Is Melbourne’s only world heritage site under threat?

By Meg Hill

The Royal Exhibition Building and the surrounding Carlton Gardens is the only UNESCO World Heritage-listed site in Melbourne. Some heritage advocates are worried that development in the area may pose a threat to the listing.

The Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) asked the director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre Dr Mechtild Rössler to intervene for greater controls around the site on March 1.

The action was prompted by two proposed developments on the eastern side of the gardens – a five-storey building at 1-9 Gertrude St and an 11-storey building at 27-41 Victoria Parade.

But the concern goes back to protections placed on the site after it was granted the UNESCO listing in 2004.

“In short, the protection promised when UNESCO agreed to this nomination has been severely compromised, resulting in significant ongoing threats to the site’s world heritage values,” the letter to Dr Rössler read.

When the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens were proposed for a World Heritage listing, it was the federal government that negotiated with UNESCO and proposed a buffer zone of increased protection around the gardens.

In correspondence with UNESCO over the proposal of the World Heritage listing at the time, the Australian Government wrote that “all planning policies in these [i.e. the surrounding] areas discourage the demolition of Victorian-era buildings and require any development to enhance heritage values. These provisions would also apply to any redevelopment of existing modern buildings around the site, including the northern Central Business District area”.

But the controls were then implemented by the state government and the make-up of the “buffer zone” was split into two different areas. 

One of them, referred to as the “area of greater sensitivity”, is subject to the type of protection that was promised in negotiations with UNESCO, while the other is more relaxed. 

Dr Charles Sowerwine, chair of the RHSV’s heritage committee, said this had a material impact on the kinds of developments that could be approved around the site.

“Most of that area of the CBD near the gardens was still not that developed when the site was listed in 2004 and had a fairly low-rise profile,” he said.

“Since then, a number of buildings have gone up because the buffer zone was reduced.”

Dr Sowerwine said inside the “area of greater sensitivity” proposed developments needed to be referred to Heritage Victoria and planners would need to consider any impact of proposed developments on the world heritage values. The rest of the “buffer zone”, now referred to as the World Heritage Environs Area, he said, had essentially the same planning regime as surrounding areas.

There are a number of high-rise buildings that have since been built on the city side of the gardens that the RHSV conceive of as “incursions” on the World Heritage site.

They have also been identified in a report prepared by Hansen Partnership Pty Ltd in partnership with HLCD Pty Ltd for the Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning as part of a Victorian Government review of the World Heritage Management Plan.

Now, the RHSV is concerned about developments on the other side of the site.

The proposed development on Gertrude St is inside the “area of greater sensitivity”, while the Victoria Parade one is not. That is despite the latter being closer to the gardens.

Although the 11-storey proposed building would replace an existing 11-storey building, the height would actually increase by 15 metres. 

Dr Sowerwine said the justification for concern was underlined by the approaching reopening of the Royal Exhibition Building dome to the public. It has recently undergone a $20 million restoration.

“From the dome, if you look out now, everywhere except for in the direction of the CBD you pretty much see what people saw at the time the building was built in 1879 – low-rise, mainly Victorian era buildings,” he said.

“That is part of the reason the building won the listing. It’s the only international exhibition building on its original site, with the grounds remaining pretty much as they were.”

Only two UNESCO World Heritage sites have had their listings repealed – the Dresden Elbe Valley in Germany was delisted in 2009 and the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman in 2007.

The Oryx Sacntuary was delisted due to reduction of the size of the sanctuary and a lack of protective measures, while the development of a four-lane bridge through the Dresden Elbe Valley prompted its removal.

Dr Sowerwine’s concern is that slowly the integrity of Melbourne’s listing is being undermined.

“Theoretically it’s a possibility but we aren’t there yet. We’re at a point where the values of the site are being impacted by development on the city side and now the other side,” he said.

The World Heritage Management Plan for the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens is currently being reviewed by steering committee including Heritage Victoria, the City of Melbourne, Museums Victoria, the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) and the City of Yarra.

CBD News understands the review is expected to result in changes to planning controls in the “buffer zone”.

A Victorian Government spokesperson said the review would ensure the precinct has the right controls.

“The Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens are culturally and historically significant to Victoria,” the spokesperson said.

 “In line with their world heritage listing the Exhibition Buildings and the Carlton Gardens require planning protection. Which is why we are reviewing the World Heritage Management Plan.”

“The review will ensure the precinct has the right planning protections and continues maintain its World Heritage status and be a site for local and international tourists.”

A spokesperson from the federal department of agriculture, water and the environment said the World Heritage site was protected under Australia’s environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

“The Department is aware of the developments at 1-9 Gertrude St and Nicholson St in Fitzroy, near the Royal Exhibition Buildings and Carlton Gardens,” the spokesperson said.

“The proponents for both developments have been made aware of their obligations under the EPBC Act.”

“Under the EPBC Act, it remains the responsibility of a person proposing to take an action that is likely to have a significant impact on a matter of national environmental significance, to refer their proposal to the department for assessment and approval. Substantial penalties may apply to a person who takes such an action without approval.”•

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