Councillors ignore Chinatown advice

By Shane Scanlan

In a rare breach of discipline, five City of Melbourne councillors in March ignored clear-cut planning advice and voted against issuing a planning permit for a “pop-up” restaurant in Chinatown.

At the March 19 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, councillors Philip Le Liu, Kevin Louey, Beverley Pinder, Susan Riley and Arron Wood supported Chinatown interests opposed to an open-air restaurant on the site of a car park at 132-138 Little Bourke St.

It took the casting vote of planning chair Nicholas Reece to win support for council officers’ recommendations to approve the application.

Submitters claimed the business would “morph” into a smoky, drunken and noisy bar and would mark the “start of the decline of the precinct that would be difficult to stem”.

Councillors were told, however, if the business became a tavern in the future, it would require a planning permit.

Cr Rohan Leppert challenged consultant town planner Gary Wissenden who, on behalf of objectors, urged councillors to oppose the application, while also admitting there were “limited permit triggers”. 

“So no basis, but you’d like us to refuse it anyway?” Cr Leppert asked.

Councillors were told the application for the restaurant did not require a planning permit and only heritage matters needed to be considered. 

The council’s heritage adviser reported: “It is my assessment that the occupation of the existing vacant car park with an outdoor restaurant effectively a pop-up, does not present a heritage concern in relation to any impact upon the heritage character and appearance or any adverse impact upon cultural heritage significance of the Little Bourke Precinct, which is the host heritage place.”

“The works that are proposed to facilitate the restaurant use are not of themselves in any sense more prominent, or dominating in the streetscape than is the vacant lot.”

Council practice leader land use and development, Jane Birmingham, said in her report: “The proposed height and scale of the development is considered contextually appropriate, being lower than surrounding buildings.”

“The lightweight built form on the boundary retains the existing open character and creates an active street frontage. The proposal represents a positive contribution to the street and is considered to be a substantial improvement upon the current open lot car park.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence that the application complied with the planning scheme, five councillors voted to oppose it.

Cr Philip Le Liu objected to a proposed mesh fence.  Cr Kevin Louey also had problems with the fence, while admitting that anything on the site was better than a car park.

Cr Beverley Pinder said she was coming at the issue from a “people’s perspective” and she saw the proposal as detrimental to the Chinatown “experience”.  

“I just don’t think this proposal fits into such hallowed ground,” she said.

Cr Susan Riley said she could not grasp the proposal being in that spot and her heart was saying it wasn’t right for Chinatown.

Cr Arron Wood said heritage advisers often got things wrong and he predicted the matter would be resolved at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

Councillors Sally Capp, Nic Frances Gilley, Rohan Leppert, Cathy Oke and Nicholas Reece voted for the proposal.

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