Melbourne’s solution to heritage?

One of the challenges in urban renewal planning, especially in a capital city context, is designing for new buildings on a site where an existing heritage building is to be retained. 

One approach is to set back the new building behind the old building (a la 386-390 Spencer St, currently under construction) or to set the new building above the old building (a la Herald and Weekly Times building in Flinders St). 

This latter approach has also been described as a “growing out of” design response.

In Metro Pol Investment Pty Ltd v Melbourne CC [2019] VCAT 128, the tribunal considered a proposal for a 20-storey building on the historic Metropolitan Hotel site at 263 William St that applied “the-new-above-the-old” or “growing out of” design approach. 

In a previous case where the same design approach was proposed, former tribunal president, Stuart Morris QC, acting for the applicant, contended this was “Melbourne’s solution to heritage”.

The City of Melbourne opposed the design approach for the Metropolitan Hotel site. Its heritage expert witness told the tribunal that it was not an accepted conservation standard and took the tribunal to a number of examples where he considered it to be a poor outcome. 

The overriding concern with this design approach was that the new building dominates the heritage building. 

The tribunal considered that there should not be a hard and fast rule about the design approach and that it would depend on a range of factors, such as the age and significance of the retained heritage building for example. 

In this case, it considered that the tower sitting above the historic Metropolitan Hotel building was acceptable, noting that at the pedestrian scale, the retention of the heritage hotel ensured that the traditional parapet line was consistent with the scale of adjoining heritage buildings to the south and west in Little Lonsdale St. 

However, the tribunal was not completely satisfied with the design detail. It was not convinced about the “break” between the top of the heritage building and the commencement of the tower building. It was also concerned that the proposed bronzed glazing of the tower would potentially compete with the red brick to be reinstated on the hotel.

The tribunal granted leave for the applicant’s architects to come back to the tribunal with some options to address its concerns. Four options were tabled. It preferred an option that simplified the colour scheme which, it concluded, would assist in integrating the space between the heritage building with the building above and make it less dominant to the retained heritage structure.

Retaining heritage buildings is critical for preserving Melbourne’s identity and character. How to design new buildings around old buildings to be retained is a significant design challenge to ensure heritage fabric is not overwhelmed.

Mark Marsden

Managing editor Victorian Planning Reports

[email protected]

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