January 22, 2018


The Age


Tom Cowie

Colourful lightbulb art on building external wall

Life in Melbourne’s sleepiest district

– two blocks in the north-west of the CBD bordered by King, Bourke, Spencer and La Trobe streets – is changing quickly.

An area once home to a power-plant smoke stack, The Age’s drab brown-brick former headquarters, a strip club and not much else is transforming rapidly into the city’s densest residential hub.

Soon the equivalent of a country town’s population will be squeezed into a city block, creating a lively international neighbourhood at street level.

The greasy cafes and kebab shops are still there, but they’ve been joined by hipster coffee joints and places serving ramen, Korean fried chicken and Japanese sponge cakes.

There’s even a shoe laundry specialising in sneaker cleaning services.

“You used to be able to shoot a cannon down the street after dark and you wouldn’t hit anyone,” says Peter Iwaniuk, who has watched the area change considerably as owner of The Men’s Gallery on Lonsdale Street since 1993. “It was a derelict, deserted end of town. It has come to life.”

Four large apartment towers now sit on the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale streets as part of the Upper West Side development, with another four of the city’s tallest buildings to come when the West Side Place complex is finished across the street.

When the skyscrapers were approved, planning experts criticised the move to squeeze more than 5000 apartments onto a city block, saying the density levels were similar to Hong Kong, which would change the character of the CBD.

And while only half of the development is complete, there is a clear gentrification taking place in Melbourne’s quiet back pocket. The first indication was the arrival a couple of years go of Little Bourke Street cafe Higher Ground, an Instagram-friendly brunch spot that draws queues on a Saturday morning.

In nearby Rose Lane, a group of restaurants and cafes have followed at the foot of the Upper West Side towers. A street art exhibition devoted to different phobias adorns the walls of the adjacent Langs Lane.

“It was very much an industrial area, a blue-collar environment,” says Kevin Bevans, co-owner of The Lonely Sock laundrette on Rose Lane.

“You couldn’t buy a coffee. It’s symptomatic of what’s happening in Melbourne everywhere.”

He says his is the first laundrette to open in the city in a long time, and the decision was based on the huge population influx in the area.

“It’s the same amount of people as a small country town,” he says. “I come from Kyneton, which has about 7000 people. It’s hard to believe that’s right here.”

Nick Ma opened his third wave cafe Commonplace Coffee Brewers on Rose Lane four months ago and says he is surprised by how vibrant the area is, given its location.

“Everyone is talking about how it’s not central, we’re not in the city, and yet there’s still quite a lot of traffic,” he says.

Around the corner on Little Lonsdale Street is The Sneaker Laundry, a business for sneaker enthusiasts who want to get their high-end shoes cleaned professionally.

It’s a shop you’d expect to find in Fitzroy or Flinders Lane, not the shadows of Spencer Street DFO.

Co-founder Eugene Cheng says he chose the spot primarily because the rent was cheaper than it would be closer to the heart of town. But he also likes being in a new destination that people have to seek out.

“That’s the biggest question we get: ‘Why this space? Why not near Melbourne Central?’ There was a chance for us to put a flag in a new part of Melbourne,” he says.

The increased foot traffic from the new towers is a bonus, he says, although it is not something on which his business is relying.

“We always knew when we took on this spot it would be tough. You’ve got The Men’s Gallery and Goldfingers, we’re practically on King Street,” he says. “We never banked on anyone cleaning up.”