“Featureless” design atop heritage building slammed

By David Schout

The City of Melbourne has criticised a “plain” design directive from Heritage Victoria for a development atop the heritage-listed former Melford Motors building.

An application for a nine-storey mixed-used atop the Elizabeth St building, built in 1928 as a showroom for Ford vehicles, is set to be sent to the state planning minister after receiving heritage approval.

But before it does, the council said it wanted significant changes to the building’s proposed facade.

“Melbourne does not need another featureless glass tower, and yet it seems that is what is before us,” planning portfolio chair Nicholas Reece said at the April 2 Future Melbourne Committee meeting.

“I think for Melbourne, and I say this very clearly to Heritage Victoria, I think we need to set the bar higher than just requiring that heritage buildings have glass boxes built on top of them. I think we can actually do better than that.”

The site, now a Toyota dealership, is “of architectural and historical significance to the state of Victoria” according to the Victorian Heritage Register.

A render of the proposal.

It is significant for its association with architect Harry Norris, who was one of Victoria’s leading designers of office buildings, shops and showrooms in the interwar period.

“We would like to see a design that references the rhythm, depth and detail of the Harry Norris building, that art deco building on the corner,” Cr Reece said. “Also one that references potentially the materials of that building and we think in that way we’ll get a much more interesting development on what is a highly visible corner of the city.”

The council’s urban design team said the proposed form did not reflect “the expected level of design quality for a tower of this prominence and significance”.

But despite criticism of the facade, Cr Reece said the new $80 million development was “very, very significant improvement” on the previous proposal.

In 2017, planning minister Richard Wynne approved a $208 million, 1008-dwelling development on the Toyota-owned site, stretching across four towers. 

That proposal included 700 student units, something Cr Reece said was not needed due to a “tsunami” of recent student accommodation approvals.

After that project failed to materialise, plans for the site were scaled back.

Cr Rohan Leppert said the smaller-scale development far outweighed the previous proposal. 

“This is a far superior scheme and there’s much to love about the application,” he said.

The Greens councillor said while the facade needed work, he admitted it was hard when a new development sat atop a heritage-listed building.

“Their [Heritage Victoria’s] concern is the same as ours – how do you distinguish that building from the heritage place to make it clear and legible that these are different places?” he said.

“Heritage Victoria doesn’t have the same internal referrals process to design experts as we do, and different people will come to different conclusions.”

The council has asked Heritage Victoria to consider changes to the facade treatment that wouldn’t require a new heritage permit to be issued.

From there, Planning Minister Richard Wynne will consider the development.

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