One of Melbourne’s worst planning mistakes at risk of being repeated
This article was originally published in The Age on 25 June 2020.
A development proposal for the Jolimont railyards has the potential to be one of the biggest planning mistakes in Melbourne in a generation.
The proposed $2 billion Treasury Square at the end of Spring Street has slipped under the radar. It is facilitated by the Victorian government and VicTrack, and if built would compromise the south-eastern edge of the CBD.
It is disconcerting that Melbourne’s planners are again making the error of encouraging speculative development over public interests in this significant civic corridor. The last mistake here, the Gas and Fuel Towers, created a blight that lasted a generation, and was only fixed with Federation Square in 2002.
In 1929, Melbourne engineer Jas Alex Smith warned against the “danger of speculator control” of the Jolimont railyards: an area equivalent in land of that between Collins, Spencer, Flinders and Spring streets.
In a letter to The Age, he cautioned Parliament not to rush ahead with a proposal that would “farm out … control of Crown Lands or ‘air rights’ for long periods of time at nominal concessional rates”. This would create “complex financial and civic problems” with benefits accruing to speculators rather than Melburnians.
Engineering challenges meant that any plans to develop land above the railways between Flinders Street Station and the Melbourne Cricket Ground were delayed until the postwar period.
In 1963, the Bolte government with the Victorian Railways – a precursor to VicTrack – sold the air rights over a parcel of the railyards opposite Flinders Street Station and St Paul’s Cathedral. Lend Lease, with architects Leslie M. Perrot and Partners, built Princes Gate Towers.
The development comprised two modernist structures at 70 metres, or 18 storeys, and was completed in 1967 at a cost of about $200 million in 2020 figures. The anchor tenant of Princes Gate was the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria.
The promised public benefits of what became known as the Gas and Fuel Towers did not fully materialise. Melburnians could go shopping at the retail arcade underneath the towers. Or they could walk up the stairways from Flinders Street to the new Princes Plaza: a raised civic square for a citizenry desiring public space.
There was much excitement for its opening, an “event which Melbourne citizens waited 65 years to see”, but it was soon recognised that the towers were awful. The companion high-rise project, Flinders Gate, over Flinders Street Station was abandoned in the early 1970s.
The public benefit of the Gas and Fuel Towers had been miscalculated. The buildings were monoliths finished in brown brick. They blocked sight lines across Princes Bridge and the Yarra River into the Melbourne CBD – a view line incorporating St Paul’s Cathedral. The towers overshadowed the Yarra River and walled off the southern gateway into the city. The dark and confined arcade was unattractive for strollers and shoppers. The plaza was a harsh, windswept, hostile podium.
Demands to dismantle the Gas and Fuel Towers reached a peak in the 1980s. The director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Patrick McCaughey, offered to do Melburnians a favour by taking these “pits in the sky … down brick by brick”. Planner David Yencken, the architect Les Perrot and premier John Cain called time on them. In 1994, premier Jeff Kennett announced the demolition of these loathed buildings for a public space — Federation Square.
Yet the Gas and Fuel Towers are being reborn. The renders of Treasury Square have three monolithic towers, just clad in glass rather than brick. The development will overshadow Birrarung Marr towards the Yarra River. From Spring Street and Treasury Gardens, the downward sloping vantage towards the Yarra River will be forever gone. It will block views from across the Yarra River into the CBD, comprising heritage-listed Shell House, and wall off the south-eastern edge of the city grid.
Treasury Square compromises the eastern gateway into the CBD. These are public lands and Smith’s warning in 1929 about creating “complex financial and civic problems” for this precinct is again being ignored.
Treasury Square may have some divergences from the Gas and Fuel Towers, but the key issue with them was neither their dismal architecture, nor their lack of success at street level.
The key issue of the Gas and Fuel Towers, and again Treasury Square, is a failure to respect Melbourne’s most significant civic corridor. Both tower complexes certainly resemble each other in uninspiring architecture, in blocking of sightlines, in overshading of riverbanks, in being compromised city gateways, and in opaque planning processes. However, it is ultimately the favouring of speculative high-rise interests along this strip that is especially distressing. The physical and symbolic space between Flinders Street and the Yarra River frames the southern edge of the city and must be respected in quality design and public purpose.
Treasury Square is a step towards privatising and corporatising the public railway corridor towards Federation Square. As with the doomed Apple store, it is a test of the public’s appetite for speculative high-rises for Federation Square East. It establishes a precedent for a string of monolithic towers between Flinders Street and the Yarra River running the length of the southern edge of the CBD. Rather than building on the success of Federation Square, Treasury Square builds on the failure of the Gas and Fuel Towers.
A public spine should be designated from Federation Square to the Melbourne Cricket Ground over the railyards. The spine could even be extended to Docklands. A series of public and cultural institutions set among parklands and reserves, accessed by walking paths and cycleways, would create a public realm of which Melburnians could be proud.
Even if it takes a century to complete, establishing the Jolimont Public Corridor is a transformative, sustainable, civic project for 21st-century Melbourne. It could start immediately by abandoning the reincarnated Gas and Fuel Towers at Treasury Square.