The Rise and Rise of South Yarra

To the locals, and the hundreds of thousands of local and international visitors that flock to its gardens and shopping hubs each year, South Yarra may well be considered Melbourne’s most vibrant and sophisticated suburb – the place one goes to shamelessly see, and be seen.

As the name suggests, South Yarra lies on the banks of the Yarra River, about four kilometres south-east of the city.

Like neighbouring Toorak, South Yarra’s wide streets, sloping hills, river and township views, made it a hit with Melbourne’s elite set. Some of the city’s most notable homes were built in the area during the mid to late 1800s, including the National Trust-owned Como House, on the corner of Williams Road and Lechlade Avenue, built in 1847; Richmond House on Avoca Street, built in 1859, and Airlie on Domain Road, built in 1872.

During the 1920s and 1930s however, and much to the detriment of the suburb according to some, many of the large gardens of the older mansions were subdivided and turned into flats.

In some cases, such as the hidden Lawson’s Grove, off Caroline Street – the transition to high density development worked successfully, without compromising the suburb’s class.

The street was named after architect EC Lawson, who in the 1930s built what was considered at the time to be Melbourne’s first high rise in South Yarra – the Beverly Hills building on Alexandra Avenue. According to locals, Lawson used materials bought from the sites of large mansions that were being demolished during the depression, to build apartments in and around the precinct.

Popular dining haunt the Lawson Grove Shop, on the ground level of the Warrick House building, was originally a communal kitchen for all the apartments above to use. Now it is a restaurant and deli servicing the immediate community.

But with a medium density precedent set in the 1930s, some less classic designs were later incorporated into South Yarra’s streets.

Agents admit bold apartment designs particularly from the 1970s and 1980s, detract from how dramatic tree-lined boulevards such as Kensington and Rockley Roads could be.

The widespread development of apartments in South Yarra differs it suburb from Toorak, where land owners did not subdivide their land to the same extent, and therefore blocks are bigger.

That said, South Yarra has registered its share of impressive “Toorak-like” sales this year.

Earlier this year, a home at 226 Walsh Street, a home believed to be once owned by business identity Lloyd Williams sold for a price believed to be more than $10 million. A little further down the street, a home at 185 Walsh Street sold for $6.45 million.

It could be argued that without the rampant medium-density development that occurred since the 1930s, South Yarra wouldn’t be the suburb it is.
Despite its air of exclusivity, South Yarra remains a relatively affordable place to live compared to other parts of Melbourne – largely because supply has kept up with demand.

Entry level renters can pick up an unrenovated 1960s or 1970s one-bedroom apartment in South Yarra’s blue ribbon belt for about $195 a week. By comparison, entry-level apartments in suburbs such as Fitzroy North or Westgarth, which have far lower average property values than South Yarra, start at around the same amount.

Renovated one-bedroom apartments in South Yarra typically rent for about $250 per week – rising to over $400 for spacious boutique blocks, or new buildings, with a car park.

Unrenovated two bedroom apartments lease for about $280 per week, increasing to anything over $1000 a week, for units with views, terraces and everything that whistles, beeps and shines.

Entry level buyers should be able to find something in their budget too.
Older-style one bedroom apartments in South Yarra can be purchased for around $230,000– but these typically don’t include a car park, a necessity in some streets such as Caroline, Adams and Grosvenor Streets. Entry-level two bedroom apartments typically start at about $300,000, according to local agents.

These apartments will also increasingly require money spent on refurbishment, as the demographic of South Yarra becomes more affluent and demands quality. Prospective buyers should be prepared to contribute to upkeep (and apartment sinking funds) when the majority of owners in a block of flats, of which there are many in South Yarra, decide it is time for a major cosmetic upgrade.

Agents say there are four distinct South Yarra precincts, each with its own appeal.
The Fawkner Park precinct as the name suggests, is built between the massive 40 hectare park and Chapel Street. The pocket is dotted with single and double fronted terrace houses, converted pubs and shops, and small blocks of apartments – many in tight one-way streets.

This precinct accommodates the Prahran Market, renowned for selling top quality fruit, vegetable, meat and gourmet deli foods. Opened in 1864 on a site east of Chapel Street, the popular and historic market, which is actually in South Yarra, moved to its current site in Commercial Road 1881. In around 1950, a fire destroyed almost all of the original building, with fire fighters able to save just the meat market, and shop facade. The Market was rebuilt.

The Hawksburn precinct, which runs east of Chapel Street to Williams Road and the Toorak border, is less dense that the Fawkner Park precinct, but has not escaped its share of medium-level development, particularly along Surrey and Cromwell Roads.

From a real estate value point of view, the pocket is negatively affected by the high rise commission flats – which fails to offer the leafy backdrop many South Yarra folks have in mind when wanting to rent, or buy in the area. The flats are bound by Malvern Road, Bray Street, Simmons Street and Surrey Road.

The Como Park precinct of South Yarra refers to the pocket east of Chapel Street to Williams Road and north of Toorak Road. It includes most of the cliff top homes Citylink, and Alexandra Avenue drivers can see as they wind past Herring Island on their way into town.

It also includes the 160-year old Como house and gardens, owned by the National Trust of Victoria and used a function venue. According to NGV, the business identity who built the home, Sir Edward Eyre Williams, proposed to his wife Jessie Gibbon at Lake Como in Italy, and the house was named in honour of the occasion.

Without question the most exclusive pocket of South Yarra is the Botanic precinct, which runs from St Kilda Road and the Royal Botanic Gardens to Darling Street and the South Yarra train line.

The area is renowned for having some of the most beautifully designed and preserved terrace houses in Melbourne – particularly along Park Street, which is considered South Yarra’s signature street. Darling Street, Caroline Street and Toorak Road West are also acknowledged for their terrace homes.

In the 1930s, the Botanical precinct became popular with middle-class gay men, at the time an illegal subculture in Victoria. South Yarra’s gay “hub” has since moved to Commercial Road, which is dotted with gay friendly nightclubs, bookshops and eateries.

But it’s Chapel Street that is regarded as South Yarra’s backbone.
Synonymous with fashion, dining and lifestyle shopping, the 4 kilometre strip has spring-boarded a large number of young designers to international acclaim. Local restaurants, including Cafe & Cucina and Lynch’s on Domain Road are often booked well in advance, usually to Melbourne’s business identity crème.

This is a far cry from Chapel Street’s origins.

Named in 1840 – in recognition of the first chapel ever built in Prahran – Chapel Street’s first shops included a general store, a bakehouse, and stores for services such as carpentry, bricklaying and flour milling.

In 1850, the bluestone Baptist Church – now home to Irish pub Bridie O’Reilly – was built. It remains one of the oldest original buildings in South Yarra.

South Yarra industrial precinct gone

Since the closure of the Pinnacle Yeast and Tetley Tea factories in 2003, South Yarra’s former industrial pocket – known historically as Forrest Hill – has been virtually flattened and is being rebuilt.

Like many inner city industrial precincts including Docklands and Richmond, increasing land values in South Yarra – and associated high property taxes – made it hard for many light industries to continue operating so close to town.
When industry moved out, council suddenly found itself with several prime located streets, connecting the South Yarra train station to Chapel Street, over Toorak Road.

Developers to jump on board in the last few years include Grocon, which has purchased the former Fun Factory site on the corner of Toorak Road and Chapel Street South Yarra, and is said to be developing it into a retail hub, with Apple Computers already leasing a spot on ground level.

Private local developer Michael Yates purchased the former Burns Philp Yeast Factory in Claremont Street and is building a laneway connecting South Yarra train station to Chapel Street – with boutique shops on either side.

The notorious Salt nightclub was recently demolished as part of these construction works, which will eventually add a new shopping strip to the already renowned Chapel Street strip.

Asian Pacific Building Corporation, responsible for hotels and offices in the city and St Kilda Road has also bought in – planning an eight level Rothelowman-designed serviced apartment building, where once stood a disused warehouse in Daly Street.

Outside of the Forrest Hill precinct and R.Corporation, which developed the hugely successful Tribeca site in East Melbourne, and Metropol project in Fitzroy Street St Kilda is also prevalent in South Yarra. The developer is putting a high rise apartment tower and a public park on land it recently bought from the Stonnington council in Palermo Street South Yarra.

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Marc Pallisco

A former property analyst and print journalist, Marc is the publisher of