Councillors met at 9:00 pm on Tuesday 15 December 1998 to consider Amendment L68/C11 to the Port Phillip Planning Scheme – Becton’s proposed 38-storey tower for the Esplanade Hotel site.
They had three options: to accept it, to refer it to an independent Panel appointed by the Minister for Planning, or to abandon it.
Acceptance was ruled out. There were too many opposing submissions. To reject the amendment outright was a risk under the current Minister for Planning. Were he to override the decision and call in the proposal, the Council and the public would have no further input. Referring the amendment to a Panel would allow Council and opponents to continue to be involved. This seemed the safest option.
The Esplanade Alliance pushed for outright rejection. Nineteen prominent Melburnians urged Port Phillip Council to abandon the Becton plan. After all, it was a legally enshrined option. And if Council were not to use it now – now when it had an overwhelming number of objections – then when?
The planning tussle between, on the one side a powerful redeveloper and a pro-tower State Government and, on the other, a local council and a vocal community, captivated Melbourne and national media.
Radio news started to follow the story on Monday 14 December, alerting its listeners to the upcoming meeting and decision.
On the morning of Tuesday 15 December, both metropolitan papers published stories about the imminent decision.
St Kilda tower rethink, Ian Munro, The Age, 15 December 1998, page 6.
Old war, new breed of warrior, Denise Gadd, The Age, 15 December 1998, page 14.
11th hour bid to save hotel, Genevieve Lally, Herald Sun, 15 December 1998, page 22.
Radio news across major networks counted down to the Council meeting.
That evening, in front of a packed hall, Council voted unanimously to reject the proposal and called on the Planning Minister Rob Maclellan not to intervene in the decision - to a standing ovation.
To soften the blow of its courageous stance and to appease the Minister, Council offered to set up a Working Group by April 1999 to consider the parameters for an appropriate/acceptable development on the site. Becton would be invited to participate, as would community representatives. The Working Group would determine a draft Building Envelope Plan and design objectives. It would invite public submissions in response to the draft material, and incorporate the findings into the Amendment C5 process.
On Wednesday 16 December Melbourne awoke to half-hourly radio news reports across all major stations, starting at 5:30 am, about the Council’s decision to dump Becton’s tower. There were more than 60 radio news mentions, with the last at 5:00pm. Interviews with Becton’s Hamish MacDonald, Esplanade Alliance’s Kate Shaw, City of Port Phillip Mayor, Dick Gross, and musician Mark Seymour dominated radio talk shows.
As they prepared for work, Melburnians read in their metropolitan press and in the national dailies that Council had saved the Espy. The essence of each story was about victory for local democracy and the ability of councils to make independent decisions without fear or favour.
Beach hotel tower vetoed, Rick Wallace, Herald Sun, 16 December 1998, page 3.
Pub with no peer saved by council, Katherine Towers, Madeleine Coorey, The Australian, 16 December 1998, page 9.
Council rejects Esplanade tower, Ian Munro, The Age, 16 December 1998, page 6.
Record objections, Katrina Barrymore, The Australian Financial Review, 16 December 1998, page 30.
And when they came home the evening television news also ran the story on each channel.
By Thursday 17 December, the focus had shifted to the likely response from the Minister for Planning. Becton condemned the decision, threatening to knock down the hotel, and calling the Working Group proposal a joke.
St Kilda tower up to minister, Katrina Barrymore, The Australian Financial Review, 17 December 1998, page 35.
Developer threatens to knock down Espy, Katherine Towers, Tim Pegler, The Australian, 17 December 1998, page 6.
Developer slams decision on hotel, Ian Munro, Kerry Taylor, The Age, 17 December 1998, page 3.
Fight goes on over pub tower, Scott Thompson, Herald Sun, 17 December 1998, page 15.
The Age editorial thought Port Phillip Council had made the right decision and concluded: “The State Government should respect this decision and not seek to overrun it.” (The other tower, The Age, 17 December 1998, page 14)
Surprisingly, Premier Jeff Kennett concurred. That morning he told 3AW’s Ross Warneke he doubted that his Planning Minister would override Council’s unanimous decision, should Becton ask him to do so.
“I will be very surprised given that the decision has been made even if the developer appeals against it, given that it was a unanimous decision, whether the Minister would actually call it in and try and attempt to reverse the council’s decision . . . The developers are obviously upset but they’ve got to understand we live in a balanced society.” (Premier Jeff Kennett, 3AW, 17 December 1998, 9:34am)
Read the transcript of Jeff Kennett's interview and listen to Mark Seymour’s conversation with 3AW's Collette Mann.
The Premier’s words were reported the next day, Friday 18 December.
Kennett backs Espy ban, said the Herald Sun, 18 December 1998, page 13.
Kennett supports vote to save Espy, Michael Magazanik told readers of The Australian, 18 December 1998, page 12.
Esplanade tower stays off agenda, announced The Age, 18 December 1998, page 13.
By Saturday 19 December Becton had conceded defeat. The developer told the Weekend Australian it would not be seeking the Minister's intervention (Becton bows out, 19 December 1998, page 15). The Herald Sun’s Real Estate feature, Eye of the storm, by Louise Hattam conceded the first round to Port Phillip Council.
On Sunday 20 December it was a wrap, with the Sunday Age’s Ian Munro recapping the events of the past couple of months and quoting Hamish MacDonald from Becton’s promotional video: “The Espy is an icon . . . any developer who interferes with it does so at their peril.” (Becton bruised in losing fight over the ‘Espy’, page 11).
Council and community had won spectacularly the first round in the Esplanade Hotel redevelopment battle. But more was just around the corner. The approval of 18 storeys for the HMAS Lonsdale development in Port Melbourne, a few days before Christmas, signalled what was on the way. The Bookends.