September 13, 2010
Illustration: Andrew Dyson
A dozen historic CBD buildings are in immediate danger of disappearing while the City of Melbourne sits on its hands.
MELBOURNE is my home. I was born here in 1985 and despite living in other countries, always come back to this city for its charm and unique character. Today, however, our built heritage, an integral part of the character of Melbourne, hangs in the balance. Developers are being given free rein to demolish while the state government and City of Melbourne stand idly by.
I always considered Melbourne to be special. The city whispers the architectural legacy of Western civilisation through buildings of elegance and grace with unfurling tendrils frozen in stone, majestic parapets and 100-year-old mosaics. These were loved by generations before us who thought them worth preserving.
So I am horrified as heritage gems such as Lonsdale House are demolished to make way for yet more glass boxes. Despite marches and petitions, Lonsdale House was destroyed – with approval from the City of Melbourne and the Minister for Planning.
Not since the 1970s have developers had such an unchallenged run in Melbourne. Lonsdale House and the Eastern Arcade are just two examples of significant and widely regarded buildings now gone, and many more are under threat. In a shameful act of neglect, the City of Melbourne has not updated its protected buildings list in more than 25 years: as a result, many heritage buildings are vulnerable to redevelopment.
This year, Melbourne is 175 years old, and much of our irreplaceable heritage may not see 200. The great architectural cities of the world are not great because they bowed to the demands of developers; they are great because governments and inhabitants defended the places that make those cities great and encouraged a harmonious mix of the old and new.
Increasingly, developers are putting forward outrageous proposals that not only demolish heritage buildings or turn them into facades, but ignore height restrictions, density controls and setback limits. Most do not attempt to incorporate old buildings into new designs. The government body meant to protect our inheritance, Heritage Victoria, is approving these proposals at breakneck speed, ignoring its own guidelines. Is Heritage Victoria here to protect our heritage or to facilitate its demolition?
As you read this, a dozen buildings in the CBD are under threat from demolition or unsympathetic ”redevelopment”. Behind Scots Church on Russell Street, the stately Scots Church Hall, built in 1928, has been issued with a demolition permit, as has the adjacent art deco former Victoria Car Park, despite being ”protected” by the Victorian Heritage Register. On Collins Street, a massive tower will dwarf Le Louvre, ignoring existing setback and density controls.
On Spencer Street, what is left of Melbourne’s first public power station will be swamped by 1600 apartments propped up by stakes driven through the roof of the 102-year-old buildings. On the corner of La Trobe and Queen streets, the grand Celtic Club, a former 1880s hotel and meeting place for 120 years, will become nothing but a wafer-thin facade if a proposal is approved by the City of Melbourne.
A significant proportion of the Hotel Windsor will be demolished and a massive glass tower will loom over the building, approved by the minister despite being three times over the height limit and the hotel being ”protected” by a heritage overlay.
The charming Stork Hotel, built in 1855, remodelled in the 1920s and a Victoria Market landmark, will be replaced by a huge apartment block. The unique gothic treasure The Princess Mary Club, on Lonsdale Street, will be reduced to rubble under the approved proposal for an office tower. Many other buildings face a similar fate.
As a result of the City of Melbourne’s neglect, many buildings the public would assume are safe are not: the Hotel Lindrum on Flinders Street, the Argus building on La Trobe and Elizabeth streets, art deco landmarks such as the ACA building on Queen Street and the imposing former Commonwealth Bank on Bourke Street. The wonderful art nouveau Charles Hotham Hotel on the corner of Spencer and Flinders streets is now for sale as a development opportunity. With Markillies Hotel next door, it is the cornerstone of a once-imposing hotels precinct. Many small shopfronts in the city face a similar fate.
Each of these buildings and many others could be demolished tomorrow entirely within the law. This is an alarming situation and the City of Melbourne should place an immediate interim protection order on the buildings. Brick by brick, the essence of our city is being eroded, compromised or left to rot.
It is up to the people of Melbourne to force our elected government and the City of Melbourne to protect our heritage: we can’t get it back once it’s gone.
There must be major change in the way planning and heritage work in this state and especially in the CBD. The Minister for Planning must ensure the planning process is more transparent. The attitude of Heritage Victoria must change and its processes become appealable and transparent: they currently are not.
The City of Melbourne must immediately move to put interim protection orders on vulnerable unprotected buildings until its long-overdue heritage study is produced.
If we want our great city’s heritage to remain for future generations, we must act now.
Rupert Mann is president of Melbourne Heritage Action.