IT HAS been a decade in the making, but North Sydney's windswept concrete caverns, filled with generic offices and devoid of street life at weekends, are beginning to change into a place where people live.
Half-a-dozen apartment buildings have been recently approved on or near Berry Street, as developers bet on the area's proximity to the city, good public transport and harbour views to overcome buyers' doubts about amenity and services after business hours.
Curtis Field from Colliers, the agent for Belvedere, the largest of the new high-rise residences, says it's working. Almost 70 per cent of the building's 193 apartments - from $505,000 for a one-bedder - have sold off the plan. Construction starts next month.
''As much as you picture this CBD with wind and leaves blowing through, there is a community there already,'' Mr Field said. ''It's still not quite Surry Hills,'' he added. However, ''in three to four years' time we're going to look back and say this was a significant shift in what North Sydney will look like in the streetscape. It will be a really funky, vibrant part of the lower north shore.''
In the early 1970s, almost 30 commercial towers were built in a short period, shaping the high-rise northern CBD. Now residential construction is experiencing a mini-boom. Along with the Winten Property Group's Belvedere, a 22-storey building replacing three two-storey duplexes on Walker Street, approval was granted last year for Atria on Berry Street (48 apartments), The Heritage on Walker Street (24 apartments and four houses) and The London on the Pacific Highway (144 apartments). Meriton's completed Mulberry on Miller Street has 94 apartments, and a development application for 150 apartments on the corner of Berry Street and the Pacific Highway is before council.
North Sydney already has the highest concentration of one-person households in Sydney (37 per cent), and demand for studios and one-bedders is particularly strong, says Winten's Garry Rothwell.
At street level, this means change is happening, but slowly, say the owners of the Drink Better Wine bar and bistro on Miller Street. Licensee Meg Morrison said they opened in 2008 with a sense there was unmet demand in the area. They are busy weeknights with the after-work crowd, but don't open Saturday nights due to a lack of passing trade. But their Saturday brunch business, targeted at locals, has picked up with help from the nearby monthly produce market.
''It is starting to change, but not as much as we would like it to,'' Ms Morrison said. ''There is more residential building going on, so hopefully in the next year or so we'll see more residents coming in.''
North Sydney mayor Genia McCaffery said the change was a result of council's 2000 Local Environmental Plan, designed to keep a commercial core around the railway station and promote residential stock around it. ''Once you put strategies in place it takes a while for developers to take it up, but we're getting take-up now, which is good because we do want residents close to the CBD,'' she said.