Questions still loom over Fed Square

By Meg Hill 

Following Heritage Victoria’s decision to reject a demolition permit for the Yarra Building, Apple and the state government conceded that plans for a flagship store in the square had become untenable.

The government has also announced a review to examine the square’s financial and governance arrangements. Planning Minister Richard Wynne called the square “sad”, and told The Age something had to be done to stop it from withering away.  

Federation Square CEO Jonathan Tribe told The Age the square needed government funding and, coming out of the Heritage Council of Victoria hearings over April 15-17, it seemed that heritage status had been secured – it was just a question of which criteria would be selected.

After more than a year of community activists yelling into the wind about the Apple proposal, with no concessions from the government or Federation Square management, it seemed like everything was happening at once. 

But there are still major questions to be resolved. Our City Our Squarespokesperson Brett De Hoedt said there was a new battle to be won. 

“This review will influence Federation Square for the next 17 years, we want to make sure it isn’t just an open-air Chadstone in 17 years,” he said.

“We welcome a review of how Federation Square is managed and enjoyed, but we do worry that everyday Melburnians won’t be heard.”

The review will be jointly chaired by Victorian Government architect Jill Garner and former managing partner of Ernst and Young Tim Eddy, and will be completed by the end of the year.

The state government said the review would work closely with the chair of Federation Square’s board, Deborah Beale, and would involve public consultation. 

Mr De Hoedt said Our City Our Square would seek a seat at the table, but he thinks the narrative being set up was the wrong one.

“We think the idea of Federation Square losing money is false to begin with. Federation Square is running at a deficit of four million dollars. That’s the cost of four average Melbourne homes.”

One line of the narrative has been the drop of visitor numbers by a million over four years.

“It dropped from 11 to 10 million, how is 10 million visitors a failure? Heaven forbid – something not being 100 per cent capacity 100 per cent of the time,” Mr De Hoedt said.

“The Melbourne Cricket Ground is empty and locked up 99 per cent of the time.”

“The funding model has hurt it. Four million dollars is loose change for the government.”

Federation Square is currently required to be “financially viable” on its own terms, which means operating on a profit motive. But it has only ever run at a deficit.

But Our City Our Square rejects seeing this as failure, and rather believe the profit margin is an unhealthy metric for public spaces. 

In the same article in The Age decrying the drop of foot traffic, a restaurant proprietor based in Federation Square said there had been a 75 per cent drop in events in the square over the past two years. Fewer events meant less visitors and less money means less events.

This seems a lot like a chicken and egg scenario. 

Mr Tribe told CBD News management would determine its position concerning both operation and capital funding “in due course” over the review.

“The decrease in foot traffic over the past few years is a focus for us. We operate in a more competitive world now (Cato Square, Melbourne Quarter, Docklands, lawns of the Library),” he said.

“However, our event programming for the square is aimed at increasing the number of event-activated days so we would expect our visitation numbers to improve over time.”

The public consultation aspect has been welcomed, as the surprise announcement of the Apple plans in 2017 and the lack of consultation since was one significant source of criticism.

But it is unclear what form this will take.

Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley told CBD News: “The consultation program is currently being developed with the co-chairs Jill Garner and Tim Eddy. I encourage everyone to have their say on this important public and cultural space.”

Tania Davidge, president of Our City Our Square, said the group would like to see representatives from “heritage, architecture and design, people from arts and culture, and with events and hospitality experience, and we’ll put ourselves forward as a community representative”.

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