Walls go up on CBD space

By Shane Scanlan

The walls have gone up around previously accessible public space in the south-west of the city as this quadrant of the CBD continues to lose ground.

The trend towards corporatisation of publicly-available spaces has accelerated in recent years, with thousands of square metres being lost in the last year alone.

Consultants Urbis found last year that the south west quadrant of the CBD had access to the least open space in the CBD.

The City of Melbourne pays lip service to the importance of public space for a rapidly increasing CBD population, but has supported each of the three examples shown here.

The public is most disadvantaged by the loss of 2500sqm of sun-drenched, north-facing plaza in front of the old Suncorp building at 447 Collins St.

Cbus purchased the island block bounded by Market, Collins and William streets and Flinders Lane and now has plans approved for a 41-storey development, which straddles most of the area.

While the public will still be able to access about 2000sqm of the site, most of it comprises internal retail malls and thoroughfares.

The council intends to add a further 1500sqm to the mix by closing half of the adjoining Market St.  This is a welcome repositioning of existing public space and goes somewhat towards compensating the public for the loss.

And the council should feel obliged to provide compensation too.  In 1960, the council leased the site for 99 years to the National Mutual Life Association. But in 1992 it sold the freehold, extinguishing its rights to insist on any future public open space there.

Work has started at 381 Little Collins St where a similarly sun-drenched little pocket is being converted to mostly commercial purposes – again, with the blessing of the City of Melbourne in 2015.

About 90 per cent of the 1000 sqm of the unshaded space is being lost as retail moves into the plaza.

Public open space on the privately-owned property will be halved to 631 sqm.  Of this, 160 sqm will be landscaped (but shaded), 360 sqm will be shaded public space and 111 sqm will be unshaded public space.

And on the corner of Collins and King streets, the formerly open forecourt of the Rialto Towers is busily being converted to commercial and retail purposes.

Another estimated 1000sqm of public accessible space is being lost – again, with the blessing of the City of Melbourne.

This matter did not even come before councillors for consideration or public input.  Rather, it was determined by officers operating under delegation in September, 2013.

According to heritage architect Peter Barrett, the rationale for the demolition of the classical Robbs Building in 1980 was to open up a huge public glass atrium at the base of the towers.

Mr Barrett bemoaned the further sacrificing of the historical Robbs Annex as part of the current development.

And Mr Barrett pointed out a turnaround in corporate culture in the last 50 years or so in regard to the provision of public space in the CBD.

“Corporations back in the ’60s and ’70s were proud to give to the public open space as part of their developments.  These days, they are intent on taking it back to make more money,” he said.

“They don’t do anything anymore unless there is a dollar in it.”

The Urbis study of access to open space found that each worker in the south west quadrant of the city had access to 1.9 sqm of open space.  This was the worst performing quadrant in the city, with workers in the north west having access to 2.9sqm, those in the north east having 6.3 sqm and workers in the south east having the best access with 6.8 sqm.

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