By Meg Hill
Disgruntled Melburnians gathered in Federation Square on September 19 to protest the Apple flagship store planned to replace one of the square’s buildings.
The rally was organised by Citizens for Melbourne and guest speakers included National Trust CEO Simon Ambrose, Greens councillor Rohan Leppert and Victorian Socialist candidate Stephen Jolly.
The state government provoked outrage in late 2017 when it announced plans for the store. There is strong public sentiment against giving the multinational giant space in Federation Square.
The fact that the plans were made in secret inflamed the outrage. Since then, Citizens for Melbourne has run a community-focused campaign against the proposal.
Brett De Hoedt, the rally emcee, began by asking the audience, “If I was going to ask you whose city this was, what would you say?” A forceful reply answered, “Our city”.
When he asked, “Whose square?” the crowd answered, “Our square.”
Citizens for Melbourne member Michael Smith told CBD News that Federation Square was of national significance.
“They’re buildings that Victorian taxpayers spent a lot of money – $467 million– to build, and we don’t think a corporation should come along and demolish one of those buildings and turn it into some kind of glorified retail outlet.”
The backing of the National Trust, whose CEO Simon Ambrose spoke at the rally, has been significant. The National Trust nominated Federation Square for heritage protection this year, and interim status lasting until late 2018 was granted in August.
The heritage proposal is also due to the Metro Tunnel work, which the interim order states is a threat to the square.
The state government planned for the work to start in 2019 and has so far refused to back down on the controversial plans.
However, Citizens for Melbourne says that plenty of other political figures contesting the upcoming elections, including the opposition’s Matthew Guy, and the new Victorian Socialists, have taken the community’s side.
“It is an election year, and we’ve had 100,000 people sign a petition saying that they don’t want their square turned over to Apple,” Matthew Smith said.
“We’re coming up to an election in November, so we are optimistic that at this stage anything is possible.”
Melbourne City Council has taken a swipe at the plans, with councillors calling them “appalling”.
The September 4 Future Melbourne Committee meeting received 850 submissions this year from the public airing their grievances on the issue.
It’s not just the design matters that are of concern, but also Apple’s conduct.
The committee was asked its view on a revised design for the building, but said it could not comment because not all documents were provided.
Cr Rohan Leppert said there were entire documents missing from the application.
“This really is no way to manage civic space,” he said.
Citizens for Melbourne president Tania Davidge told the meeting: “It is clear that the refined plans do not meet the principles set down to guide the design refinement stage as agreed by the steering committee on February 7, 2018.”
“The plans demonstrate either no understanding or a wilful ignorance of the immediate context,” Ms Davidge said.
Cr Jackie Watts added: “We’re trying to get the elected government to comply with their own rules. The whole thing is absolutely farcical.”
“But, worse, we’re actually facing a loss of one of our most important cultural assets. The lack of regard is appalling and the government should be ashamed.”
Cr Nicholas Frances Gilley said that, despite the strong opinions of the council, it had little power over Federation Square – flagging that it should be handed over to the City of Melbourne.