The St Kilda Triangle Wars continue

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By Daniel Wilson

Some might scoff at local government, but in truth the most interesting battlegrounds of Australian democracy are found here. This is where the action happens – this is where citizens can regularly confront their elected officials face to face – this is where ideas are allowed to clash more violently than elsewhere, and sometimes even get out of hand. Let’s not forget it was City of Fairfield Councillor Phuong Ngo who in 1994 masterminded Australia’s first political assassination.

Serge ThomannLess bloody, but just as dramatic, were the St Kilda Triangle Wars here in the City of Port Phillip. Who could forget the furore when in 2007 Council approved plans for a $365 million development on a triangle of crown land on the St Kilda foreshore? The story was so enthralling and filled with such colourful characters that an award winning feature documentary was made about it, aptly titled The Triangle Wars. (available to watch on www.theage.tv)

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 instant, and the community group unChain St Kilda was formed to stop the project.

UnChain St Kilda dramatically changed Council in the 2008 election, but four years on residents are still talking about this triangle of land, and two of the main characters are still in the fray.

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.

As though they were straight out of a political science text book, 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.

These tried and tested media manipulation techniques have been outlined as early as the 1920s by Walter Lippmann. But instead of selling cigarettes, as Lippmann once did, these techniques were now being used for good. Or were they?

Dick Gross

Dick Gross

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 is no stranger to media stunts either. Upon returning from Cambridge, where he completed a PhD, the former lawyer entered into local government. His bio proudly states that his most notorious campaign on behalf of the City of Port Phillip focussed on the evils of dog poo. Apparently, “this campaign was so indecorous that it went global and made the American CNN news and the front page of The Times”.

In the afore mentioned documentary Dick Gross seemed very comfortable in front of the camera and lauded the merits of the development. “I was part of the Council that had the culture of saying no to everything. And by saying no we got a feeling of virtuous righteousness, but we were as impotent as a pre Viagra 70 year old. We were getting nothing done.”

He went on to explain, “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 Citta Property Group, was less charismatic, “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 lost his seat on Council, and two unChain candidates, Serge Thomann and Jane Touzeau, won seats. But it was too late, the contract with the developer was binding.

By then, however, unChain 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 $5 million to abandon the project. They took the money, and so too abandoned their $60 million commitment.

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

Dick Gross was unimpressed by the document, “After so many years to have come up with so little detail is a disgrace. There is no certainty what the plan means. It lacks for so much and demonstrates why single issue parties are not to be trusted again. The unChain proposals are vague, unworkable and unpopular with everyone.”

While there are no dollar figures in the Vision document, and little else detail, Serge Thomann sees this as just one step in a larger process. “Because it is only a vision, some people might find it a little vague. If I get back on Council, I look forward to expending as much energy on developing this plan and turning it into something more real, as I did in stopping the last one. I want to create something that we can all be proud of, that will stand for generations to come.”

Gerry McLoughlin, who is standing for the seat of Carlisle Ward, and who happens to be an architect and urban planner, was unimpressed by the original Citta development, telling St Kilda News it was “preposterously overblown, [and] wrong in every way. I didn’t support it.”

But she was also unimpressed by the 2012 Vision. “The document doesn’t provide any vision. […] I think the wrong people were shaping that document, and I don’t think it showed the leadership that it needs.”

While toxic waste lurks beneath the site, the heritage listed Palais Theatre is still in need of refurbishment and the 15,000 m2 above ground car park shimmers through the St Kilda sunset.

McLoughlin told St Kilda News, “I think it is a disgrace what has happened with the Palais site”, and suggested State Government and Council both had a part to play in finding a way to refurbish it.

Neil Croker, CEO of Palais Theatre Management, told St Kilda News it is “important that the Palais continues to flourish and grow, [and] that it has money found for its long term investment”.

The underground car park also has some financial hurdles. A feasibility study published by Council in June this year stated that “without the additional revenue created by the presence of commercial space associated with the car park, the project has no financial merit”.

While inertia threatens the Triangle, Council is collecting parking fees from the site. John Middleton, who will be defending his seat of Junction Ward against Dick Gross, told St Kilda News, “Council had done well recouping the cost of compensating the developer by use of the space for car parking.”

But Dick Gross’ warning seems to ring ominously, “say no too often, State Government will come in and impose a solution which will be worse”.

While Council was developing the Fishermans Bend Planning and Economic Development Strategy, a vision for a new inner city suburb just south of the CBD, the Minister for Planning Matthew Guy re-zoned the area taking planning controls from Council.

Serge Thomann suggested, “They have taken control because they think they can achieve things faster, but we have to make sure that we are at the table talking with them and being part of the discussion and representing our constituents.”

There is also precedence with the Minister approving a 26 storey development just south of St Kilda Junction, a development that Council had rejected.

The fate of the Triangle site seems unclear at this point. The old development plan is history, Dick Gross has confirmed that to St Kilda News. But the new Vision has found a mixed reception.

Thomann is a strong candidate in Catani Ward, and at the last election Dick Gross only lost narrowly in Junction Ward to Greens candidate John Middleton. So there is a real possibility both Thomann and Gross will be on Council post election. Neither really like each other. Both are not shy about that fact either.

When asked if he would be able to work with Dick Gross on Council, Thomann told St Kilda News, “I think it would be more or less impossible because I know the way he has done things [previously] … I think the Council would be very dysfunctional. I hope people will watch the Triangle Wars to see who Dick Gross really is. At some point in the movie he says he knows he has emotional issues – that he is dealing with them by being a Councillor – but I don’t think Council should be a psychiatric ward for people with emotional issues.”

The Triangle Wars are set to continue. The next battle comes in a form of an election on October 27.

Transcripts of some of the interviews conducted for this article are available on the St Kilda News website: www.stkildanews.com

By Daniel Wilson
To comment on this article email Daniel@StKildaNews.com

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