Opposition grows over skinny tower proposal

David Schout

Heritage and community groups are baffled that the Royal Society of Victoria (RSV) is pressing ahead with plans for an ultra-slim 60-storey tower on the CBD’s north-eastern corner.

The RSV made headlines last May when it proposed the 330m tower – which would become Australia’s tallest – on a triangular site half the size of a tennis court.

As one of the oldest scientific organisations in Australia, it hoped the skyscraper would generate enough capital to secure its long-term financial future.

But the site is situated on world heritage-listed land as part of the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens – Melbourne’s only UNESCO site.

It therefore must pass through numerous planning and heritage hoops before it is even considered.

Professor Charles Sowerwine, chair of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria’s (RHSV) heritage committee, said the RSV appeared “hopelessly naive” on the development.

“I can’t see it getting to first base,” he said.  “I can’t see that any authority, even the most pro-development, would go for it.”

The site, which neighbours the RSV’s 160-year-old LaTrobe St building was, until 2015, used as a Bureau of Meteorology weather station until its climatic findings became unreliable as a result of increased traffic and development.

In June that year, the RSV sought expressions of interest on how to best develop the unique plot.

After receiving 30 applications, it eventually signed a formal agreement with developer Grocon and Decibel Architecture, who went on to grab news headlines for their ambitious blade-like structure.

In early February, RSV held a two-day members’ conference to bring together ideas for the site’s redevelopment.

“I had difficulty persuading people [at RHSV] that we should take this seriously,” Prof Sowerwine said.

“It’s always difficult to speculate about people’s motives, but it’s beyond my comprehension how any outfit could report to its members that it was proceeding with something that every heritage consultant, and every architect I would think, would tell them is highly protected and [proposing] any building would be difficult.” 

Prof Sowerwine said it was difficult to understand the RSV’s agenda, but argued it may not have genuine hopes for a 60-storey tower.

“We have a history of conceptions for extraordinary buildings that are put up to justify permission where it would not otherwise not be granted … once the permit has been granted, it’s very difficult to challenge wholesale revision of the permit.”

 The Friends of Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens have also expressed dismay with the proposed development, arguing the land holds significant historical value.

“[We] wish to convey dismay at the way in which the RSV appears to be pursuing a craven development agenda which is contrary to World Heritage values,” the letter written by member Margaret O’Brien said.

Mrs O’Brien also claimed in the letter that Planning Minister Richard Wynne had “made it clear to me that the development is not on”.

A spokesperson from Mr Wynne’s office did not address these comments when approached by CBD News, however confirmed there had been “no permit application or approach from the Royal Society to Heritage Victoria to discuss the proposed development.”

RSV CEO Mike Flattley defended its position, arguing the organisation was well aware of its surrounds.

“We deeply respect our site’s history and heritage – we’ve prioritised its care since 1859, consistently at the expense of our mission,” he said.

The RSV, which boasts 750 subscribed members, voted in June last year to explore the proposal, which if approved, would allow it to:

  • Upgrade its heritage-listed home;
  • Develop a science engagement centre and science cafe; and
  • Create an endowment fund to support Victorian science programs.

Mr Flattley conceded the area’s historical significance made change difficult for locals, but wished to maintain healthy dialogue throughout. 

“I acknowledge that considering proposals for change in a precinct of this nature is a difficult and unsettling process, particularly for the fortunate residents of this remarkable neighbourhood and we are working hard to balance the old and the new through reference to experienced and respected heritage advisors,” he said.

“We will be discussing our plans, once suitably clarified, with the National Trust and Heritage Victoria.”

The RSV aims to make relevant submissions later this year.

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