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What’s behind the lights?

Unpopular plans rear their heads

11 Dec 2019

Unpopular plans rear their heads Image

By David Schout and Sean Car

Two controversial developments in Southbank Village have re-emerged with updated plans for larger towers than what were originally approved.

The owners of properties at 135 Sturt St and 22-24 Wells Place/31 Coventry St, which both hold existing planning approvals for towers more than 60 metres high, each submitted amended plans last month.

Evolve Development has applied for additional height and reduced setbacks on its approved building, formerly owned by architecture firm Hayball, metres from the heritage Malthouse Theatre, while Headland Properties has returned with a 70-metre proposal for its laneway site on Wells Place behind the Guilfoyle.

In October, Evolve applied directly to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to raise the already-approved 18-storey building to 19 storeys and to reduce setbacks on the side and front of the building by one and two metres respectively.

If approved, the changes would see the mixed-use building rise from 206 residential apartments to 216.

Local lobby group Save Dodds Street’s Eileen Vamos said the new developer’s move was a further slap in the face for local residents who had long campaigned to keep the Southbank Village area low-rise.

“The developer’s action of going to VCAT is really disappointing. It is sheer greed and a lack of insight into the cultural value of the Melbourne Arts Precinct,” she said. “There is nothing visually appealing about a 19-level wall of glass towering over Sturt St, Dodds St and the Malthouse Theatre.”

Southbank Residents' Association (SRA) president Tony Penna said, "Most disappointing that after much effort by the community to have this unwelcome tower's built form to at least attempt to comply with the planning scheme, the new owner appears to have total disregard to the impact on the local environment and community."

Meanwhile, in what was originally labelled by City of Melbourne councillors in 2016 as a “gross overdevelopment” and “one of the worst ever planning outcomes in the city,” Headland Properties is finalising its plans to redevelop land at 22-24 Wells Place and 31 Coventry St.

Its original proposal, begrudgingly approved by the council in what former Cr Stephen Mayne described as being “boxed in” by VCAT, included a 20-storey tower on a 202 sqm laneway site at 22-24 Wells Place that received 33 written objections from locals.

In 2018, a new permit was issued by the council for a 21-storey tower for 22-24 Wells Place and the adjoining site at 31 Coventry St following another VCAT order, which included 120 apartments, a retail showroom and 121 car parks.

While its latest plans have removed the showroom and reduced apartments to 27 and car parks to 78, the developer has instead added 26 commercial offices while maintaining an overall height of 70 metres at 20 storeys.

Speaking on behalf of Headlands Properties in its application, planning consultants Urbis stated: “Since the issue of this permit, the market has changed, and our client has reviewed and decided to reposition the approved development so that it provides a better mixed-use offer given its location adjacent to Melbourne’s CBD, the St Kilda Rd corridor, surrounding public open space areas and community facilities.”

“This was already described as one of the worst planning applications and for good reason,” Tony Penna said. “This is a high-rise development in a small laneway.”

“How anyone believes this development can possibly be fitting to the area, let alone liveable, is beyond us and should never have been approved in the first place.”

While bordering a special character zone, Sturt St is subject to a discretionary 40-metre height limit that has been exceeded in recent years by both the development in question at 135 Sturt St, as well as nearby at 153 Sturt St.

Both cases won approval at VCAT, despite council planning chair Cr Nicholas Reece last year describing the former as “stretching the envelope” for the unique Southbank area.

Another property, at 151 Sturt Street, has been on the market for some time but as yet, remains unsold. The developer of the 19-storey approved tower at 153 Sturt St Rothelowman, which also put its site up for sale with a permit, is also understood to be struggling in its pursuit of a buyer.

The current 18-storey permit for 135 Sturt St was issued to architecture firm Hayball, which still occupies the site for use as offices. Hayball sold the property last year to Evolve, which is now seeking an overall 396 sqm increase in gross floor area.

Notably, Evolve’s website already lists the project as comprising its desired 216 apartments, despite the current permit allowing for 206.

A practice day hearing has been scheduled at VCAT for December 13 and a merits hearing is scheduled for March 23 next year.

Early in 2018, the state government introduced new planning controls which forced developers with live applications on Sturt St to include arts and cultural uses as part of their buildings’ first four floors.

While the controls were a step in the right direction according to locals, many from the Save Dodds Street group expressed frustration with the lack of protection against high-rise towers.

Minister for Planning Richard Wynne opted against reintroducing mandatory height controls along Sturt St as part of planning scheme amendment C270 in 2016.

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