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Most liveable city's heritage under threat from Crown skyscraper

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Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne (image via visitmelbourne.com).

Plans to build Australia's tallest skyscraper in Melbourne will overshadow the Shrine of Remembrance and chip away at Australia's heritage, writes Nick Rodway.

THIS WEEK revealed that the Andrews Government has approved plans to build Australia’s tallest skyscraper at Southbank.

Backed by the Crown Casino entertainment group, the building will reach 90 stories, sitting some 30 metres higher than the Eureka Tower. At this size, and in this position, the structure is bound to cast a shadow on the Shrine of Remembrance.

If this announcement doesn’t draw focus to the degradation of Melbourne’s heritage, then I truly cannot think of anything else that will.

It’s almost a cliché: picture the light fading slowly on the sacred quad, the eternal flame burning on against the encroaching dark. While the very concept that a gambling dynasty could overshadow our returned services seems too absurd to be true, it is a very real cause for concern. What the government’s decision shows is that heritage architecture – the face and character of Melbourne – is at risk of being marginalised for "progress" and development.

Melbourne is often described as the best maintained of any Victorian-era city — which is not hard to believe when you consider the magnificent façades of Flinders Street Station and the Royal Exhibition Building. However, looks aside, what makes such structures special is that they are intrinsic to city life.

Melbournians do not isolate their buildings like museums but instead engage with and maintain them as gathering places. As a result, they play into the collective imagination and form a shared aesthetic. Nowhere was this better seen than at the White Night Melbourne event — a 12-hour spectacular that has developed into an homage to Melbourne's architecture as well as a showcase of local visual art forms. This year, as any, Victorians came out in force, following on from the 600,000 people who turned out in 2016.

Yet, it appears that consecutive Victorian State governments have been increasingly apathetic towards the fondness Victorians hold for their heritage. We are facing a situation whereby the character of the city could be unalterably transformed. Melbourne now has the highest net internal migration gains of all major Australian capitals and with growth comes increased demand for accommodation. However, instead of finding ways to carefully preserve historic architecture whilst welcoming new residents, we are being treated to widespread destruction of Melbourne’s history.

Over the last year, a number of prime examples of 19th century construction have been earmarked for demolition. Most recently, it was announced that the Great Western Hotel – a King Street institution built in 1864 – will make way for a residential skyscraper. This follows in the wake of the demolition of Carlton’s Corkman Hotel in October. The upside to the Corkman’s demolition is that the developers – who illegally ruined the 159-year-old building – may have to rebuild it as the original site had a heritage overlay.

However, the Corkman has only really received coverage because of the controversy regarding its destruction. Far more alarming is the inaction of the powers that be – the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Government – in allowing developers access to sites that can and should be protected under heritage clauses.

The most pressing example of this is the Palace Theatre. Until recent times the premier live music venue in Melbourne, the grand old lady of Bourke Street is to be torn down for a boutique hotel. The fact that there will not even be in-demand, permanent housing on the site, sets an alarming precedent. In essence, it shows that developers can do whatever they want, as long as they can front the money for their ventures. Heritage simply becomes collateral along the way and it is the people of Melbourne who lose out; lose their buildings, their outlets and their inspiration.

Melbourne is a UNESCO city of literature; it is one of the few cities in the world chosen to host a White Night. They don’t just hand these titles and awards out. Cities are considered and the commitment that a metropolis makes to its history and its culture shines through.

There is a reason Melbourne is quickly losing its moniker as the "most liveable city" in the world. Blame the traffic, blame the property market. However, when you take away our art, our culture and our heritage, you dismiss the very reasons that make this city what it is.

The people of Victoria have shown time and again their appreciation of their capital. Perhaps it’s not too optimistic to hope that one day they will stand up – in numbers shown at White Night – and demand that historic buildings and venues in this city (and elsewhere in Australia) receive the protection they deserve.

Nick Rodway is a conservationist and writer based in Melbourne.

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