Residents outraged over massive development, with voices “totally ignored”
A plan to build a 32-level tower above the heritage-listed Comedy Theatre has been met with concern by residents who believe it would impact the amenity of their neighbourhood.
The theatre’s owner the Marriner Group has partnered with LaSalle Investment Management in lodging a $211 million plan that proposes to redevelop the 1928-built theatre at the corner of Exhibition and Lonsdale streets with a fly tower to be built to the rear.
According to the application, which is being considered by the state government, the proposed revamp is a “unique opportunity to provide much-needed upgrade and expansion works to the Comedy Theatre and a new building which contributes to the commercial and entertainment offering of the area”. This would include a bigger stage and improved back of house facilities.
The planned tower designed by Australian firm Architectus would cantilever over the rear portion of the theatre with spaces for new rehearsal facilities, 23 levels of office space, and a restaurant, bar, and event space within its six-level podium.
However, residents of Punch Lane, which abuts the site to the east, have expressed disappointment that their say on the proposal had been “totally ignored” with fears the development would block out sunlight to their homes.
Jenny Eltham, a resident of 18 years, said there was disbelief among her neighbours that there had been no community consultation.
“It is again, a case of developers thinking that residents are not important,” she said.
“Coupled with the loss of sunlight, the noise of demolition and construction will make the 11 homes in Punch Lane uninhabitable.
“I’m totally against the proposal, I’m against how it’s been handled. Development will happen, there is a lot of land behind that building that’s not utilised … but for goodness’ sake, do it with some sort of sympathy and with some sort of discussion with the local community.”
Ms Eltham noted residents’ homes “conservatively, have at least a $22 million investment in that lane – and yet we’ve been again, totally ignored”.
“In summary they have not treated the Punch Lane community with dignity, respect, fairness, or courtesy.”
Another resident, Wendy Syme, agreed, saying any large-scale development would “definitely have a potential negative impact”.
“We’re trying to protect what we have here, and they have not consulted with anyone,” she said.
“Punch Lane is so unique in the sense that it’s the last of the laneways that actually have standalone townhouses rather than apartment buildings.”
Ms Syme also cited concerns that the proposed tower would potentially devalue their homes, while construction would create issues around noise and street access.
The application maintained there would be “No unreasonable amenity impacts will occur to the surrounding area” while Punch Lane and Lonsdale St would have “improved visual and physical activation”.
The plans also said development “provides us with a template for improving the urban condition of this laneway interface even further” including a proposal to open Punch Lane by “increasing pedestrian traffic and draw pedestrian activity back into the space”.
“Increasing the density of greenery and street level treatment brings life to the interface, while the orientation of our proposed lobby grades into the existing laneway topography,” it said.
But residents say this was “all empty words … they have not communicated with any of the residents of Punch Lane.” They also claim the City of Melbourne had known about the plan since May 30 but had not informed residents.
The site at 222-240 Exhibition St is separated by Punch Lane and adjoins LaSalle’s 26-level office tower at 222 Exhibition St, which was built in 1988.
According to Ms Eltham, seven townhouses in Punch Lane were imbedded into the structure and carpark of 222 Exhibition St at the time of being built, which she questioned, “How are they going to separate the [concrete] slab and not affect our homes?”
“If they’re making any grilling noise, is it amplified in the townhouses because the noise travels through the slab? What’s going to happen?”
City of Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece said the council would assess the application as a referral authority; however, the Minister for Planning would make the ultimate decision if it went ahead.
“As people would expect, council will consider the application very carefully,” he said.
“The Comedy Theatre has operated there since 1928 and is one of Melbourne’s much-loved venues. Any application to redevelop the site must respect its heritage and hopefully enhance its operation as a theatre.”
The application stated the tower had been designed “so as to respond sensitively to the heritage fabric of the theatre”.
“These works require demolition to the rear of the heritage place, being the back of the stage area – including the rear wall of the structure and a portion of the southern wall – as well as several internal walls and the existing fly tower.”
EastEnders residents’ group president Dr Stan Capp said the heritage value of the Comedy Theatre had to be protected “at all costs” and also “the rights of residents to a reasonable way of life”.
Residents 3000 president Rafael Camillo said it was “very concerning” residents had not been consulted, which he believed was a reflection of a “really poor planning process”.
Brendan Gleeson, a professor of urban planning at the University of Melbourne, said it was not obvious from the proposal materials why the integration of an office tower and theatre would improve the operation of the latter, adding “heritage must be a leading consideration for any proposed changes to the site”.
“This sounds like the development tail wagging the planning dog. From the public interest perspective, the primary emphasis should be on the theatre’s needs, including enhancements that will ensure its good operation and longevity,” he said.
“Given the theatre’s significant social and economic benefits to the city and the state there is a strong case for public funding of these needs, perhaps with the state or council taking some equity in the operation.”
Marriner Group and LaSalle Investment Management did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.
Caption: Residents in Punch Lane are disappointed they have not been consulted over a plan to build a tower next to their homes. Picture: Murray Enders.