Becton Corporation was a heavyweight in the redevelopment arena. It was not in the business of running pubs or live music venues. Only two weeks earlier, on 13 August 1997, The Age's Jeanne-Marie Cillento had identified Becton amongst The men who are shaping Melbourne. Becton had seen the future and the future under the Liberal party state leadership belonged to high-rise towers and large developments.
In August 1997, the Kennett State Government was in its second term, privatising public utilities, selling public assets, reforming planning rules, restructuring local government. St Kilda was in its sights. Sale of landmarks on St Kilda’s foreshore Crown Land - Luna Park, The Palais Theatre, Palace nightclub, and O’Donnell Gardens - was on the agenda. The government’s new Victorian Planning Provisions (VPPs) had dismantled prescriptive regulatory devices, such as height controls, in favour of ‘performance based’ criteria. All newly amalgamated local councils had been ordered to revise their planning schemes accordingly. Rather than acting as ‘controls’, proposed height limits were to act as ‘preferred maximums’ that could be exceeded at the discretion of the planning authority.
Contrary to the intent of the VPPs, the City of Port Phillip’s draft planning scheme revision (Neighbourhood Amendment C5) had retained St Kilda’s mandatory controls, including a six-storey limit on the Esplanade Hotel site. This put Council in direct conflict with the Minister for Planning and Local Government, Rob Maclellan. The Minister’s reputation for ‘calling in’ development applications was legendary and his growing dislike of the City of Port Phillip was on the public record. A battle between the State Government and the Council was brewing over who should drive/decide local planning outcomes. St Kilda’s Espy was to become the battleground.
The group who met on Friday 29 August 1997, at the Banff Café in Fitzroy Street, St Kilda, would become known as the Esplanade Alliance. They were long-term residents, who had already fought for more than a decade to preserve the suburb’s social diversity, affordable housing and architectural character against the market forces of recapitalisation. They were mainly professionals, knowledgeable on matters of local government, planning law, design, and media relations. They understood fully that the unprecedented planning reforms being imposed by the State Government were driven by a pro-development agenda. And they understood the threat posed by a large property redeveloper like Becton Corporation. The group moved quickly to establish a public presence even whilst it debated a name for the group and clarified its objectives.
By September 1997 local and metropolitan media were reporting the unfolding saga.
Denis Brown, writing for the Port Phillip Leader asked whether it was Last orders at the Espy? (1 September 1997).
Helen Westerman at the Emerald Hill Times reported: Locals rally to save Espy (3 September 1997).
The Age proclaimed: Espy sails into heavy seas and its journalist, Nicole Brady, wrote “they fear the building will be converted into yet another apartment complex, thus destroying an important live music venue and historic facility in one fell swoop.” (11 September 1997).
And by the end of the year, Channel 7's Today Tonight had run a feature on the campaign to save the Espy. TV and radio news joined in to report various stages of the six-year battle.