Goodbye, Greyhound: A local speaks up

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By Damien Easton

St Kilda has always been a place of change and transformation. It is this transformation that has kept St Kilda adaptable and allowed her to survive the boom and bust cycles of Melbourne. What’s different about the changes we are seeing now is that the drivers of change are no longer coming from within but from without – the market forces of property development and investment are seeing the rapid sterilisation of local culture, pre-existing amenity and historical built-form that gives St Kilda her individual character.

This tension was laid bare recently with the news of the iconic Greyhound Hotel’s closure. The GH has lived many lives in her 160-plus years, most notably as an important centre for LGBTIQ culture. Perhaps it didn’t surprise us that the bar would go the way of so many others in the area. However, what many locals did not know was that a demolition order had been granted in early 2016. There are plans for the construction of an 8-storey apartment tower on the GH site and as many upset locals have said, it is not aesthetically sensitive to the surrounds or the history of the site.

St Kilda resident Caroline?Thurling organised the recent petition, which drew thousands of comments from the wider community and in December 2016, prompted Council to seek approval from Planning Minister Richard Wynne for an interim heritage order.

The GH management media release stated that the redevelopment of the site is not the reason for closure and that “keeping the GH hotel open for the community has always been the priority of the owners. Unfortunately this is now no longer a viable option.”

What concerned me most, were the comments of community members in response. It was clear to me that this statement had succeeded in confusing people by conflating the viability of the commercial tenancy (the gay bar) and the viability of the physical structure itself. These are not the same concepts.

The building itself is sound and intact, and could be repurposed for offices, galleries or even a good old-fashioned dive bar! By their own word, the “viability” is the primary concern. There is an opportunity here for the owners to think creatively and lease the space to new tenants who can do something different. Destroying this historic building and replacing it with another apartment tower is surely not the only way to service the landlord’s bottom line.

This isn’t about an anti-development philosophy; this is about being anti-inappropriate development. The height, aesthetics and impact of a new development on the surrounding community and structures must be emphasised in order to benchmark and define “appropriateness”. At the moment, there is no measure for this and the community’s values and sentiment are not reflected in the CoPP planning scheme or review process. Instead, our voices were heard in the petition and it was clear that many locals have had enough: the proposed development would result in the loss of the aesthetically important GH building and would be insensitive to the historic role it played in the community.

Indeed, St Kilda has always had that aesthetic cachet – a sort of seaside wonderland full of maze-like gardens, bridges and rotundas; the places where people meet, talk, laugh, cry and generally play out the story of their lives. And all this was by design, too. Carlo Catani’s vision for the St Kilda Foreshore in the 1800s defined the area’s promenade culture and emphasised beautification through built-form. His work remains a testament to strong aesthetic sensibilities and carefully considered design that transcends mere “construction”. However, after the mass demolitions of the 70s and 80s and the escalation of the property investment machine in the 2000s, aesthetic values have been discarded in favour of policy-driven intensive land development.

The fight for the GH is just the latest skirmish in what is clearly a larger battle playing out in Melbourne. At the heart of these confrontations is the flawed Melbourne 2030 plan from the Bracks era. The plan created “Major Activity Centres (MACs)” with a skewed policy outlook designed to usher in a new age of “growth”. But here’s the rub: MACs are just a concept and what looks great on paper doesn’t necessarily work. Fitzroy Street is a great example. Soon after its classification as a MAC and the installation of a tram superstop, the street plummeted into an economic depression from which it has not recovered. The Melbourne 2030 Plan sent similarly destructive shockwaves across many other suburbs. St Kilda is hit hardest because here the developers are met with a relatively pliant Council and exploit the many flaws in the local Planning Scheme.

We are living through a large-scale policy experiment, one which has enormous repercussions for the protection of our oldest and most significant buildings, and the communities that grow and interact within them and around them.

Soon, the Greyhound Hotel may be a memory and an 8-storey tower will loom over St Kilda town hall and our elected Councillors who make their decisions within it. Could there be any greater symbol of the power developers have over our elected representatives and our community?

Well, maybe….

Right now, Melbourne’s 130-year old Windsor Hotel – a sister of St Kilda’s own iconic George Hotel – will soon have a controversial skyscraper addition. Again, “viability of the business” was the excuse. And again, the tower will loom over State Parliament and our elected leaders like Brutus over Caesar.

Without urgent reforms, we cannot protect significant structures like the Greyhound Hotel from inappropriate development. St Kildans used to be known for their activist grit but we’ve dropped the ball. Indeed, even our octogenarian pearl-wearing friends over in Hawthorn East have demonstrated far more grunt.

If our community fails to unite on issues like the Greyhound Hotel redevelopment, and fails to demand reform from our local Councillors and State Government, we risk losing more of these historic gems. Every concession is another step on the road to cultural oblivion.

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