Monday, November 22, 2010

Melbourne Heritage in the News

Heritage Lost in a Forest of Towers
Rohan Storey (National Trust)
The Age - Opinion - 19 November 2010
(Pictures and captions added by me)

Plans for the Celtic Club (1890) to be mostly demolished and a 40-storey tower added
Watered-down controls mean the city's past is overshadowed or gone. As a young heritage activist in 1990, I was shocked by the demolition of old city buildings, which I had taken for granted as protected, such as the art deco Australia Hotel.

Through that interest I ended up with a job at the National Trust, and I'm still there. Soon I came to understand and appreciate the rich heritage of the CBD, and the planning controls then in force.

The ''vision'' was pretty straightforward, and tailored to Melbourne's unique built-form character. Most importantly, areas such as Chinatown, Flinders Lane, Hardware Street and Bourke Hill were protected as heritage areas or by height limits, such as the 40-metre height limit over the central shopping area along Swanston Street, packed with heritage buildings.

Heritage value would be considered for all ''graded'' buildings, and they would be generally retained, not reduced to a facade. (The loss of the Australia Hotel turned out to be a glaring exception.)

Large developments were to have low podiums at street level, with any tower above well setback, so as not to dominate the street or adjacent heritage buildings. The basic control for these was a bonus system, in which the maximum floor area depended on the size of the site (the ''plot ratio'') and could be increased through providing benefits as such as heritage restoration, a new arcade, or bluestone footpaths. The bonus system is commonly used in modern Western cities, including London, San Francisco and even New York, the home of the skyscraper. This was all established by the Cain government in the early 1980s, and was supported through to the early '90s by the Melbourne City Council. But it was greatly undermined in 1997 as part of the Kennett-era reorganisation of local government and planning.

The new rules for the CBD kept most of the words of the ''vision'', but made nearly everything ''discretionary''; plot ratio became just one of many preferred ''outcomes'', with no bonus system. The podium-setback rules, retention of light to the streets and even height limits became just items on a list of ''preferred built-form outcomes''. Heritage value would not be considered unless the place had a ''heritage overlay'', and outside the precincts this was based on a list created in 1982.

Terraces from 1870s can be demolished at any time, despite their historical significance.
The only mandatory control remaining in the CBD is the 40-metre height limit protecting the central retail area - the lanes and arcades are now stuffed with the ever more popular bars and cafes occupying the numerous heritage buildings.

The rest of the city has not been so lucky; after years of creeping concessions, the old vision is all but dead. Senior planners now openly admit they no longer consider plot ratio and apartment towers are blossoming like toadstools after rain. What's more, they are clustering together with barely room to swing the proverbial cat, rising straight from the ground and replacing heritage buildings that should have been listed years ago.

The northern fringe of the city and the ''little'' streets are fertile ground; there are seven towers of more than 40 storeys under way or permitted between Elizabeth and Swanston streets, north of La Trobe. Franklin Street is now decidedly gloomy in the winter months. The Melbourne City Council has been wringing its hands recently that Southbank is getting to be too much like Hong Kong - but at the other end of the city Hong Kong has already arrived.

The Stork Hotel (1855) was recently demolished to soon accommodate this
67-storey tower.
With planning rules ignored, a small site such as the charming little Stork Hotel (just demolished) can now accommodate a 67-storey tower, no setbacks, no serious questions asked. Even a pair of 1870 terraces in Little Lonsdale Street near Exhibition Street can be replaced by a 35-storey tower. Never mind that there are two other towers, and more proposed, only a few buildings away. The latest shocker is the (unlisted) Celtic Club, 40 storeys straight up, with the Victorian facade kept like wrapping paper around the base - facadism at its worst.

Even the ''Paris end'' of Collins Street is suffering, with a tower proposed in front of Nauru House with little setback, and far exceeding the ''preferred'' plot ratio - more blocked light, and total domination of the heritage context, the opposite of the vision applied to 101 Collins 20 years ago.
I'm not against tall buildings, or even having lots of them, but they shouldn't steal light and air from pedestrians (or other tower-dwellers), dominate heritage streetscapes or replace buildings that should have been heritage listed long ago.

It's time the council and the Minister for Planning - who has final say over almost all the towers - looked again at their planning scheme, and not only promoted the preservation of heritage buildings and areas, but the liveability and unique built character of Melbourne. It's our city, too, and when our heritage buildings are gone we can't get them back.

Rohan Storey is architectural historian with the National Trust of Australia.

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