By Shane Scanlan
The merits of the Queen Victoria Market (QVM) renewal have sunk to the bottom of a political swamp dominated by misinformation and brinksmanship.
In March, the City of Melbourne attempted to break an impasse with Planning Minister Richard Wynne by going public with its plans to develop the adjacent Munro site.
Considering that Mr Wynne has had a panel report into changing the planning rules in the market precinct (Amendment C245) before him since last August, the council’s frustration is understandable. It is hamstrung without a decision on C245.
But, also considering that the council and its developer PDG are yet to actually APPLY for planning permission for their Munro site ambitions, the wisdom of attempting to pressure the minister this way is dubious.
The council has merely steered the public discussion into the merits of asking for a 200m tower in an area that had a 20m height limit when it bought the land in 2014. The C245 panel recommends 100 metres.
It has fuelled the growing public perception that the Lord Mayor is motivated to reward his developer buddies at the expense of salt-of-the-earth, battling market traders.
It also allowed the minister to regain some moral high ground in the wake of his scandalous involvement in gifting Crown Casino a massively non-compliant over-development at Southbank.
Mr Wynne went on to tell the media pursuing him over stonewalling on the C245 amendment: “The project doesn’t have a lot of friends. Clearly, the traders don’t support it and the customers don’t support it.”
And while the council was eager to show pretty pictures and talk about community benefit, it is still avoiding a frank discussion on the far less pretty matter of money.
The details remain unknown (perhaps even to the council itself!) but it’s going to be ugly. The shorthand version is that the council has gone from expecting to make $57 million from the Munro deal to later signing up with PDG for an $80 million loss when Mr Wynne inevitably restricts the tower to the recommended 100 metres. The original figure of a $250 million spend is now being reported at $650 million.
The council’s own-goal has buoyed its QVM redevelopment opponents who have been steadily building confidence since witnessing Robert Doyle’s re-election last October with a mandate for the renewal.
The longer Mr Wynne has procrastinated on C245, the more encouraged they have become, with their chosen battlefield now moving to next year’s state election.
The last five months have been a period of phoney war. Having said nothing about the market for so long, the Lord Mayor would have been no-doubt surprised at the organised counter-attack from the anti-development forces when he finally left the trenches and ventured into battle with his ill-considered media strategy on March 6.
And the successful campaign by the Victorian Electoral Commission (VEC) to dump councillor and market trader Michael Caiafa offers a made-to-measure conspiracy theory which will further erode the case.
His alliances with Spring St will be sorely tested as the Labor Party considers its prospects in the five inner-city seats most directly influenced by QVM perceptions.
The Greens’ position will be crucial.
In the absence of a sensible discussion about the long-term future of the market, votes will be cast on ill-informed, emotional grounds.
So, unless Cr Doyle can quickly and effectively communicate the benefits of the redevelopment, he will be set adrift.
Should the politics kill off the opportunity, the political and financial consequences for the council will be catastrophic.