Fears grows for future of heritage-listed Shell House

Brendan Rees

A controversial plan to redevelop the heritage-listed Shell House and construct a second tower is a step closer to reality after a revised proposal won approval from the City of Melbourne.

But the owners of the acclaimed 28-level building at the corner of Flinders and Spring streets, which was designed by the late Harry Seidler, one of Australia’s greatest modernist architects, will need the nod from the state government to get the $203.5 million project off the ground.

The application proposes to partially demolish the public plaza at Shell House and the century-old Milton House on Flinders Lane, a three-storey building that is also heritage-listed, to make way for a second 32-storey office tower. 

The new tower would stand apart from Shell House with a sky bridge linking the two buildings.

In February, the applicant Phillip Nominees submitted amended plans to the council after Planning Minister Richard Wynne said he was “particularly concerned about new buildings cantilevering over heritage places”.

According to a council report, the revised plans reconfigured the second tower’s floor plate, so it did not overhang Milton House.

However, heritage groups, residents, and the Australian Institute of Architects have expressed concerns that the aesthetic and architectural integrity of Shell House would be destroyed if the plans were ultimately green-lighted.

In January, the application was called in by Mr Wynne after Heritage Victoria refused the application in August 2021. At the time the Planning Minister said there was “no plan for the destruction of Shell House.”

At the Future Melbourne Committee on April 5, councillors voted unanimously to approve the revised plans after council officers believed there had been a “significant improvement” to the original plans, noting the enhanced pedestrian connections and revised new tower.

Under the plans, the revamped plaza would feature a retail space including a bookshop, flower shop, and open space.

There would also be bluestone paving, marble seating, trees, and natural daylight via a glazed canopy while a landscaped amphitheatre would create “a strong link for occupants to continue through to the café on level three.”

Deputy Lord Mayor and planning chair Cr Nicholas Reece acknowledged Shell House was one of the “most significant modernist buildings” but believed the Ingenhoven-designed tower was a “striking one”.

“It’s both striking in its sculptural form, and I also think it’s elegant in the way that it adds to the skyline of the city,” he said at the council meeting.

But he added, “The decision being taken by council tonight will be followed by several more assessments, including by the Minister and by the state government’s heritage and special advisory council,” he said.

 

These assessments will ultimately determine whether this development proceeds ... I should note that we are considering this proposal tonight strictly from a planning perspective. The city has previously submitted on the question of heritage and one and the amended motion tonight does go to that.

 

Cr Reece said if approved by the state government, the redevelopment would be an “important addition to Melbourne’s skyline, and one which will come to be considered of architectural significance to the city.”

Under the amended plans, Cr Reece said retail spaces that currently front Flinders Lane would be removed but “we’re getting a space which presents much more like a public square to the street, and which I think will deliver really significant public benefit and keeps true to the original vision of Harry Seidler for this plaza.”

Heritage portfolio chair Cr Rohan Leppert conceded while he was “still stuck” on heritage concerns, and that “objections are still entirely valid for the updated proposal”, he said overall, the application was a “spectacular and significant proposal.”

“You can’t really fit in a building of this type between Shell House and Milton house without significantly undermining the heritage value of both of those heritage places,” he said.

“But it is a spectacular proposal and if the Minister supports heritage, then the Minister should also support planning but on the basis that we’ve set out here.” 

High profile businessman and co-owner of Shell House Daniel Besen also spoke at the meeting.

Mr Besen acknowledged the “many layers of architectural history” of the site with the plans “respecting and celebrating Harry Seidler’s vision and paying homage to the jewel that is Milton House.”

“Our vision is always to develop a building equal in architectural beauty and technical innovation as 1 Spring St ... one that will be an extraordinary addition to the city and skyline of Melbourne,” he said.

“We are also very cognisant and very responsive to the voices of Heritage Victoria with whom we worked with for over 14 months, council officers from the City of Melbourne and DELWP [the Victorian planning department] who have had oversight of the project since its inception.”

CBD residents group EastEnders president Dr Stan Capp said the proposal was “another example of development at any cost.”

“The Shell House has been granted heritage status for good reason and this should not be withdrawn to enable a further development,” he said.

“Clearly the revised design is an improvement, but this does not dissuade me from my view that heritage considerations should be paramount.”

Milton House was built as a private hospital in 1901 before later becoming a rooming house and then government houses.

Shell House was built in 1989 and won a number of awards including the Royal Australian Institute of Architects Victoria Merit Award and the National RAIA Award •

 

Captions: An artist’s impression of the proposed plaza and office tower.

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