New St Kilda Triangle plans unveiled

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By Daniel Wilson

The frequent knifings in federal politics might be a great spectacle, but nothing has been more exciting to watch than the debate over this prime parcel of land at the St Kilda foreshore next to the Palais Theatre.

It got quite heated from 2007 to 2009, preserved for history in a documentary titled Triangle Wars. Community opposition to the development drew national media coverage, it spurred vocal protests at Council meetings, banners hung from balconies across St Kilda, and celebrities such as Ron Barassi, Dave Hughes and Rachel Griffith weighed in. It both destroyed and created political careers.

With a view of not repeating past mistakes, Port Phillip Council has a new plan. Last month it displayed the Interim Masterplan for the St Kilda Triangle at the Esplanade Market and St Kilda Library. It was subsequently adopted at the Ordinary Meeting of Council at St Kilda Town Hall.

Earlier in the year four options were presented at community co-design workshops. These were a revamped public park, a natural amphitheatre, an expanded seaside playground, and a singular cultural institution.

According to Acting Mayor Anita Horvath, “In what has been one of the biggest community consultations held by Council, we have been asking our community since 2010 what they think would be an appropriate redevelopment of this key location to draw even more visitors to St Kilda.

“I can assure our community that all uses of the site will be consistent with the Cultural Charter, which was developed with the community in 2104, and built on the [2012 St Kilda Triangle Vision Framework]”.

The Interim Masterplan proposes public open space of 16,000 m², a cultural institution of 17,000 m²; a boutique hotel of 3,500 m²; anciliary uses (eg. retail/ food and beverage outlets) of 3,000 m² and underground car parking for 350 vehicles.

But no one is grabbing a shovel just yet. Over the next two years Council will need to work out the details, cost the project, and find funding for it. Construction isn’t projected to start until 2018. National media attention has subsided since the furore of 2008, but progress seems painfully slow.

Proof that investigative reporting isn’t completely dead, a lone voice booms from the old cathedrals of journalism. Clay Lukas, City Editor at The Age, last month revealed that Council is courting the National Gallery of Victoria to build a gallery on the St Kilda Triangle site.

The scope of the Interim Masterplan allows for an unspecified large cultural institution wrapped around the Palais Theatre of up to five stories and 30,000m² of floor space. But the document makes plain “its frontage needs to be respectful of the Palais and then by extension to the Luna Park façade”.

The document argues “the community was generally positive with an acceptance that the Council should advocate for a large cultural institution with iconic architecture to the State Government if the opportunity arises.”

Touted as a potential site for a new contemporary art centre, the Triangle could become a destination and an experience for the people of Melbourne, as well as national and international visitors.

But Clay Lukas points out that such a large structure would likely have some impact on views. He is also critical of the time and cost it has taken to get to this point.

At this point luring the National Gallery of Victoria to St Kilda Triangle is just an ambition. Acting Mayor Cr Anita Horvath told St Kilda News, “We understand the NGV is looking to establish a new contemporary gallery. These are early days and there have been no commitments.”

In March, Lucas wrote an article titled “St Kilda Triangle: 16 years, $9 million down the drain, zero result”. It was then revealed that Council had spent $9 million to scrap the old Triangle development plan and come up with a new plan.

The site has remained a concrete carpark since 2007 when The Palace nightclub mysteriously burned down following the operator being evicted from the venue.

Since then, Council has collected $1 million per year from parking fees which has gone some way to recouping the $9 million spent on not developing the site. A pittance compared to the $420 million it cost the State Government to scrap the East-West Link, but none the less a heavy burden for a City Council.

So what was so bad about the last plan for St Kilda Triangle? It was set to become a $400 million retail, hotel and tourist destination. It was to include a TAFE college, restaurants and bars, open public spaces, and was to be a central node for the disparate parts of St Kilda.

A report commissioned by the Council in 2008 found the redevelopment would inject about $600 million into the economy, support up to 2600 jobs and become a major tourist drawcard.

The task of rejuvenating the foreshore site had been left to Council, who partnered with a private developer. The considerable cost of building an underground car park, refurbishing the Palais, and creating public spaces would be offset by commercial spaces.

A vocal protest ensued that labelled the plan a ‘Chadstone by the Sea’. The developer responded with a redesign reducing the retail space from 23,000 m² to 19,000m². Alas, no dice.

The movement culminated with almost all Councillors in support of the plan being voted out in 2008. Subsequently a radically different Council paid the developer to rip up the contract and walk away.

For some residents the narrative was plain as day: a dysfunctional Council, in bed with a big bad developer, was going to turn a triangle of crown land in St Kilda into a big ugly hotel and shopping and entertainment complex. Local opposition was intense, and the community group unChain St Kilda was formed to stop the project.

UnChain St Kilda dramatically changed Council in the 2008 election. Led by a charming, energetic French immigrant, Serge Thomann, unChain St Kilda achieved national notoriety in 2007 through a string of brilliantly managed media stunts. First the Queen of England, impersonated by Gerry Connolly, stood on the Triangle site and said St Kilda foreshore was charming and asked that it be kept that way. Then, at a design conference, a Ned Kelly impersonator ambushed Justin Madden, Victoria’s Planning Minister at the time.

These stunts embodied clichés that were easily and quickly understood, be it the Queen protecting crown land or Ned Kelly standing up to the authorities. They were visually interesting enough to make it onto the front pages and into the evening TV news cycle. Add to that a town hall full of angry, shouting protesters holding up placards, and the cache of celebrity advocates such as Dave Hughes and Rachel Griffith, and you have yourself an impressive movement.

Not according to Dick Gross. He was one of the proponents of this development and on the Council that approved it. The three-time Mayor explained at the time, “My fear is that if you say no too often, State Government will come in and impose a solution which will be worse. I promise you that it will be worse.”

Stephen McMillan, head of the private developer Citta Property Group, was dismissive of the protests, “Generally the people who are opposed to it are quite old … and they have nothing else to do with their lives.”

Platitudes aside, by taking on the site, the developer had taken on commitments, such as building an underground car park, decontaminating toxic waste buried under the site, and refurbishing the Palais Theatre. These commitments amounted to $60 million.

In 2008, Dick Gross was voted out of Council, and two unChain candidates, Serge Thomann and Jane Touzeau, won seats. But it was too late. The contract with the developer was binding.

UnChain however had already initiated legal proceedings at VCAT. These were dismissed in 2009. According to McMillan, “When they got in the box at VCAT they were ripped apart, and they got out of the box a quivering mess. It was good to watch. Cost us $200,000 to defend it. [….] It is annoying, but I got dusted by the courts.”

Dick Gross was similarly elated, “When the tribunal decision came out I was pleasured beyond orgasm, but it was frigid comfort.”

After the loss at VCAT, Council offered Citta Property Group a multimillion dollar settlement to abandon the project. They took the money and abandoned their $60 million commitment.

The new Council commissioned feasibility studies, conducted consultations with the community and produced the 2012 St Kilda Triangle Vision Framework. Serge Thomann told St Kilda News at the time, “The vision we have now is the vision that the community endorses and owns.”

Three years on that vision has turned into the Interim Masterplan. Costing and details are still absent.

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