Langham and ARA at loggerheads as council supports Southgate vision

By Sean Car

Southgate’s owners ARA Australia’s plans to reimagine the precinct were advanced by the City of Melbourne last month, but it didn’t come without continued objections from The Langham Hotel, as well as local businesses and residents.

While Southgate’s tenants and neighbouring residents from Quay West have made their feelings known about ARA’s plans for some time, the May 18 Future Melbourne Committee meeting saw The Langham join a growing list of opponents.

Speaking on behalf of the luxury hotel operator, which sits within the Southgate precinct, Damien Gardiner implored councillors to defer its decision on ARA’s master plan, while slamming the developer for “inadequate” consultation.

ARA is progressing plans to redevelop Southgate by constructing a new 26-storey commercial office tower at the centre of the precinct, along with 2000 sqm of publicly-accessible open space and new retail and hospitality spaces.

Addressing councillors on May 18, Mr Gardiner said The Langham had “significant concerns” regarding the “negative impacts” that the “bulk and scale” of ARA’s proposal would have on the operations of its hotel.

He added that the proposal represented an “inappropriate response” to the context of the site, and that The Langham was yet to be shown a number of detailed plans by its neighbour.

“Consultation with Langham and other parties throughout this process has been inadequate,” Mr Gardiner said.

“Langham has not seen what the final proposed form of the building will take, has not seen the easement plan, the early works plan, the staging plan or the February 2021 preliminary traffic assessment.”

“We are concerned that the development will significantly and negatively impact the operation of The Langham on a permanent basis. Sunlight to rooms will be blocked in a number of places, access to loading bays will be compromised, fire egress pathways and the impacts on those has not yet been clearly understood and mitigated.”

Quay West resident Mem Aziz also addressed the meeting, saying he and other residents continued to hold concerns with the proposal and ARA’s continued “failure” to communicate.

But the Minister of Planning Richard Wynne is the ultimate authority in determining whether a permit will be issued for what councillors agreed was a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to unlock one of Melbourne’s most important civic spaces.

The minister has also decided that an incorporated document through a planning scheme amendment is the right process in determining the outcome of ARA’s ultimate vision – meaning no third-party rights or formal consultation for affected parties.

Effectively, councillors were tasked with providing feedback to the minister on a master plan on May 18, with the final detailed plans to come back before councillors for comment at a later date once the minister approves ARA’s master plan.

And while unanimously supporting the general vision of that plan, councillors did so under an amended motion which advised the minister to refer it to the Victorian Design Review Panel (VDRP) to assess the proposal’s “massing and envelope”.

The council’s chair of planning and Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece said it was critical to get the proposal right in what was a “postcard location”.

“If we don’t get this right, the consequences for Melbourne I think are very, very significant,” he said.

“The building envelope appears to be quite large, it appears to be bigger than the other buildings in that cluster of buildings there at Southgate and it is going higher than many of them as well.”

“The massing and development envelope should go to the VDRP as well so that the minister can get feedback upon that envelope ahead of making that decision … I think that will lead us to make an even better development for this site.”

But in addressing ARA’s head of asset management Rohan Neville, who also presented to councillors at the meeting, the Deputy Lord Mayor implored the developer to undertake an “exceptional standard of community engagement”.

“There has been a real cross section of Melbourne,” Cr Reece said. “From famous restauranteurs like Lino at La Camera, from upstanding residents like Mem [Aziz], from prestigious hotel owners like The Langham; legendary hotel operators here in Melbourne.”

“They’re all coming before us saying ‘hey this consultation process has been unsatisfactory’ so I would implore ARA to really put in place exemplary consultation processes with the community, with your stakeholders going forward.”

Rohan Neville said ARA was confident its plans would deliver benefit to all stakeholder groups and that it would continue to explore the “possibility” in realising all objectives as part of its development.

“As you can appreciate this is a very complex site with a vast and varied amount of stakeholders,” Mr Neville said.

“We have tried through the processes with the City of Melbourne officers and DELWP (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) try and communicate as best as we can in relation to how we can coordinate and work together to realise the intrinsic value of this site for the greater City of Melbourne.”

“And really for us, there is an ongoing possibility to continue to work with our stakeholders to continue to realise everyone’s objectives as part of this development.”

But in highlighting a “number of positive aspects” with the Fender Katsalidis-designed proposal, Cr Reece applauded ARA’s “really strong commitment to architectural and design excellence”.

The council’s deputy chair of planning Cr Rohan Leppert also expressed his “genuine excitement” about the potential for increased permeability throughout Southgate, as well as increased public open space.

While ARA had originally sought to transfer the 2000 sqm “River Meadow” open space to the City of Melbourne, council officers instead recommended the site remain under ARA’s ownership but designed to council standards with legal agreements to govern uses.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said while the plans reflected the ambition the council had for Southgate, she too was conscious of “getting the balance right” between stakeholders and maximising the building envelope.

Rohan Neville said ARA looked forward to “rejuvenating a Melbourne icon”.

“Our vision really is for Southgate to rightfully reclaim its place as an iconic Melbourne landmark and tourist attraction,” he said.

“To also create a city-shaping development with added permeability to the neighbouring Arts Precinct and cultural institutions while improving connectivity to the broader Southbank area and beyond.”

“We do expect further engagements to be ongoing given its significance and we will look forward to carrying those out should this application be successful.” •

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