Plans have finally emerged of the City of Melbourne’s (CoM) development scheme for the Munro site opposite Queen Victoria Market, giving us a glimpse of a proposal with some broader merits, but mixed result for heritage at best.
Only slithers on edges of the site are to be retained, making way for new community facilities, a 700-space car park, new walkways, a new brick podium along Therry St, and most controversially a 196m apartment tower in a block that currently has a height limit of 20 metres.
This is despite the entire site falling under a heritage overlay for decades and its heritage status confirmed again in 2015 when the CoM adopted all findings of its own City North Review, which found the entire streetscape along Therry and Queen streets, with its character brick facade and 1940s shopfronts with arched brick interiors to be contributory to the market precinct and worthy of heritage listing.
Why those shopfronts can now be completely demolished leaving only the facade of the Merkat corner, including in some sections for a new podium of similar height and volume, hasn’t been justified, and a better heritage solution where the shopfronts and their eclectic mix of cafes, pop-up stores, and the iconic Soapbox shop are retained in front of any new development clearly hasn’t been given enough thought.
Thankfully, it seems a pair of laneway warehouses at the rear of the site which MHA successfully lobbied to have heritage listed as part of City North are to be retained at least to some extent, but a closer look past them reveals an amalgam of sheds and warehouse structures across the site which, if studied for adaptive re-use, could be a treasure trove of industrial character to co-exist alongside new facilities and buildings on the large site.
While the scheme may contain other benefits such as community facilities, some affordable housing, an improved public realm and some arbitrarily positive economic numbers, no solid argument has yet been given to the public for why it needs to be built to such a large scale to fund revitalisation of the markets, nor indeed why that “revitalisation” is even needed in the first place – a topic for another time.
Further to this, we’ve seen little justification for the extent of demolition even if a development of this scale does need to go ahead.
A better heritage solution for the Munro site could involve retained shopfronts anchoring a modest tower behind, rising above and through retained character shed spaces and materials, with multiple paths snaking around nooks and creative space towards the rear warehouses and A’Beckett St. This would provide a truly unique and very Melbourne gateway into the Queen Victoria Market, instead of what we may end up with instead – a mixed use development and token facadism like any other city in the world.
If the council takes the easy route of minimal retention and a clean slate on this important site, rather than being stewards of a more creative and long term re-use of the Munro block’s built form, what message is being sent about commitment to its own findings in future heritage studies and what message is being sent to owners of other sensitive heritage sites across the city?