Chart House lost

By Meg Hill

City of Melbourne councillors have bemoaned their inability to save a corner of Melbourne heritage through a prolonged struggle over gradings and protection.

Chart House, a cherished interwar era building at 372 – 378 Little Bourke St, will now likely be redeveloped into a 17-storey commercial tower. The nearby Melbourne House will also be redeveloped.

The council had been engaged in a back-and-forth attempt to have the site protected as part of a new heritage review, but councillors said the process had come to an unfortunate conclusion.

Despite recommendations from the council and heritage consultants Lovell Chen, a planning panel appointed by the state government decided against upgrading heritage protection on the site late last year.

Council originally considered the site “non-contributory” until a revision was prompted via new site information provided by the Melbourne Heritage Action Group (MHA) in 2018. 

The property owners submitted an application to develop the site into a tower in 2018 and have had their application stalled by the process.

Chair of heritage portfolio Cr Rohan Leppert said he disagreed with the panel’s recommendation, but council had exhausted its options.

“We’ve made it very clear this was our last go to answer this question,” Cr Leppert said.

“I’m very disappointed with where we’ve landed here but this is the process we’ve set up and I think we need to follow through and close up this very lengthy, extraordinarily expensive process.”

“Throughout this period, this constant chopping and changing and re-asking the question what this grading should be, we’ve been asking an applicant for a planning application on this very site to wait.”

“I don’t agree with the panel member, but I think it would be churlish of us to continue to ask the same question until we get the answer that we think we really want.”

Built in the 1940s, the modernist building is six storeys tall and has a history of warehouse, factory and office uses. 

The council pushed to have the site added to the Guildford and Hardware Lane Precinct included in the Melbourne Planning Scheme last year. 

But the planning panel set up by the state government regarded alterations to the building to have reduced its heritage significance.

Melbourne Heritage Action president Tristan Davies said the decision not to upgrade the building’s heritage status was due to an “architecturally purist sense of what heritage is”.

“It loses sight of the bigger picture that this building’s form and details still clearly contribute to the wider heritage precinct we’re talking about,” he said.

“The panel states that it has been significantly altered but did not provide any evidence on this point and, in fact, only used evidence from the council’s heritage adviser which was meant to prove that the building was contributory.”

Mr Davies said there were a number of other buildings with more alterations in the heritage precinct that were deemed contributory.

“Chart House actually maintains its original 1941 shop fronts and even painted signage for John Don, who was a pretty big developer in the area,” he said.

“It has a clear historic and visual connection, therefore, at the ground level and human scale to the precinct’s history. Indeed, it’s pretty rare to find an intact shopfront anywhere in the entire CBD like this.”

A similar process led to the approval of an application to demolish and redevelop the nearby Melbourne House.

Cr Nicholas Reece said he shared a sense of “disappointment, sorrow and anger” at the decision.

“I was very concerned when we considered Melbourne House two years or so ago,” Cr Reece said.

“In the end I yielded to the advice of the experts and I’ve got to say it was one of the most painful decisions I’ve had to make as a councillor. Chart House ended up in a place I think is equally unfortunate.”

“When you put Melbourne House together with Chart House and what is likely to happen on those sites, this is going to be a favourite little corner of Melbourne which is never going to be the same and Melbourne is going to lose a bit of its charm.” •

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