By Aphrodite Feros-Fooke
The City of Melbourne is encouraging owners of prominent but derelict CBD sites to take responsibility for their properties.
The push is being led by the council’s finance and governance portfolio chair and environment portfolio deputy chair, Deputy Lord Mayor Arron Wood.
Cr Wood said a review of the laws was currently underway to investigate whether council’s ability to deal with neglected buildings could be strengthened using local laws, with proposed amendments to be considered by councillors in 2020.
The council is looking into possible approaches including fines for owners and differential rates for different classes of properties.
Cr Wood said: “In some cases, we may need larger fines or other incentives to enable councils to deal with derelict and dilapidated premises as well as absentee owners who aren’t responsive to the call to renew such prime locations.”
“We currently have no jurisdiction over private property unless there is an adverse impact on the public realm or the property is a hazard to the public,” he said.
The sites in question have varying heritage status and some already have approved planning permits.
The council supports the revitalisation of the Walk Arcade, a large site and pedestrian thoroughfare at 309-325 Bourke St.
“The Walk Arcade has planning approval and it’s very exciting to think that two new hotels will open on the doorstep of Bourke Street Mall,” Cr Wood said.
The Sir Charles Hotham Hotel at 2-8 Spencer St was bought by education entrepreneur Shesh Ghale in an off-market deal in 2017 for a rumoured $30 million.
The Australian Financial Review reported in February this year Mr Ghale plans to preserve as much of the 1854 building’s art nouveau facade as possible after being inspired by his restoration of the former Argus newspaper’s building.
Cr Wood said he looked forward “to the owner activating this important gateway into the CBD”.
Job Warehouse, also known as Crossley’s Building (54-62 Bourke St) is among the oldest surviving buildings in Melbourne. Built in 1848-49, it is a rare example of pre-gold rush commercial buildings.
Cr Wood said the council had identified this site as “needing attention” and its understanding was there were works underway for it to become a restaurant. The City of Melbourne responded to Heritage Victoria referrals and supported the proposed refurbishment including conservation works, Cr Wood said.
However, sites such as the City of Melbourne Chambers (112-118 Elizabeth St), an example of the so-called boom classical style of the 1880s, have no current plans for work. Cr Wood said the council had not been able to compel the owner to clean the private commercial property.
“The best outcome would be for private landholders to invest in these valuable sites and this occurs in the majority of cases,” he said.
123 Swanston St, a six-level building dating back to the 1930s, was also mentioned by the council as requiring maintenance.
“Most owners do the right thing, the pressure is on a handful of sites that need to be renewed or sold to owners who will.”
Cr Wood said the council had provided six grants for smaller scale restorations through the Melbourne Heritage Restoration Fund, and would shortly announce more funding to be “made available to not-for-profit, charity, or community-owned or occupied heritage buildings, and privately-owned heritage buildings that are considered landmarks, a feature of their local area or well-known meeting places”.
Cr Wood said restoration of these sites added vibrancy to the city and ultimately earned a return.
“At the end of the day it is private owners that have the responsibility to make the investment to renew these significant sites,” he said.