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St Kilda Triangle site: The missing link

Four years have passed since Citta Property Group's proposal to redevelop the contentious St Kilda Triangle site was rejected with the premium Melbourne site still an asphalt car park servicing the hordes of visitors from far and wide so they can grace the St Kilda foreshore and surrounds.

The site was once swampland, yet was transformed into recreational space after the foreshore was drained and reclaimed. During 1906 the St Kilda Council established the Foreshore Trust and the area was re-invented by Carlo Catani into a mediterranean style resort consisting of the iconic Luna Park in and amongst tearooms and a kiosk similar to what was found in Catani's motherland. Today the St Kilda Triangle site is precisely that, a triangular shaped parcel of land bordered by The Esplanade to the north and St Kilda foreshore/Jacka Boulevard to the south. Along with Cavell St, the heritage listed 1920's Henry E. White-designed Palais Theatre forms the eastern border. In a larger context the site is located neatly between the restaurant strip of Fitzroy Street to the north and the once prodominently Jewish enclave of Acland Street now consisting of bars and the popular and famous cake shops.

However for much of the areas existence the publically owned land has been underutilised as an open air carpark which triggered the development of the St Kilda Foreshore Urban Design Framework (UDF) during 2001 in an attempt to increase the area's amenity, and better serve the ever increasing patrons using the foreshore. The UDF identifed several principles for the future of the triangle site with one including a low rise development whilst protecting and enhancing the local culture with provisions for increased public space and ensuring that the area remained consistent with its entertainment history as set out by Carlo Catani.

By mid 2007, the Port Phillip City Council and the State Government had awarded a tender to lease and redevelop the St Kilda Triangle to Citta Property Group in partnership with the then Babcock & Brown following an expressions of interest process that took some years to complete. As part of the redevelopment, Citta Property Group gathered a clutch of designers and advisors in order to provide the most appropriate outcome for the site's setting. Local architecture firm Ashton Raggatt McDougall joined the team, known for their unique and interesting interpretation of architecture and its relationship with street level amenity.

A boutique hotel, TAFE campus, retail outlets with a mixture of local and chain establishments, various nightclubs and bars (including Ministry of Sound) were in the mix which also included public open space in the form of an extensive grassed area above the retail outlets and underground car parking spaces.

Invariably along with the announcement of this proposal came a flood of local community opposition to the scale of the development in a much loved area of Melbourne, primarily lead by the action group UnChain St Kilda. Accordingly to the group's website they are an incorporated body of people that were brought together by the proposed overdevelopment of the St Kilda triangle site. They contend that community discontent surrounding the proposed development were a result of poor governance at local and state levels. UnChain St Kilda lead the community backlash against the proposal which culminated in fiery council meetings which packed out the Port Phillip Council Chambers and created headlines across print, TV and radio media at the time. At the height of local discontent during 2007 their overdevelopment message was supercharged by local celebrities such as Dave Hughes and Rachel Griffiths to name but a few, with a documentary titled Triangle Wars also highlighting the amount of anger and vitriol present at the time. The film followed the journey of a number of key figures in the battle including the diminutive vocal Frenchman, Serge Thomann who went on to win a seat at Port Phillip City Council in 2008 following the UnChain St Kilda campaign.

When talking about the St Kilda Triangle saga, we cannot leave out Dick Gross, at the time a former Port Phillip City Councillor who gained local notoriety as a supporter of the failed Citta Property Group proposal. Both Thomann and Gross have maintained a long standing feud that revolved around the St Kilda Triangle site development. During 2007, Gross said of the proposal "I was part of the Council that had the culture of saying no to everything. And by saying no we got a feeling of virtuous righteousness, but we were as impotent as a pre Viagra 70 year old. We were getting nothing done." He went on further, "My fear is that if you say no too often, State Government will come in and impose a solution which will be worse. I promise you that it will be worse."In a way Dick Gross was and still is correct, one of the roles of local government is to be the first port of call for its local constituents for issues affecting the immediate community and acting upon those needs quickly and maturely in the interest of their rate payers.

In the aftermath of the bitter rangling over the future of the Triangle site, the new Council commissioned feasibility studies and conducted a total of four consultations with the community to develop the 2012 St Kilda Triangle Framework. Unsurprisingly, former Councillor Dick Gross was uninspired by the document saying that the lack of details was a disgrace. However on the flip side, Thomann was somewhat more sympathic to the document saying that "it is a little vague, but is looking forward to getting back onto council and expending as much energy on developing this plan and turning it into something more real."

The key features of the document as stated on the Port Phillip Council are as follows:

  • Landscaped public space
  • Views of the foreshore
  • Low scale sustainable development
  • Land for future Palais Theatre improvements
  • Principles to guide development of the site
  • Live music and performance opportunities
  • Improved beach access for pedestrians
  • Links to transport, Acland and Fitzroy Streets
  • A possible underground carpark
  • A funding and implementation strategy

These key findings appear reasonable options for the future of the site, but the aspects that really needs to be considered far more in my opinion are transport links and the conduit that the site should provide between Acland and Fitzroy Streets. I believe that this connection is vitally important, leading to the completion of the urban fabric of St Kilda. All efforts should be made to enhance the public realm whilst minimising further auto traffic attracted to the eventual development.

So after years of bickering, campaigns and consultations after consultations, a question that sticks in my mind is what are peoples motivations behind all of this? Some say the community have concerns about crown land being handed to developers to, in their words, build a "Chadstone by the Sea". Were local residents worried that the development would introduce more alcohol fuelled violence to an area that historically has had a problem with such problems? Then there's the loss of vistas over the bay for residents fronting The Esplanade and the loss of "open space" where in fact, the development would have delivered additional useable open space as aforementioned in this article, whilst the design purposely proposed to be low rise as to not lose these much treasured vistas. I believe it was a combination of a lot of different factors but my favourite line came from my former employer during 2008 (and long time St Kilda resident) after a long day in the field when I asked him what he thought of the St Kilda Triangle, he replied by saying "I hate it", naturally I asked why? He responded with "It will reduce the amount of car parking for the locals". As you can imagine at the time I was a little bemused knowing that the development proposed additional car parking as well, but I guess it shows that everyone had their own views on the site, informed or otherwise.

Ultimately, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news for some, but I feel the community backlash was not the deathknell for this project that many has suggested. In fact, something that may be considered the elephant in the room in all of this, would be the impact the global financial crisis had on this project going ahead. I would assert that if the GFC didn't hit the global markets at the time of the proposed Citta development moving toward leasing and eventual construction, would we be hanging out at one of the many restaurants at the newly developed Triangle site on a sunny Saturday afternoon sipping sangrias... more than likely.

But it was not to be and the site remains an open air car park and one of the most prized, underdeveloped waterfront locations in Australia. In hindsight, I feel that the Citta proposal was somewhat excessive in context , however when this development eventually does occur I sincerely hope is that the site is not underdeveloped as a result of a community angst still apparent from the events of 2007. Finding the right development balance is the vexing question. Ideally I see the Triangle site linking both Fitzroy St and Ackland St whilst also satisfying the needs of visitors, the local community and the Melburnians at large. We want something to be proud of!

The key features of the framework document provides merely a starting point and much more needs to be done to ensure an outcome that is fitting of this premium location. In finishing I leave you with two points. Firstly, the St Kilda foreshore belongs to everyone and not those that have the means and privilege to be able to live in what is now an exclusive beach side area. Secondly, I would like to reflect on the sentiment of Dick Gross' words, if we say no too often then we run the risk of ending up with an outcome that is worse. Compromising the benefit/enjoyment of the wider community by pandering to the vocal objections of a few could constitute a bad outcome.

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1 comment

Rohan Storey's picture

Well put. There was a lot of community angst, informed or otherwise. Mostly I think it a reaction to the large scale of the project, which as you say in hindsight "was somewhat excessive in context".

I too think that connections across the site are the most important starting point, but I dont think that being a 'premium' waterfront site means that it should inevitably be 'developed' with a high commercial content.

Underground parking with a some grass and trees on top, with paths and an entertainment / music venue, and a cafe or two would fit right in with the foreshore as a whole, and seems to be what the local community wants. All Melburnians would enjoy that kind of outcome too, in the same way they enjoy the rest of the foreshore.

The vexing issue is how to achieve that without effectively putting the Council into huge debt.

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