By Shane Scanlan
Far from abandoning hopes for a three-storey basement under the Queen Victoria Market, City of Melbourne councillors have come out swinging.
At their May 15 Future Melbourne Committee meeting, they were adamant that they weren’t backing down nor were they putting the project on ice.
Rather, they said, they were pursuing the most practical path to achieve an outcome.
Some councillors said it was even possible that the same application would be made to Heritage Victoria for a permit to remove and later replace half of sheds A, B, C and D to dig a three-level basement.
Heritage Victoria in March refused a permit for the works, saying the level of the proposed change was not justified by the council’s business case.
Acting Lord Mayor Arron Wood was one of the most strident, saying he was “begrudgingly” prepared to abandon a legal appeal only because lodging a new application was viewed as being more likely to lead to the right outcome.
But, he warned, a new application might not be much different to the one which failed in March.
“This doesn’t mean that we’re going to come back with an entirely new proposal. It means a revised application,” he said. “So it may mean that a lot of those things that I personally see as fundamental are in the new application, but we work out a different way to go about them – to stage them, to show that they can be done, to provide the business case for them.”
Cr Cathy Oke said: “It doesn’t necessary mean that the (new) proposal is any different because I believe the issues on the table are very much the same in the same situation as we were five years ago.”
Councillors Phillip Le Liu and Susan Riley voted against lodging a new application, saying the council had been poorly treated and advocating a legal approach.
“How do we respect someone who doesn’t really respect us?” Cr Le Liu asked.
“I’m not in support of putting in a new application. I think we have very strong grounds for appeal or judicial review.”
Cr Riley said: “I think we were dealt a really raw deal by Heritage Victoria. I think they just railroaded us into this without the consultation or the respect that they should have shown the City of Melbourne.”
“I believe we should fight it. Truly, I still don’t get why they couldn’t consult with us before they came down with a refusal. I just think it was totally unfair and unreasonable.”
Other councillors agreed with their sentiment, but said a new application was more pragmatic, cheaper, quicker and more likely to succeed.
Cr Nic Reece said: “What you see before you in this recommendation is pragmatism writ large. For me, pragmatism is my talisman on this matter.”
Cr Wood said: “I reluctantly support a decision to support a new application. Not because I don’t think our proposal was first rate, but because I’m interested in an outcome.”
“On a personal note, I think there are very strong grounds for an appeal or to go through a court process, but I’m absolutely outcomes-focused on this.”
He said press reports that the council had gone back to the drawing board were wrong.
“The idea that the project is on ice or it’s on hold is a misrepresentation of where we’re at,” he said.
“There are some fundamental parts of our proposal that I think we should stand strongly by as we move through the application process.”
He revealed that Heritage Victoria had later shared with the council 30 reasons for its refusal. Heritage Victoria is refusing to make these reasons public.
Cr Wood said: “Of the 30 things that Heritage Victoria has identified, perhaps 10 or 20 of those are easily accommodated without fundamental change to the project.”
“And then there might be five or 10 things for which we say ‘the business case stacks up’, ‘here’s all the reasons why’ and we want to have a good conversation with Heritage Victoria to address the concerns that they legitimately have.”
He said he still strongly rejected the notion that the sheds could not be safety deconstructed and reconstructed.
“Skills in heritage restoration are everywhere. The Star of the Sea church, for example, just down the road has just undergone a huge restoration,” he said.
“Heritage restoration is an entire industry globally, more specifically, many of the open air markets around the world have gone through similar restorations. The Borough Market, the Barcelona Market.”
“This is not a skill set that is in short supply, so I firmly believe that, even with the Heritage Victoria decision that we should enter into an ‘in-good-faith’ conversation with them about how we still might be able to proceed with what I think is fundamental to the business case for renewal.”