In the fading months of 1997, the protagonists in the Esplanade Hotel drama prepared their strategies.
Becton announced a Design Competition. The corporation invited five local firms and one international group to submit proposals to develop the quarter-acre Esplanade Hotel site. Becton’s Urban Planning and Design Principles Competition brief did not specify height limits or the need to keep the hotel.
Port Phillip Council applied to Heritage Victoria for a Heritage Listing. Its bid was supported by the National Trust, Felton Bequest, Acland Street Residents, Fitzroy Street Residents, and Port Phillip Heritage Arts.
The Esplanade Alliance prepared a cultural history of the Esplanade Hotel - from the time it opened its doors in 1878 to the present - in order to highlight the pub's long history and its significance for the Australian music industry and the eclectic character of St Kilda. It hoped Heritage Victoria would take the Espy’s cultural status into account when assessing its listing, and that the competing architects would do the same when preparing their design response. The Esplanade Alliance strategy was to become a part of the design process rather than to be called upon to react to a finished design. Above all, it wanted to empower the local council and wider community with a voice the State decision makers could not ignore.
Read the Esplanade Alliance vision and watch Channel 7's Today Tonight story about the group (December 1997).
Musicians, artists, and comedians rallied behind the Esplanade Alliance. They signed a letter to Max Beck, owner of the Becton Group of Companies, urging him to read the history of the hotel’s culture and to respect its significance.
However, on the morning when the Esplanade Alliance was to present the document and letter to Becton and to the City of Port Phillip (9 December 1997), Becton locked the group and the Mayor out of the Esplande Hotel. Kate Shaw of the Esplanade Alliance told The Age that this was “the first time in the hotel’s 120-year history that a group of St Kilda residents had been refused entry . . . I can assure Becton that this is not the last of the statement of cultural significance, nor is it the last of the Esplanade Alliance’s attempt, and I believe we will win the argument that the cultural significance of this site is something that simply can’t be swept away.” (Hotel pulls the plug on protesters, Louise Martin, The Age, 10 December 1997).
Undeterred, the Esplanade Alliance tried again. It launched its document, The Esplanade Hotel 1878– An exploration of the Espy’s cultural significance on 20 January 1998, to wide media interest.
The evening news on TEN, GTV 9 and the ABC reported the launch.
Listen to interviews with Kate Shaw, Esplanade Alliance; Port Phillip Mayor, Christine Haag; and musician Ross Wilson (Radio National breakfast, 21 January 1998)
The Age called it A fight for the show to go on at the Esplanade (Louise Martin, 21 January 1998).
The Emerald Hill Times reported: Espy fans launch another rescue (Helen Westerman, 21 January 1998).
And the Port Phillip Leader wrote: Save Espy bid swells (Denis Brown, 26 January 1998).
An opinion piece by Esplanade Alliance members Kate Shaw and John Spierings explained Why the Espy must be saved (The Age, 22 January 1998).
These media stories about the Espy’s strong association with music throughout the many phases of its 120-year history and the affection and loyalty it inspired as a vital live music venue were juxtaposed with the growing rumours that Becton wanted a 25-storey apartment tower and a tarted-up hotel redevelopment.
Just before Christmas, the property section of The Weekend Australian had reported that “Developer Becton is preparing plans to build a 25-storey apartment tower behind St Kilda’s famous 'Espy’ hotel - Australia’s best known grunge music pub” (20-21 December 1997). On the same weekend, Karen Lyon of the Sunday Age had explored the various development pressures on St Kilda, asking The shore thing: are we ready for Gold Coast by the bay? (21 December 1997).
In the new year, Age journalist, Steve Dow, summarised the proposals reshaping St Kilda, not the least being Becton’s vision for the Espy site, and asked Bohemia rules OK? (5 January 1998). A few days later, in the Sunday Life magazine, Michelle Griffin profiled a Sunday afternoon at the Espy, writing “there’s comedy in the backroom, music in the front bar and the best seats to watch the sunset in town” (11 January 1998). This was followed by “The Height Report” (The Age, 15 January 1998) in which journalist Royce Millar pointed to the State Government’s policy to loosen prescriptive height controls as the catalyst for a swathe of high-rise proposals across Melbourne, including Becton’s rumoured tower for St Kilda.
On 18 February 1998, less than two weeks after Heritage Victoria recommended the Esplanade Hotel for the Victorian Heritage Register, inviting public comment, and just a week after denying any plans for a tower (Becton denies tower project for the historic Espy, Helen Westerman, Emerald Hill Times, 11 February 1998), Becton unveiled the winner of its design competition. The design would keep the hotel ‘as it stands’ and build a residential tower of an unspecified height behind it. Heritage buildings, including Baymor Court, would be demolished.
Becton's booklet Questions and Answers about the Esplanade Hotel St Kilda outlined its vision for “a slender, well-sculptured tower . . . that will exceed current height restrictions of 18 metres.” It went on to say that “as long as Becton receives the necessary approvals for its development, the Espy will remain as it is today” – a veiled threat missed by the media in the following days.
Television news that night, on all four stations, reported the tower.
The next day, The Age reported: St Kilda’s esplanade to keep its favourite pub (Carolyn Webb, 19 February 1998) and the Herald Sun announced: Tower for hotel site (Kylie Hansen, 19 February 1998). Michael Bachelard told readers of The Australian that the Noisy old rocker has no plans to budge for elevated company (19 February 1998). The Australian Financial Review assured punters the New plan allows Espy to maintain its grunge (Michael Cave, 19 February 1998). The Port Phillip Leader, on the other hand, predicted that a New battle looms (Denis Brown, 23 February 1998), given the likely demolition of Baymor Court.
Concerns that a 25-storey apartment tower would dwarf the Espy were re-ignited as Becton moved to seek exemption from the site’s six-storey controls and were further fuelled by speculation that the State Planning Minister, Rob Maclellan may have struck a secret deal with developers (Talk of ‘deal’ on Espy tower, Emerald Hill Times, 25 February 1998).
In April 1998, at a two-day hearing, Becton opposed Heritage Victoria’s recommendation to give the Esplanade Hotel and adjoining Baymor Court state-level heritage protection. In a bitter blow, Heritage Victoria was swayed by Becton's arguments. It refused to register the hotel as a building of State significance. (Copies of submissions lodged with Heritage Victoria are available via the FOI process.)
- the Esplanade Alliance submission in support of Council’s heritage application
- Becton’s arguments against the listing, and
- The grounds for refusal
The Heritage Victoria decision put the onus on the Port Phillip Planning Scheme to protect the Esplanade Hotel at a time when the State Government was pushing to scrap City of Port Phillip height limits.
Though Council’s existing height controls had made it through the first round of VPPs reviews in November 1997, they only did so as ‘interim’ controls, to be phased out by 31 December 1998 in favour of site-by-site planning controls - without height limits. Soon Council would need to exhibit changes to its planning scheme - Amendment C5 - to reflect the State Government’s planning agenda, including changes to the Espy site’s six-storey height controls. And in the next few weeks Becton would move to take advantage of this critical moment of transition in the Victorian planning regulations.
Ahead of that move, in May 1998, Becton’s architectural adviser, University of Melbourne Professor Haig Beck, wrote to The Age to argue in favour of Becton’s foreshore tower vision (13 May 1998). His letter sparked a planning and architectural merit debate in the letter pages of The Age (14, 18, and 21 May 1998). Professor Kim Dovey, also from the University's architectural fraternity, responded by lamenting a planning code that enabled “mega-projects where the scale so brutalises the city that the design scarcely matters, except as marketing” (The Age, 3 June 1998).