By Meg Hill
Progress may soon be made in the year-long public battle over a proposed Apple store in Federation Square with three days of public hearings announced for April.
The Heritage Council of Victoria has scheduled the hearings for April 15-17 to assist in its assessment of heritage status for the square.
The National Trust of Victoria pushed for the heritage protection in August 2018, working closely with the Our City, Our Square campaign set up by Citizens of Melbourne to oppose the Apple development.
Two months later Heritage Victoria recommended Federation Square be added to the heritage register. The 60-day window for submissions from the public ended in December.
National Trust CEO Simon Ambrose told CBD News that 750 submissions were received primarily in support for the heritage protection, which he said was “pretty well unheard of”.
“I expect the hearings to have a fairly high profile. People will be interested to hear the outcome and be involved in the outcome,” he said.
“Obviously we can’t pre-empt any decision made by the council but we are very buoyant about the fact that there have been so many positive submissions.”
“We are fairly confident they will uphold the decision.”
Citizens for Melbourne vice president Brett de Hoedt said the response showed that Victorians wanted to keep public space.
“It also shows how out of step the government is on this issue,” he said.
Heritage status would not rule out the Apple store altogether, but it would mean stricter requirements and a more comprehensive process of planning and community consultation.
Mr Ambrose said the National Trust wasn’t anti-development, but asked for “recognition of the importance of the square and to make sure that Apple, or anything, is properly discussed, that there is community involvement and a master plan for development”.
Plans for one of Apple’s biggest ever stores to be built in the square involve a number of contentious issues.
The debate has broadly coalesced around the nature of public and private space, but has been sharpened by a number of other circumstances surrounding the development.
The plans were announced at the end of 2017 without community consultation, and would involve demolishing the Yarra Building, which houses the Koori Heritage Trust.
To justify the project, the state government used allegedly faulty “visitor boost” projections which were based only on Apple’s own estimates.
Hostility has also grown due to Apple’s conduct.
In a Future Melbourne Committee meeting in September last year, City of Melbourne councillors called the plans “appalling” and reported that several entire documents were missing from Apple’s application.
Further, community advocates say the design of the store is incompatible with the architecture of Federation Square.
Citizens for Melbourne ran a campaign during the state election at the end of last year in an attempt to pressure parties on the issue, particularly the incumbent Labor Party.
Scorecards rated a number of different parties out of five. Both the Liberal and Labor parties were given the lowest possible rating – having apparently not replied to the questions asked.
“Federation Square was one of many issues for voters. We are 100 per cent certain that Labor would have gained votes by reversing their decision,” Mr de Hoedt said.