What could be more Melbourne?

By Tristan Davies - Melbourne Heritage Action

A modest pedestrian arcade in one of the “little” streets, with a semi-secret entrance into the ornate Royal Arcade lined by affordable, no frills multicultural food and a decades-old family shoe repair business, next to an iconic little laneway bar making use of the tiny alcove serving local craft beers and cocktails in jars, guarding another semi-secret club for live electronic music and experimental performances upstairs … what could be more Melbourne than this?

Sadly, it might be more Melbourne at the moment to demolish all of this for an upmarket hotel with “luxury” shops, with the Hub Arcade, Chuckle Park Bar and New Guernica venue described above set to make way for yet another development that could exist anywhere in the world.

Plans have just been submitted that will see the 1960s era arcade and its neighbouring laneway demolished and replaced by a luxury hotel up to the height limit of 40 metres.

Alongside the recent demolition of the Palace Theatre and Greater Union Cinema, likely soon to be joined by the Theosophical Building and one entire side of Union Lane alongside the Walk Arcade, all for hotels and Airbnb rooms, it seems like developers in Melbourne are keen to demolish everything that makes our CBD unique and worth visiting and coming to stay in a hotel in the first place.

The Hub Arcade, built in 1966 as an attempt to ply trade from the Royal Arcade next door, is hardly Melbourne’s best example of mid-century architecture, indeed failing to gain heritage protection in comparative analysis to other more important mid-century buildings recently listed by the Hoddle Grid Heritage Review. 

But it clearly has some vintage character, and contributes context and scale to the Little Collins St streetscape and neighbouring Block and Royal Arcades. It is also the kind of low-rise, mundane but characterful building with quirky features and low-rent spaces that makes Melbourne’s CBD a great place, and saved us from the decades of catch up cities like Sydney have done to bring back more than just 9-5 office workers and tourists to a city that knocked down all similar buildings for offices and hotels.

Especially now as we talk about the post-COVID recovery, with international tourism potentially not at pre-COVID levels for a few years at least, what does Melbourne need more? Unique outdoor laneway bars, multiple pedestrian routes and live music spaces, or a hotel built for visitors that aren’t coming?

If Melbourne’s laneway core is going to continue to be a liveable, visitable place in the future, built for more than just luxury tourism and quick lunch breaks, unassuming older buildings like the Hub Arcade have to continue to play a role in our heritage and cultural eco-system, and not simply be allowed to disappear to the allure of short term profit promised in tourism numbers and glossy luxury marketing •

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