Sunday, 18 August 2019
Walking tour - starts Los Angeles Court, corner Brighton Road, St Kilda
Enjoy this little-known 'cul de sac’ and St Kilda corner with its unusual Art Deco and Spanish Mission residences and lanes on the former famed nursery estate of George Brunning (1830-1893), which ran from Albion Street to Maryville Street.
Sunday, 11 August 2019
St Kilda Army and Navy Club
88 Acland Street St Kilda
Sue Ingleton's recently published book is an 'imagined history' about the lives and loves of two English women, in love and leaving their families, immigrated to Melbourne in 1875. It is an 'imagined history' because so little documentation about these women has survived.
There is the St Kilda of sunsets, bars and live music venues and then there is the St Kilda of perennial planning disputes. St Kilda residents concerned about what they consider to be insensitive development in their suburb have been signing petitions for years: to save the Mandalay apartments and the Esplanade Hotel . . . Along the way they have helped Melburnians appreciate that the way their city is now - with its imperfections, its mix of cultures and even its seediness - is worth preserving; that when a commercial investment wipes away the grittiness of the city’s texture it also diminishes the experience of city life . . . For years the battle in St Kilda has been about more than preserving the look of the suburb. It has also been about honouring its spirit. And where is the planning regulation that governs that? (The Age editorial, 17 July 2004)
Becton launched its Esplanade apartments in the early months of 2004, at about the same time that Kate Shaw’s academic analysis Planning for the Espy: policies, politics, deals was published in the Planning News, February 2004.
On 29 April 2004, The Age’s Helen Westerman reported the developer’s claim that its ‘off the plan sales’ were strong (Developer reaps the spoils of Espy fight, page 7). “The 98 apartments range from $500,000 to $6 million for the penthouse,” Ms Westerman wrote.
A few weeks later, the real estate sections of both metropolitan dailies wrote features about the proposed apartments.
The Herald Sun called its story Heartbreak Hotel, Mike Bruce, 22 May 2004.
The Age called it The battle of St Kilda, Tracey Kift, 23 May 2004.
The Espy’s Gershwin Room (the only rear wing of the grand hotel to survive the demolition that would make way for the 10-storey apartment block) reopened on 21 July 2004. Revamped, yet its character maintained, the Gershwin Room became the home of the new live music and trivia quiz show, RocKwiz, broadcast on SBS.
The Espy Kitchen and bottle shop were relocated to the front part of the hotel, when their respective wings/buildings were demolished. These areas, together with a refurbished basement, opened on 13 July 2005, just in time to celebrate 100 years of music at the Espy. On 20 August 2005, both Channel 9 and Channel 7 evening news reported the Espy’s 100th, claiming that up to 175 musicians could play there in one week and 30 bands could play there on one night.
The following year, The Age EG Music Awards voted the Espy best venue (Gongs strike the right note with local music aficionados, Patrick Donovan, 23 October 2006).
Over the next decade, the Espy stages continued to host live music every night, even as St Kilda continued to gentrify around it.
In early 2014, the Espy Hotel was put on the market, but withdrawn some months later when the owners failed to get their asking price.
Then, on Sunday 17 May 2015, with very little warning, the Espy closed its doors, cancelling performers booked for the weeks ahead.
The Age reported: Grungy St Kilda music venue, the Esplanade Hotel, to close for makeover, Aisha Dow and Allison Warrall, 4 May 2015.
The Herald Sun said: St Kilda's Esplanade Hotel to close for renovations, William Vallely, 4 May 2015.
The major renovations would create new food and beverage spaces including an outdoor terrace on the first floor. However, no planning application had been lodged with Council when the doors shut.
When an application was lodged in August it attracted 28 objections. The Age’s Aisha Dow speculated, on 13 November 2015, whether this was the end of the road for the Espy.
The City of Port Phillip gave the proposed renovations the go-ahead on 9 December 2015. The outcome remains to be seen.
In the meantime, an old sticker from the campaign survives at the corner of Acland and Robe Streets, St Kilda.
In private hands, the Espy is subject to the vagaries of business profits - a fact that was not lost on the Esplanade Alliance during its negotiations with private operators to buy, jointly, the hotel in 2001. Included in its debate at the time were the questions:
What if some unforeseen future events see the hotel not make a profit from its live music incubator role?
What if its ongoing incubator role is only possible at a loss or with further injections of funds?
The Esplanade Hotel (The Espy) has graced St Kilda's foreshore promenade since 1878. For over a century its stages have hosted the finest performers from Australia and the world, none more so than in the decades of the 1980s and 1990s. So, when yet another redeveloper bought the site for a tower dream, concerns over the hotel’s future mobilised a determined opposition.
The cultural response in the late 1990s to the proposed redevelopment of the Esplanade Hotel . . .was the biggest and most decisive in St Kilda’s history. The threat to the Espy mobilised thousands of people across the many successive, but co-existent layers that make up the locality. The campaign was about more than property values and historic preservation. For some people, it was more than just the future of St Kilda. The alternative subculture of the hotel became a metaphor for cultural differences in the face of a market-driven planning process that sees in all urban localities only their potential for recapitalisation. (Kate Shaw, Whose Image? Global restructuring and community politics in the inner-city, unpublished Master's Thesis, RMIT University, Melbourne, 1999, page 168)
Set against a political battle of wills between State and local government for control over planning, the campaign to save the Espy took numerous twists and turns. The six-year battle sustained considerable media interest, attracted wide public involvement, and broke submission records. Most importantly, it introduced into the Port Phillip Planning Scheme, for the first time, an amendment to protect the ‘cultural use’ of a place.
The story of the Espy Campaign has been compiled from public records and private collections with the help of Esplanade Alliance members, staff at the city of Port Phillip archives, and financial assistance from Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) Local History Grants Program 2013-2014, under the auspices of the St Kilda Historical Society.
The project was researched, collated, indexed and written by Krystyna Kynst, Esplanade Alliance founding member and the campaign's communication manager. The archive, which contains 774 items, including press clippings, TV and radio tapes, publicity documents, minutes of Council meetings, correspondence and submissions, was digitised by AMS Imaging in South Melbourne.
However, the biggest thank you has to go to the hundreds of people who propelled the campaign by their enduring commitment to manning street stalls, leafleting letterboxes, putting up posters, signing petitions, writing objections, lobbying politicians, organising fundraisers, donating their musical, artistic and comic talents, preparing submissions, attending Council meetings and VCAT hearings, designing, sewing and selling T-shirts, and more. They saved the Espy.
The story of the campaign, told in the following pages, provides links to selected digitised records. Kindly note: some video and document links may take a while to load, due to size.
The story is also available as an iBook, free from the iTunes store.
1. Espy Hotel threat: Becton buys the Espy 27/8/97
2. The Players: State Government, Port Phillip Council, Esplanade Alliance, Becton Corporation 27/8/97 to 10/10/97
3. The Issues: Design, Heritage, Culture 14/10/97 to 22/6/98
4. Godzilla: Becton's 38-storey vision for St Kilda's Espy 24/6/98 to 23/9/98
5. St Kilda Fights Back: Petitions, objections, meetings, rallies 1/10/98 to 14/12/98
6. Council slays Godzilla: State Government does not call in Council's decision to reject Becton's application 14/12/98 to 22/12/98
7. Gateway to the Bay: State Government tower vision for St Kilda's foreshore 2/3/99 to 14/12/99
8. The Esplanade Hotel Working Group: Council, developer and community debate Espy site height, heritage, culture 17/5/00 to 13/11/00
9. Hotel Rescue: Esplanade Hotel Foundation seeks to separate the Espy Hotel from its backyard development potential, bids to buy it 27/11/00 to 20/8/01
10. Amendment C25: Protecting culture in the Port Phillip Planning Scheme 27/11/00 to 1/11/02
11. Developer strangles the Espy: Becton's development application ignores Amendment C25 and is rejected 12/11/02 to 17/2/03
12. Keep the Espy live: Campaign to save the Espy's live music culture as developer heads to VCAT 18/2/03 to 23/7/03
13. Secret deal sacrifices Baymor: Heritage building demolished to save Espy's music 24/7/03 to 6/8/03
14. VCAT decides: 11/8/03 to 29/8/03
15. Was it worth it?
The campaign to save St Kilda’s Esplande Hotel (The Espy) was sparked by a one-paragraph article - written by John Hurley and buried in the back pages of The Age of 28 August 1997: Becton buys St Kilda Hotel.
The very next morning, a group of residents and Espy patrons met at a St Kilda café to discuss what the transfer of ownership would mean for the future of the much-loved hotel and live music venue, 11 The Esplanade, St Kilda.
It was not the first campaign to save the Espy. In the mid 1980s, a consortium headed by songwriter Mike Brady had bought the pub to build an 18-storey hotel behind it. His vision was defeated when six-storey height limits were imposed on the site, after a very passionate public campaign led by those who considered the pub their ‘lounge room’ and its patrons their community. Brady sold the site to Carlton United Breweries (CUB) in 1995.
By the late 1990s, socially and culturally St Kilda was moving to gentrification, albeit slowly. Rents and house prices were going up, particularly those with bay views. The whiff of money was in the air. (Professor Kate Shaw’s 1999 master thesis Whose Image? captures the changing St Kilda through the 1980s and 1990s – a change she herself witnessed as a resident, a community housing worker and an articulate activist. It includes an excellent analysis of the 1980s campaign to save the Espy.)
The foreshore site Becton bought in 1997 faced the bay. It was dotted with low-scale buildings. In addition to the three-storey 19th century hotel, with three wings, and its adjoining more modern bottle shop, the site included a Spanish Mission block of flats called Baymor Court, old stables and various outhouses at the rear.
Becton bought the site for its development potential and made no commitment to keep any buildings on the site, not even the Espy Hotel.
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.
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 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).
On 24 June 1998, Becton Corporation submitted a planning amendment application to the City of Port Phillip, seeking to remove the current six-storey height limit to allow a tower of up to 38 storeys on the site. It sought to demolish several 'A' grade heritage buildings including Baymor Court and parts of the Esplanade Hotel, and to rezone the site’s uses to include retail. Becton claimed that without a high tower development, it would not be able to afford to refurbish the Espy.
"I want this to be a work of art. I want to have the same reaction as when you see a Gaudi building and say, ‘No-one built that to make a buck’.” Hamish MacDonald, Becton Corporation, Antipo Design, Winter 1998, page 2.
The Esplanade Alliance struck back, calling the proposal 'Godzilla’. The press ran with it.
St Kilda quakes under Godzilla’s shadow, said The Australian (Michael Bachelard, 26 June 1998).
Monster tower plan for the Espy, proclaimed the Herald Sun (Kylie Hansen, 26 June 1998).
Godzilla tag over Becton project, wrote the Port Phillip Leader (Denis Brown, 29 June 1998).
Becton reveals its Espy blockbuster, announced the Emerald Hill Times (Helen Westerman, 1 July 1998).
Radio station 3AW spoke with Esplanade Alliance’s Kate Shaw and Becton’s Hamish MacDonald. The interview transcripts reveal the true nature of the deal Becton had in mind in exchange for keeping the Espy’s live music culture. On radio, and in the press, Ms Shaw accused Becton of luring people into a Faustian contract, trading the Espy for “your soul in the form of a tower.” (The Espy tower: will it go up, up or away?, Sian Watkins, 26 June 1998).
And Age staff writer, John Elder, asked: Is old St Kilda passé, whilst summarising The white shoe dance in St Kilda (1 August 1998, page 6).
Watch Becton's Vision for St Kilda
Becton’s proposed amendment to planning controls for the Esplanade Hotel site was lodged as a submission to Amendment C5 and named L68/C11. Council met on 19 August 1998 to consider whether it should place the proposed amendment on public exhibition.
Becton’s application had come at a transition time in the planning guidelines. There was little point in amending the current scheme, as it was about to be replaced. The new scheme was yet to be gazetted. There was no strategic basis on which to assess a general proposal for 38 storeys on the site. At the same time there were the obvious risks that, if Council did not exhibit Becton’s audacious application, the powerful corporation could, and would, approach the Minister who might call it in. Port Phillip Council was well aware that the State Government could override its planning authority at any time and lock out the local community from further input.
As a first step Council sought a higher degree of clarity and detail and proposed a meeting with Becton to address outstanding issues, deferring the matter for one month. The developer, emboldened by a favourable political climate and the pressure on the City of Port Phillip to dismantle its mandatory height controls in favour of performance-based criteria, refused to negotiate on height.
On 23 September 1998 Council voted to place the amendment on public exhibition. A formal Planning Scheme amendment process, it reasoned, would ensure, at the very least, the widest possible public consultation. Its decision was accompanied by a statement that outlined its concerns about the height of the proposed tower and the demolition of several historic buildings. It also pointed to the high level of community concern.
The developer’s move to use its design proposal to challenge height restrictions on the St Kilda foreshore ignited the brewing tug-of-war between the State Government and the City of Port Phillip. To the issue of which level of government should drive local planning outcomes, the tower proposal added debate about design and the desirability of skyscrapers on the beach front.
War had been declared. The battle lines were drawn. The public had six weeks, from 8 October to 20 November 1998 - the duration of the amendment’s exhibition period - to save the Espy.
Becton was not prepared to negotiate on height. “The Espy Alliance calls it arrogance and (Councillor) Dick Gross calls it planning blackmail,” Becton’s Hamish MacDonald told Mike McGeary at the Port Phillip Leader (Tower Struggle, 21 September 1998). “But we think the Esplanade Hotel site is a strategically important landmark site in Melbourne and it would be diminished by compromised design.”
Concurrently, the new Port Phillip Planning Scheme was gazetted on 29 October and went on exhibition from 2 November to 3 December 1998. Becton’s proposed ‘Godzilla’ amendment challenged several elements of this new Planning Scheme.
The Esplanade Alliance mobilised to:
• Increase awareness of Becton’s proposal to build a 38-storey tower immediately behind the Espy, starting where the Espy kitchen now stands.
• Motivate as many people as possible to write objections, in order to flood Port Phillip Council with an unprecedented number of letters and submissions.
• Attract media attention to take its message to a wider audience and generate public awareness across the State that would dissuade ministerial interference.
The first public meeting was held at the Prince of Wales Bandroom on 18 October 1998, with support from Paul Kelly, Mark Seymour and internationally renowned street performing troupe Strange Fruit. The bandroom was full. People lined up to sign petitions and letters of objection. They donated funds to support the campaign. They cheered at the sentiment expressed in the speeches.
As word spread, State Opposition politician John Thwaites (Deputy Leader of the Opposition) entered the debate (Politicians slam Becton’s Espy plans, Port Phillip Leader, 2 November 1998).
“It’s gone way beyond local residents saying ‘not in my backyard’,” Esplanade Alliance’s Krystyna Kynst told the Emerald Hill Times (Hundreds likely at last-ditch rally against Espy tower, 11 November 1998). “It concerns all of Melbourne. We’ve got visitors to the area who say they might stop coming if this goes ahead.”
A month later, the Esplanade Alliance organised its second public meeting - a rally outside the Espy - inviting political leaders to attend. John Brumby, leader of the Opposition and Lyn Allison, Democratic Senator, agreed to speak. The Premier, Jeff Kennett, declined. Monash Province Liberal MP Peter Katsambanis came to voice his concern. The National Trust urged its supporters to attend the rally (Trust power vs Espy tower, Ian Munro, Sunday Age, 15 November 1998).
Speakers at the rally (15 November 1998) expressed their concern about the diminishing power of local government in Victoria. The question many were asking was what would happen if Port Phillip Council decided to respond to community outrage and reject Becton’s proposal outright? Could it do so confident the Minister for Planning and Local Government, Rob Maclellan, would not call in the proposal and eventually give Becton what it wanted?
When the press reported the rally, it estimated some 1,000 protesters had gathered against Becton’s tower proposal:
Residents to wage tough war over St Kilda tower, Sushi Das, The Age, 16 November 1998.
Fans keep on rocking to save the Espy, Katherine Towers, Iain Shedden, The Australian, 16 November 1998.
Developer sings praises of basement blues, Scott Thompson, Herald Sun, 16 November 1998.
Espy protest escalates, Julie Doyle, Port Phillip Leader, 16 November 1998.
Rowdy crowd demands end to tower plans, Nikki Protyniak, Emerald Hill Times, 18 November 1998.
United over Espy, Julie Doyle, Port Phillip Leader, 23 November 1998.
Watch the rally on TV news.
Listen to what Mark Seymour had to say to 3LO's John Faine.
Read the transcript of Mayor Dick Gross interview with 3AK’s Leigh Drew.
Becton contacted residents in its East Melbourne development, seeking signatures of support for its Espy proposal, whilst the Esplanade Alliance reached out to prominent leaders in Melbourne – in business, cultural and other fields – seeking signatures iof its own.
The battle became more heated as the State Government’s Minister for Small Business and Tourism, Louise Asher, lodged her objection to Becton’s proposal with Port Phillip Council (Tourism Minister joins Esplanade tower protest, Sian Watkins, The Age, 21 November 1998). The National Trust wrote to its members in the St Kilda area urging them to protest against the proposed development.
When submissions closed, Council had received some 5,368 signatures on the petition and 6,324 individual submissions. Of these, only 618 supported the Becton proposal. No application in the history of St Kilda, or in the history of Melbourne, for that matter, had generated such a response.
“The fight to retain the Espy is symbolic of the overall fate of St Kilda. If the Espy goes under, then you’ve got to ask big questions about the future of the entire suburb.” John Spierings, former Mayor of St Kilda (The only way is up?, Jacqui O’Leary, The Big Issue, 23 February 1998, page 18).
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.