The idea to allow a developer, in this case the Becton Corporation, to have a say in the planning guidelines that would govern its development site, was a 1998 Council strategy to appease a hostile Planning Minister. Minister Rob Maclellan had a penchant for overruling local planning decisions in favour of large development corporations, such as Becton. When Councillors took the bold step to refuse, outright, the developer’s audacious 38-storey tower in December 1998, they proposed establishing a Working Group, to determine, in consultation, a draft Building Envelope Plan and design objectives for the site.
Esplanade Alliance had championed the idea at the Panel Hearing, which reviewed Council’s Amendment C5 in August 1999, to ensure local decision-making prevailed against State interference and its tower-vision expressed in Gateway to the Bay.
In 2000, under a new State Government, which limited ministerial intervention and gave planning control back to local councils, involving the developer in reviewing height controls and other planning guidelines on its development site seemed less desirable.
But the idea had taken root. Becton wrote to Council shortly after the September State election, urging it “to pursue the proposal for a Working Group to be convened to consider the future development of the Esplanade Hotel site.”
The Panel Report of December 1999 had recommended a working group be convened.
The first meeting of the Esplanade Hotel Working Group was on 25 May 2000. Becton had three seats at the table, the Esplanade Alliance two. There were four Councillors, including David Brand, various council officers and a representative from the Department of Infrastructure. Former head of the Urban Land Authority, John Lawson, was chair. At the last minute Becton nominated architect Dimity Reed, urban designer Stuart Niven, and planning strategist Chris Gallagher for its three seats at the table.
The Working Group’s aim was to recommend appropriate design and development controls for the site, taking into account the impact of the future development and use on the Hotel’s operational management and the Hotel’s importance in Melbourne’s musical and cultural life. It was also asked to consider how these uses could be maintained and supported into the future. The Working Group’s findings would form the basis of a planning amendment. It met fifteen times between May and October and its report was presented to Council on 2 November 2000. (Discussion notes from its meetings are available from Council via FOI request.)
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Working Group did not reach consensus on all key issues. It did agree, however, on key values, even though it did not agree on how they might be achieved.
The Working Group agreed the Esplanade Hotel was a cultural icon that should be sustained and protected.
It unanimously confirmed the Espy’s heritage and cultural contribution to St Kilda’s identity. It expressed concern about the hotel’s state of disrepair and urged urgent investment in the physical fabric of the building, acknowledging Becton’s claim that this would require an element of cross subsidisation from any new development on the site. In an innovative move, the Working Group recognised other stakeholders might have a key role to play in ensuring the Espy’s culture continued to flourish. It canvassed a range of ownership and management options for the hotel proper, including a Community Trust to purchase or lease the hotel. This was a tremendous win for the Esplanade Alliance, who had brought the idea to the table.
The Working Group agreed an absolute height limit should apply to the Esplanade Hotel site.
Whilst the Working Group did not reach a consensus on what the height limit should be, it did agree to the concept of an overall, absolute agreed height limit. At the time, a height control of six storeys applied to the site – confirmed in August 2000 when Council adopted Amendment C5 pending the outcome of the Working Group.
Becton’s representatives argued for a 22-storey limit, to accentuate the prominence of the site. The developer's high-rise vision had began with a desire to create a 38-storey landmark in 1998, then a 27-storey bookend in 1999. At the Working Group in 2000 Becton championed a 22-storey ‘hinge’ to emphasise the site's position on The Esplanade. To achieve such emphasis, Becton team argued, the new tower should be allowed to exceed, by 1.5 times, the height of the neighbouring 15-storey Arrandale apartments.
Becton based its high-rise rationale on the site’s topography, using descriptions such as ‘axial alignment with the pier’, ‘landform height’ and ‘position at a change of direction’, and relied on the concept that only grand gestures are capable of exemplifying good design.
The Esplanade Alliance conceded a modest increase from six to eight storeys in order to secure, through a cross subsidy from the new development, the hotel’s cultural longevity and the long-term physical viability of the hotel building itself. It reasoned that slightly higher controls had been applied successfully to Fitzroy Street without diminishing the human scale of St Kilda.
The group based its position on St Kilda’s relationship to its streets. It argued that St Kilda’s low-rise, human-scale housing stock, represented by a diverse collection of walk-up flats, converted mansions and working-class cottages, had created a densely populated locality and a community with close connections to the streets. The streets had become the focus of public life, for leisure, for communication, for consumption, and for all sorts of activities, giving the area a gritty urban feel and pulse unrecognisable in any other part of Melbourne. It argued that the debate over the scale of development on the Espy site was as much about shaping the future character of St Kilda as it was about the design of an individual building. They stressed tht there is a point at which human scale would be lost in any large-scale development, and with it the street life and character so ingrained in Melbourne’s idea of St Kilda.
Read a comparison of the different views on height put forward by Becton Corporation and by Esplanade Alliance.
The Working Group was divided on heritage.
The hotel, especially the section fronting The Esplanade, and other elements of the site, including Baymor Court (as representative of the Spanish Mission style), were acknowledged to be of local heritage significance. All members supported the retention of the main hotel building, but not of Baymor Court and other buildings. It was argued that commercial reality meant some form of redevelopment would be needed on the site to provide an economic basis for refurbishing the Espy. And thus it would not be practical to continue to press for the retention of these structures.
The Esplanade Hotel Working Group report singled out the work by Councillor David Brand as providing an adequate basis on which to settle design/height issues. Councillor Brand had proposed a preferred eight-storey height limit and an absolute height limit of ten storeys.
At its 27 November meeting, Council voted to accept the report and to prepare a draft Planning Scheme Amendment for the Esplanade Hotel site based on the group’s work.
The Working Group's findings led to the drafting of Amendment C25 to the Port Phillip Planning Scheme to protect the Espy's culture. It led, also, to the start of a community campaign to separate the hotel from the development potential of its backyard, in order to ensure the Espy's long-term viability and survival.