By Shane Scanlan
The redevelopment of the Queen Victoria Market, it emerges, is part of a bigger, wider vision of urban renewal.
In the wake of increasing scrutiny of the $250 million project, Melbourne’s “high priest” of urban planning Rob Adams has revealed the rationale behind his thinking.
In an interview with CBD News, Prof Adams spoke of his 30 years at the helm, noting expansion to Southbank last century and then to Docklands since 2000.
Now, he says, it is the turn of City North to become the new urban renewal area and increase its population density as the central city grows.
But, unlike Southbank and Docklands where the community infrastructure still trails the population explosion, the City of Melbourne wants to get it right from the start.
“There is enough good fabric left, including the Queen Victoria Market to make this a really exciting thing,” the council’s director of city design said.
“So this quantum shift is recognising that the city is moving north and that it will move around the existing infrastructure. We will build on our existing infrastructure, rather than build a whole lot of new infrastructure.”
The 1.5ha market car park is what the council is really after. If it has to “fix” the market for $250 million to get the car park for community purposes, then it’s still a great deal because land like that just isn’t otherwise available.
“We’re saying that QVM needs to become the most important public space in the whole of Melbourne. It will outstrip Fed Square without a doubt in terms of visitation because there’ll be more to do there,” Prof Adams said.
“It’s not just about the market, but the city generally. We are going to need twice the capacity in 2050 than we have today. We’re not going to be able to build it, so we have to utilise the stuff we’ve got more efficiently. So, building space that can adjusted over time (flexible basements under A, B and C Sheds) is the wise strategy.”
The adjacent Munro site, purchased in 2015 for $76 million, will take as many replacement car spaces as required, but the real purpose of the purchase was to invest in urban-renewal-ready community infrastructure.
“Munro in itself was not an investment that was part of the $250 million. When the figure of $250 million came out, we didn’t own Munro. Munro needs to stack up in its own right, and that’s the way we’re treating it,” Prof Adams said.
“We want to preserve a retail offer on the ground floor of Munro – a retail offer that is complementary to the market. So, no supermarket. No franchised stores. Just small traders. Combined with that, we’ll have more than 6500sqm of community facilities. Childcare. A gallery. Family services. All those things that we would have to provide anyway.”
“That’s the infrastructure that this city has to build and I can guarantee, and I’m absolutely prepared to put my name to it, that, in terms of performance, this will be THE best development that has happened since Postcode 3000 started – in every way. In sustainability. In affordable housing. In apartment design. This will be an exemplar. Otherwise, the city wouldn’t get involved with it.”
It’s up to Planning Minister Richard Wynne to determine how much the council will lose on its Munro deal. With 100m discretionary height applying to the residential tower at the back of the Munro site, Lord Mayor Robert Doyle recently revealed that between 130 and 140 metres was the council’s break-even point.
But, speaking with Prof Adams, you are left with the impression that money isn’t the most important factor here.
“If you can provide a street environment that is pedestrianised, that’s facing north with plenty of sun, that’s a low-wind environment, that’s going to be supported by community facilities from the new development and you will not be that aware of the tower because it’s set so far back from the street,” he said.
“The overall improvement to this area is immense. And, once you get to 100 metres, does it matter if it’s 150m or 180m?”
Prof Adams also points out that, at 100m, the council’s Munro tower proposal, is way under the central city’s new strict 18:1 plot ratio equation.
“This is an important area of the city that really needs our help. Without killing something we love, we think we’ve got a really subtle solution that will actually work.”
The numbers surrounding this project are totally rubbery. Prof Adams seems to be asking for residents and ratepayers to trust him on this. It’s as if he is saying: don’t worry about the cost, it will be all okay in the long run.
But, with the project (market plus community infrastructure) topping $300 million and climbing, it’s the equivalent of spending more than three quarters of the council’s annual revenue.
A state government equivalent would be to undertake and fund four Metro Rail Projects. It’s easy to see how this could backfire!
Being less than concerned about the spending can, however, be justified in business terms if one cares to think of the council as a corporation – investing in urban growth to extend its income base. It’s an interesting potential insight into the thinking of corporation directors like Prof Adams who are paid exorbitantly compared with their peers working at other councils.
If they facilitate the building of a better, bigger city, why shouldn’t they reap the rewards?
“If done correctly, these thing pay back. We will get additional rates out of the area around QVM. Even if breaks even and doesn’t make any money, the fact is it’s a good area and we didn’t have to buy the open space,” he said.
“We will get our money back through increase in rates, increase in businesses and the vibrant part of the city that it’s going to be.”
“Our economic model is completely different from a developer’s. Ours is a long-term view of how we get real value from a part of the city that people want to live in. If they’re prepared to live there, slowly the property values will go up.”
Those without vision, such as the people who want to preserve the market as a museum, won’t be impressed by these insights. It only makes sense from a whole-of-Melbourne perspective.
But if you share the helicopter view, it makes a lot of sense.
“If it wasn’t such a good scheme, I’d retire,” he said. “This is something that is actually keeping me working. This is really good stuff. There have been occasions in the past when the city has had to step up and say, this is how you do it,” Prof Adams said.