The hail was falling in Flinders Lane last month and passers-by were taking shelter in Ross House, an historic building with three friendly interfaces to the street – a coffee shop, a meeting place and lifts to offices for community groups.
Two girls were hovering in the warm glow of the doorway as the streets glistened with rain. An office worker rushed out with his takeaway as soon as there was a lull.
This was community life in Flinders Lane on a typical weekday. Seven meetings were chalked up on a board just inside.
Soon this area, known colloquially as the Flinders Quarter, will become a demolition site. Visually impaired visitors to Ross House will have to learn new routes from the station while dodging hoardings, heavy equipment, drillers, trucks and workers employed to cut through the fabric of the city.
Ross House stands adjacent to the 3000 sqm construction site nominated by the Melbourne Metro Rail Authority (MMRA) for the new CBD South station. Other buildings between this section of Flinders Lane and the station will be compulsorily acquired.
It is difficult to imagine a less appropriate place for a brand new station for the commuter city. Why strike at Melbourne’s communal heart instead of using the City Square as the place to demonstrate the power of the engineers’ vision? A construction period of up to 10 years with sustained levels of noise at 90 decibels and more will make way for a deluge of commuters rushing to reach the corporate sector located outside the quarter.
“Construction of a cabin station is meant to minimise surface disruption,” said Michelle Blackburn for McDonalds Australia, which opposed the acquisition. “The cabin goes in through an access shaft.”
By comparison, Flagstaff Station has an above ground footprint of 400 sqm.
“It needs to be explained why such a large site is being acquired for CBD South,” Ms Blackburn told the inquiry into the project.
Owners of affected buildings, including the Commonwealth Bank, Hungry Jack’s, McDonalds, the Port Phillip Arcade, Bible House, Ross House and others had their say at an environmental effects statement (EES) hearing which finished last month.
Amber Moore, development program manager for Ross House, said the viability of Australia’s only self-managed social justice building would be threatened by the project.
The building offers subsidised rent to 50 community organisations, many of which cater for people with disabilities, brain injuries, visual impairment and old age.
“We have 70,000 visitors each year who need access to Flinders Lane and Royston Place,” Ms Moore said. “They need taxi drop-off, pedestrian access. Some visually impaired clients count the exact number of steps to reach Ross House.”
The McDonalds store in Swanston St is the most profitable in the city, opening 24 hours and employing a young workforce.
“The most likely outcome is retrenchment of 175 employees,” Ms Blackburn said.
Residents of Bible House, the second building in the city to be converted from commercial to residential, will overlook the new rail entrance to CBD South.
Resident Margaret Bray said: “This is a case of David and Goliath. We’ve owned an apartment in Bible House since 2003. It’s an iconic building in an historically significant area. Degraves St wasn’t a café place when Bible House was refurbished. The City Library wasn’t there. It’s not an easy thing to build a community.”
Ms Bray claims that residents will suffer dislocation and distress but that there was not a high level of concern for this in the EES document.
The fine details of the station design will be determined by contractors once the EES process is complete. Boundaries have moved during the planning phase creating uncertainty. Owners of the Commonwealth Bank building and McDonalds have objected to compulsory acquisition on these grounds.
The bank building could be offered to the Metro Tunnel through a licence for temporary operation then redeveloped by the owners Oscard Pty Ltd into a 9-10 storey tower after the station is completed, the hearing was told. Similarly McDonalds wants to retain its store and provide strata access below ground.
As the corporations argue about who will benefit from the “value capture” from the project, the owners of the Port Phillip Arcade have not gone public about their views.
At stake are the livelihoods of many small tenants, some of whom have been in the arcade for more than 40 years. Everyone knows Saff the barber and Rob the electrician. Will they have a place in the new city?