Mooted tower near QVM could destroy iconic art laneway

By Brendan Rees

An iconic street art laneway in Melbourne’s CBD could face the wrecking ball after the City of Melbourne approved plans to build an adjoining 41-storey tower development. 

The 133-metre mixed-use tower near the Queen Victoria Market (QVM) proposes to have shops, 267 apartments, offices and a publicly accessible basketball court. 

The proposed site is currently home to the five-storey Burbank House as well as two double-storey brick warehouses and a three-storey brick building, some of which were built in the early 1900s and would be partially demolished under the plans. 

However, developer Landreams will need the final nod from the state government to get the project at 100-106 Franklin St off the ground, after City of Melbourne councillors voted unanimously in favour of the development at their October 19 meeting.  

GU Investments Group Pty Ltd and Burbank Holdings currently own the land which is affected by heritage overlay.

The plans were discussed at length during the council meeting after concerns were raised that Blender Lane, a famous street art laneway which has attracted local and international artists, would be partially destroyed and widened to make way for the tower.

Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece conceded the proposal had presented a “complex conundrum for our planning system”, but believed the development would “deliver a vibrant, buzzing new laneway for Melbourne”.

“There is a tricky balance to be struck here between protecting outstanding street art examples and enabling the continued evolution of what is by nature, an ephemeral art form,” he said.

“The Victorian planning system does not recognise [or] award popularity with street artists as something that needs to be taken into account when making decisions about planning applications.”

But Cr Reece said overall the design of the building by Bates Smart Architects was of “a really high standard” and was “terrific for pedestrian movement” to QVM.

“This project does deliver some significant upside … the widening of Blender Lane and the active frontage that provides a through block link from Franklin St through to Therry St … literally right at the entrance of the Dairy Produce Hall at QVM,” he said.

Cr Rohan Leppert agreed with the Deputy Lord Mayor, saying he also believed the application was of an “exceptionally high quality” but remained “optimistic about the future of street art in Melbourne and the wonderful canvases that we do have all throughout the city”.

“At a personal level, of course, I’m devastated at the potential outcome here,” he said. “I’m very familiar with the importance of Blender Lane, the artist studio, and the role that laneways like this play to emerging artists, to the street art culture generally, and to art in Melbourne full stop.”

“It’s simply the case though, that our planning controls cannot regulate ephemeral art and require the non-demolition of spaces that have not been graded as having heritage value.”

Cr Leppert added, “we’ve known for a very, very long time this could happen to Blender Lane”, but as soon as the wall was designated as a “special place with special character” that’s when the street art community would decide to go elsewhere. 

Melbourne Heritage Action president Tristan Davies said he supported the proposal but would like to have seen one brick wall at Blender Lane retained to ensure there was “much of its 1920s brick character” and an “iconic Melbourne feel to the laneway”.

Adrian Doyle, artist and director of The Blender Studios, said he was devastated to learn of the planned demolition of art in Blender Lane which he described as the “cultural veins” of Melbourne. 

He said the proposed development was typical of foreign investors “cashing in on the culture of our city … and taking a little bit of Melbourne each time they do it”.

“Melbourne’s going to look like any other city. We’re losing all the things that make Melbourne have a unique and interesting identity,” he said. 

Friends of Queen Victoria Market secretary Dr Miriam Faine expressed concerns the council had gone against their heritage guidelines in the QVM precinct to “construct yet another potentially empty tower”.

“Trashing our heritage is not the way to revive the city,” she said. “The result is that the National Heritage listed QVM site now sits in a canyon surrounded by visually dominating towers. This will have detrimental consequences for the amenity of the QVM as a functioning market.”

“Reinstating laneway access between Therry St and Franklin St is a good idea, but this needn’t require the further obliteration of yet more significant commercial and industrial heritage in the QVM precinct.”

“One would have thought that the pandemic offered a perfect opportunity to pause the relentless overdevelopment of Melbourne. Instead, reopening apparently means more of the same – and it doesn’t matter how awful or redundant a development is, this council will let it through.”

In addition to councillors approving the development proposal, councillors also voted in favour of a motion for the soon-to-be launched Design Excellence Advisory Committee to consider the role the City of Melbourne played in the “facilitation and protection” of street art, and “recognising Melbourne’s reputation as a world leading city for street art” •

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