Federation Square has a new CEO

By Meg Hill

In an exclusive first interview with CBD News, Federation Square’s new CEO Dr Xavier Csar said that failed efforts to build an Apple Store at the square had “catalysed” an important discussion around the future of the public space. 

Management offices in Federation Square aren’t signposted. Tucked away on the eastern side of the square, the CEO’s office looks out above some of the open space between ACMI and the big screen.

It would have hosted a perfect view of anti-Apple protesters when they held a number of demonstrations in the square last year.

A more than year-long battle against plans for an Apple Store in the square centred its criticism on the Andrews Government, Apple, and then-Fed Square CEO Jonathan Tribe. Now, with Apple gone, heritage approved and a government review underway, Federation Square has quietly found a new CEO.

The replacement, Dr Xavier Csar, had recently spoken with one of the square’s two architects when he was interviewed by CBD News. He said that architect had emphasised the “nooks and crannies” of the square’s built form – the hidden spaces that are meant to be discovered slowly.

But on the other side of the glass, protestors had highlighted the open public space where people gather, the classic use of a town square. The new CEO wouldn’t speculate on whether or not his predecessor had got the balance wrong.

“I don’t really want to focus on Jonathan’s management style because Jonathan retired and I’m here to replace him,” Dr Csar said. “But what I would say is that my first priority is recognising that this is a place that’s defined by the partnerships and relationships between people who use the square. It’s defined by those relationships and it’s important they’re good relationships.”

Dr Csar headed the TAFE division of the Education Department for four years. He said he was asked to take over at Federation Square because of his experience connecting public sector organisations with community and balancing financial sustainability with public good. 

“I’m looking to unleash that public value and understand what those around us need and want and to deliver that,” Dr Csar said.

“We’re a precinct but we are defined not just by the partners we have in the precinct – the cultural institutions, the commercial tenancies, the people who come and go – but we’re also defined by the value we bring to our neighbours.”

He was hesitant to imply that the square was at a crossroads, but there were subtle shifts in language. 

For example, when Apple pulled its controversial plans to build a flagship store in the square, then-CEO Jonathan Tribe gave public support for the first time to the idea of gaining some degree of public funding for the square.

Those who led the Our City, Our Square campaign, which opposed the Apple plans, had always insisted that square should be publicly funded but they expressed concern at the framing. 

They said Jonathan Tribe’s comments may have played up financial difficulties to justify further commercialisation. It’s a framing Dr Csar avoided.

“To the question of whether or not the square should get public funds, the answer is yes,” Dr Csar said.

“If the review wants to deal with that then that’s terrific, but it’s not as if we’re not able with our current income to make this place available as you currently find it, because we are.”

Dr Csar added that big projects and developments in the square would likely require more funding, which could be individual budget decisions for government and not necessarily a change to the square’s funding regulations. 

But he also gave a somewhat generous new spin to the current financial model of the square.

“It’s not that we’re not publicly funded at all. We get funds from the activities and organisations within the square, and some of those are publicly funded.”

Former CEO Jonathan Tribe meanwhile elaborated on the review at a residents meeting on October 15: "I would love for the square to be fully funded but, realistically, I don't think it will. I think if Fed Square got $10 million a year they would be doing well."

Dr Csar also described the square's “blend” – commercial ventures as well as cultural (and government funded) institutions like the Koorie Heritage Trust – as a social enterprise. 

The language shifts seemed to acknowledge the tension between the idea of public space and the reality of square governance.

It was also a testament to the Our City Our Square campaign, which clearly identified the discrepancy between public expectations and reality for the space. 

Melburnians, they said, thought of the square as a public asset and were shocked not just by the Apple proposal and process, but that the square’s existence relied on profit in the first place.

“The Apple development just catalysed a discussion about the square – how public, how accessible, what’s the long-term vision and is this the time to have that discussion because there hadn’t been that discussion for a very long time,” Dr Csar said.

In reality, Federation Square’s charter, as it stands, ensures that it runs like a business, not a publicly owned asset. It has to stand financially on its own feet.

That seemed to be one of square’s real hidden secrets waiting to be discovered.

Dr Csar didn’t say which one he had spoken to, but it’s no secret that the Federation Square’s two architects diverge when it comes to the square’s future. One of the architects enthusiastically supported the Apple proposal, the other denounced it. One cherishes the commercial element of the square, the other doesn’t. 

That division supports the idea that opinions on the issue are not fundamentally about Federation Square but are based on political divides over the question of public space.

The government is due to release its community consultation report late this year and has given few clues as to where it might lead. It’s a comprehensive review that was given the scope to change the nature of the square, but it could easily satisfy itself tinkering around the sides.

The view from Dr Csar’s window will likely be protest-free at least until we find out.

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