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Skyscrapers to challenge Melbourne height restrictions

The Age

Shrine of the times: why marvellous Melbourne’s landmarks are at risk
Jason Dowling
March 12, 2011

THEY are some of the city’s most prized streetscapes, dominated by landmarks that have defined the Melbourne identity, yet, surprisingly, few are protected from intrusive, overshadowing developments.

One such site, the Shrine of Remembrance, completed in 1934 and considered sacred as a memorial to the fallen, has become a sad symbol of encroachment.

For decades piecemeal council and state planning laws have failed to protect its special place in Melbourne’s landscape.

Planning Minister Matthew Guy had to intervene recently to impose height restrictions after some of its influential neighbours objected to another tower being built on nearby Albert Road.

Now the National Trust is calling for more mandatory height restrictions in the city, warning that other architectural treasures, such as St Paul’s Cathedral and Victoria Market, are at risk.

Some planning experts believe the city faces the greatest challenge to its heritage and character since the 1970s.

The Age revealed this week that developers are eyeing the Palace Theatre (formerly the Metro nightclub) site in Bourke Street for a new residential skyscraper that would be five times the discretionary height limits for the Bourke Hill precinct.

Planning consultants behind the development are using the controversial Windsor Hotel redevelopment decision to support their case for the Palace site.

The National Trust’s architectural historian, Rohan Storey, said exceptions to height restrictions were setting precedents for other developments.

”Every breach of a height limit just leads to another one,” Mr Storey said, calling for the reinstatement of mandatory height limits that existed in many areas of the CBD until 1997.

He said there could be discretion for exceeding those limits in some cases.

A soon-to-be-released Melbourne City Council review of CBD building height restrictions and heritage protection is expected to recommend toughening height controls in sensitive locations.

Mr Storey nominated the area around St Paul’s Cathedral as one in desperate need of urgent protection. He said the height limit for the area was ”made discretionary for some reason” and a 77-metre tower being built nearby in Flinders Lane was ”going to change views into the city forever”.

Mr Storey also called for urgent mandatory height limits for the parliamentary precinct where the owners of the Windsor Hotel have won planning approval for a 91-metre tower. The discretionary height limit for the precinct is 23 metres.

But former state architect John Denton, whose firm Denton Corker Marshall designed the Windsor redevelopment, said judging a building by its height was a simplistic measurement of quality.

”It is the quality of the product that is important, it is not height, it’s not bulk,” he said. ”Some people can make a tall building work better, others can make it completely crude.”

He said prescriptive planning rules might not deliver the best design outcome, adding that ”if it was possible to treat each development as a negotiable outcome you would tend to get better results overall, but you would need very good people making the judgment”.

The chairman of Melbourne City Council’s planning committee, Peter Clarke, said the council review of city height limits would recommend tougher controls. ”Overall there are more controls and stricter height limits in what has been proposed.”

Some planning experts would welcome more stringent rules.

The professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne, Philip Goad, said Melbourne needed a design vision rather than design by incremental planning decisions.

”Melbourne is sophisticated enough to have an urban design vision of itself,” he said. ”We’re lacking that at the moment so we are relying I think almost too heavily on faith in good design,” he said.

Unlike many developers, Lorenz Grollo from Equiset thinks Melbourne does not need more skyscrapers.

”Tall buildings over 40 or 50 storeys I tend to question,” he said. ”Melbourne has ample opportunities for development. We have got an abundance of parcels of land and before we start going too high most of those parcels of land should be redeveloped.”

Others just want Melbourne’s treasured sites protected before they are relegated to the shadows in a growing city.

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