Theosophical demolition prompts fight over notice rights

By Meg Hill

Demolition of the almost-century-old former Theosophical Society building has been approved twice, first in 2018 and then again last year. Neighbouring residents are still fighting to save it, and they want to change planning protocol in the CBD while they’re at it.

Dozens of people living next door to the building, which has narrowly missed out on heritage protection, have objected to plans for demolition to build a hotel on the site.

The 1923 building was put forward for heritage protection as part of the council’s Hoddle Grid Heritage Review, which began in 2017 and presented its recommendations last August.

But heritage protection for the building did not proceed, as an application for demolition had been approved in the meantime, The City of Melbourne issued a permit in August 2018 for a development on the site.

Developer Triple MMM Holdings issued a new application for a bigger development with revised designs in December 2019 and a second permit was issued in September 2020.

Residents of the Hero Apartment building – which was also included in the Hoddle Grid Heritage Review – said it was unacceptable that demolition could go ahead despite the heritage recommendations.

“I have lived in the Hero Apartment building for more than 16 years and have seen dynamic changed in the CBD during this time, especially the huge increase in permanent residents in our great city,” Jill Luttin, chair of the Hero Apartment building owners’ corporation (OC) said.

“To cater for this increased population, commercialisation and tourism, we obviously require more new buildings.”

“This does not mean demolishing the heritage areas as recently updated by the City of Melbourne.”

The Hero Apartment building also neighbours the former Methodist Church Centre on Little Collins St, which was also recommended for protection by the Hoddle Grid Heritage Review but which will be demolished to build a new office tower.

Public notice rights

The Hero Apartment residents said their experience with the former Theosophical Society building also alerted them to a wider problem with planning in the city.

Despite the fact that many residents have lived in their apartments for well over a decade, it was the first time many of them had learned about the lack of public notice rights in the Capital City Zone.

The Planning and Environment Act 1987 mandates notice requirements for planning applications that seek to demolish and/or construct a building.

But the Capital City Zone was exempted from these requirements in 1993 through the Melbourne Planning Scheme.

Tricia Caswell is the convenor of the Hero Apartment building OC heritage subcommittee. She has lived in the building for 20 years.

She said it was only by luck that residents came across the applications for demolition of their neighbouring buildings.

“When you have public notice rights people get notified, you can’t miss it. With the situation at the moment, you only know if you happen to stumble upon it,” she said.

“It used to be axiomatic in a democracy that if you were going to be impacted by a development, you got to have a say. It gives people in a democracy a right to say something about what’s going to happen in their day to day lives.”

She pointed to the Hoddle Grid Heritage Review as a positive example.

“With the review, we all got a letter in the mail addressed to us,” she said.

The City of Melbourne’s Future Melbourne Committee considered reinstating public notice rights in 2014 but decided against it.

“To reintroduce public notification will result in increased costs and delays to permit applicants and will require additional staff in the planning department to manage the increased workload. The Act specifically requires a responsible authority, council, committee and officers to act promptly so that loss or damage from unreasonable or unnecessary delay is avoided,” a 2014 report from council management read.

A statement from a City of Melbourne spokesperson said the former Theosophical Society building was not heritage-listed and complaints lacked legal status – but did not address the question of whether the Melbourne Planning Scheme should be amended.

“The former Theosophical Society building is not listed on the Heritage Register and has not been awarded interim heritage protection,” the spokesperson said.

“Applications for demolition- and construction-related works within the Capital City Zone are exempt from public comment and third-party appeals, as outlined in the Melbourne Planning Scheme.”

“Objections were received and considered during the assessment of this application; however, the objections lack legal status due to the requirements outlined in the Capital City Zone.”

“Market conditions are not considered as a factor when assessing planning applications. Construction Management Plans are used to manage potential impacts of construction on amenity.”

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