In a last-ditch chance to secure a better outcome regarding the Besen Gertrude redevelopment at 1-9 Gertrude Street Fitzroy, a group of residents has appealed to the federal Minister for the Environment and Water, Tania Plibersek. Although planning approval has been granted for the proposed development as required under Victorian legislation, the residents are arguing that the development will have an adverse impact on the World Heritage Environment Area surrounding the Royal Exhibition Building (REB) and Carlton Gardens. As the REB and the Gardens are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the immediate area around them is seen as a buffer zone and an important element of the protected assets. Put more simply protecting a major historical build and garden but putting an unsympathetic new building nearby that blocks views of the REB and significantly changes the streetscape isn’t really in the spirit of World Heritage listing.
Now, although most of the decision-making affecting 1-9 Gertrude Street lies in Victoria, an action that can have a significant impact on the World Heritage values of a declared World Heritage property should be referred to the federal Minister for the Environment and Water. This did not happen so the residents are approaching the Minister to make a decision. The RHSV has supported the attempt, with Chair of the Heritage Committee Charles Sowerwine calling on Ms. Plibersek to ensure the developer refers to the development proposal as required by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. The chances of getting the proposed development reassessed may not be good, but the importance of the site, and the implications for development in other World Heritage Environment Areas if it goes ahead unchanged, mean that it is certainly worth a go.
A Setback for the World Heritage Listed Royal Exhibition Building
The RHSV and other supporters of protecting of the integrity of the World and National Heritage Listed Royal Exhibition Building (REB) site experienced a significant setback when VCAT approved, with very little modification, a proposal to redevelop 1-9 Gertrude Street Fitzroy, near the corner of Gertrude and Nicholson Streets.
Taken as a whole, the importance of this site, incorporating the REB, the Carlton Gardens and their surrounds, cannot be overstated. In the words of the eminent UK historian Professor David Cannadine ‘The expositional ensemble . . . is a unique, magnificent and outstanding survivor from this great age of great exhibitions. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world today’. This significance was recognised in its nomination as a World Heritage site.
Once an impressive row of mid-19th century three storey terraces known as Granite Terrace, 1-9 Gertrude Street is currently occupied by a two-story chocolate brick 1974 office and warehouse which, at best, could be described as functional. Redevelopment of site therefore could be positive, but the building proposed has some major drawbacks.
More is Less
As is often the case in redevelopments, the design for the site involves a significantly larger building than the one it replaces. What is being proposed is a five storey mixed use – shops, art gallery and one residence – building. The brick structure is monolithic bordering on brutalist and at odds with largely intact Victorian buildings beside and opposite it.
Accentuating its imposing bulk is the lack of offset on the Gertrude Street frontage. As the impression supplied with the planning application shows, it is literally in your face.
Some other problems
Assessing the impact of the proposed building needs to also consider its effect on the surrounding area. Recognising that the importance of a historical building is also influenced by its physical surrounds, the area adjacent to the REB and Carlton Gardens has been designated a World Heritage Environs Area. This area includes the significantly intact 19th century Nicholson Street streetscape opposite the Carlton Gardens, and the cable tram engine house on south west corner of Gertrude and Nicholson Streets. As the Yarra City Council’s Heritage Advisor stated, ‘the east side of Nicholson Street … is a highly intact Victorian and Edwardian streetscape … free from visual intrusion caused by non-original elements … It is one of the epicentres of architectural heritage significance in Fitzroy’. Importantly, the Advisor emphasised that there is currently nothing that extends above the current Victorian skyline.
The proposed building will change that significantly. At a height of 22.5 metres it will be substantially higher than any buildings in the immediate area other than St. Vincent’s hospital and one other narrow structure. Only by reducing it to three stories could the proposed building be prevented from looming above the Royal Terraces fronting Nicholson Street. Further, in its current form, the building would dominate protected views towards the REB along Gertrude Street and Marion Lane.
The proposed five-storey building would also protrude into views from the REB’s 360-degree Dome Promenade, which was renovated so visitors could experience an unparalleled view of streetscapes not unlike those seen by visitors to the 1880 and 1888 Exhibitions. If the proposed new building goes ahead, the view toward Fitzroy, now intact, would be spoiled.
In short, it is very hard to consider the proposed development of the 1-9 Gertrude Street sight as being sympathetic to its immediate surrounds or the historic buildings nearby.
Developers:1; Melbourne’s heritage:0
The proposal went to Yarra Council, which refused a permit. The developer then went to VCAT. Heritage Planner Ian Wight of the RHSV Heritage Committee represented the RHSV at the hearing, which ran from 30 August to 3 September.
VCAT handed down its decision on 29 November. In the decision it explicitly acknowledged the importance of the Gertrude Street site.
` This location is one of City of Yarra’s and Melbourne’s landmark positions, not just by virtue of abutting the World Heritage Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens and not just because its proximity contributes to the World Heritage values, but also as one of the most high-profile entrances to Fitzroy, the first suburb of Melbourne.
But despite this, and the objections of at least 72 parties including the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, the Fitzroy Residents Association, the National Trust of Australia, and the Protectors of Public Lands Victoria, VCAT approved the development, with only a reduction in height of 1.5 metres from the original proposal. It concluded that the proposed building ‘has been carefully crafted’ in relation to the heritage importance of the site and ‘represents an appropriate infill insertion into this context’. Gertrude Street and Melbourne more widely is significantly poorer for this decision.