What's so special about the Palace Theatre? Evidently quite a lot as in excess of 25,000 Melburnians have signed a petition to save the venue from demolition and redevelopment into a premium W Hotel and apartment complex. Overshadowing within the historic Bourke Hill precinct, proximity to State Parliament, the potential loss of a cultural and live music icon, personal experiences and a general aversion to development would be amongst the reasons why the general public have made their displeasure with this development unequivocally clear.
Yet of all those to voice their concerns, the most telling would be that of State Planning Minister Matthew Guy who on ABC Radio stated of the proposed development, "The developer is dreaming if he thinks the government is going to approve this in the form in which it has been submitted. It is too tall, it is in the wrong location."
With those words in mind and following preliminary feedback from State planning officials, the project team spearheaded by venerable architecture firm Bates Smart have returned with amended plans for the site. Initially designed as a mixed-use tower some 99.75 metres in height and maintaining a setback of 8 metres to Bourke Street, the revised plans submitted late September produce in essence a lopped scheme where the tower is now expected to reach 72.25 metres. In reducing height, the development team have decreased the setback to Bourke Street to 5 metres in order to somewhat mitigate the lessened development yield.
A roughly 27 metre reduction sees nine levels removed while 22 will remain within an altogether similar external design which sees a white 'layered veil' over blue glass; a nod to the Fairlie Apartment complex in South Yarra as cited within the planning application. Overall apartment numbers have decreased considerably whereas hotel rooms stand at 200, a reduction of only five. The revised scheme now calls for seven levels of residential living at the towers peak offering approximately 90 one and two bedroom apartments, down from 145 apartments initially included.
See below the expected view from Spring Street where the red line indicates the initial planning application envelope as opposed to the lower revised scheme. Given the Windsor Hotel opposite recently received absolute approval to proceed with its redevelopment much to the chagrin of the Planning Minister, is it not hypocritical to prevent the Palace Theatre development proceeding in some way, shape or form?
One could argue the case yes, and justifiably so in many people's eyes, although proponents of the Palace Theatre mount a strong case as well. Included within the revised documents submitted late September is a letter of support from Starwood Hotels and Resorts, owner and operator of the W brand. It maintains that after an extensive site selection process in which any properties considered must adhere to lofty selection criteria, the Palace Theatre site was and remains the natural choice. Affirming their '100%' support to both the site and site owner, Jinshan Investment Group Pty Ltd, Starwood have very much pinned their Melbourne ambitions to this development.
An optimal compromise would likely see a development of some description set well back and separated from the Bourke Street frontage, therefore maintaining and incorporating a large portion of the existing Palace Theatre - akin to another Melbourne building, the former Herald & Weekly Times at 8 Exhibition Street. This is not an option due to site constraints and height concerns, which at this point leads to an all or nothing outcome where total Palace Theatre retention or demolition are the likely outcomes.
Whereas planning officials have voiced concerns over scale, height and overshadowing, I'd suspect the average person wouldn't be so much interested in the overall height and bulk of the tower, more so the retention of the existing building.
State planners and ultimately Matthew Guy have a curly decision to deliver regarding this planning application. Respect the wishes of the masses and maintain the Palace Theatre or approve redevelopment and enjoy the lasting economic boon the construction and ongoing operation that a five star hotel delivers. An unenviable position where someone is bound to be disappointed!