Fitzroy, that had been bought in 2008 for $870,000 for a tidy $2.26 million.

Another, at 207/416 Gore Street had been bought in 2008 for $676,000 and sold last month for $1.32 million. “If we’re talking about the best performing type of real estate over the last 10 years, land has been No.1 across Melbourne. The second-best performing type of real estate, in terms of residential stance in our marketplace, has certainly been the warehouse conversion apartments,” says Daniel.

Biggin Scott’s Edward Hobbs puts down their popularity to big feature windows, high ceilings, and internal designs that bring out the character and industrial heritage of the space. “As soon as we get a warehouse conversion in Richmond we know it’s going to be very popular and a really good campaign,” he says. “Some of the most popular blocks in town, in Richmond, are the warehouse conversions. They’re very popular amongst a number of demographics but particularly first and second-home buyers, young professional couples; DINKs really like them and also investors. They’re a bit timeless, they’re a bit ageless and they never go out of fashion.”

This story was first published in Domain on 16 June 2017.