Heritage Victoria have rejected a planning permit for a new Apple store to be built at Federation Square which would have seen part of the square demolished to make way for the new store.
The highly controversial project was set to be a global flagship store for Apple. Although having a smaller footprint than the Yarra building that it was set to replace it was described as creating 500 square metres of additional public space and better connections to the Yarra River and Birrarung Marr. It was thought it would revitalize the square and encourage more visitors. However the development faced major backlash from the public which has gone on for more than two years when the Victoria Government announced approval of the plans in December 2017.
Criticism came from what people saw as the commercialisation of a place intended for culture and arts. Along with the demolition of the Yarra building, which is part of the iconic square, to make way for the Apple store. The three-storey Yarra Building encloses the Square on its southern side and is beside the Yarra River. The Koorie Heritage Trust, which includes an Aboriginal art gallery is currently housed in the building and would have been relocated elsewhere in the square if the plans had gone ahead. A lack of public consultation before the plans were approved by the Victoria Government also contributed to the strong criticism.
Activist groups Citizens for Melbourne and Our City, Our Square have campaigned against the redevelopment of the square and helped accumulate over 1,100 submissions opposing the Apple store ahead of a council committee meeting to discuss the project in March 2019. The City of Melbourne’s Future Melbourne Committee ultimately decided to oppose the four storey Apple store. Only one of the eleven committee members voted in favour of demolishing the building without the need for heritage approval.
Federation Square houses the National Gallery of Victoria and the ACMI along with cafes and restaurants and was developed in 2002 to be a community hub of culture and arts representing the culmination of a century-long search for a public square in the centre of Melbourne. However it has been criticized in the past for its unattractive design and not being as popular a tourist spot and community hang out as once intended.
Planning Permit to revive the Square
Advocates of the flagship Apple store argued it would bring a new lease of life to Federation Square after user engagement and footfall has not lived up to expectations. The proposed Apple store would have been on a 21-year lease and been one of six flagship stores around the world. The plans went through several changes and was redesigned in consultation with Melbourne City Council to address concerns from the community and council itself but to no avail. Apple tried to emphasise the education and community engagement activities the store would bring to the square rather than being just another commercial retail space. However they were not prepared to compromise and house the new store in the Yarra building to save it from being demolished. They argued that the Yarra building in its current form was too small for the community activities planned for the store.
Heritage Register Nomination
To stop the development from going ahead and to save the Yarra building from demolition the National Trust of Australia Victoria stepped in and nominated Federation Square to the Victorian Heritage Register. This then triggered planning regulations that required Fed Square Pty Ltd, who manage the square, to apply to the heritage authorities for approval of the development.
On 1 August 2018, Heritage Victoria accepted the nomination to include Federation Square on the Victorian Heritage Register under the provisions of the Heritage Act 2017. Heritage Victoria made an Interim Protection Order over Federation Square and in December 2018, the Interim Protection Order was extended until 31 August 2019.
An Interim Protection Order ensures that any planning permit application for a nominated building has to be lodged with the Heritage Council of Victoria for approval prior to the decision being made to include or not include the place on the Victorian Heritage Register. A final decision as to whether it will be placed on the register is expected in mid-2019.
Planning Permit Decision
This gave Heritage Victoria the final approval over the new Apple store which they consequently rejected on April 5 2019 on the grounds of it being an ‘unacceptable and irreversible detrimental impact on the cultural heritage significance of Federation Square’. The refusal also noted that the negative impacts of the proposal to Federation Square far outweighed the economic benefits the Apple store would bring. The full refusal can be found here.
Simon Ambrose, CEO of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) said it was committed to saving places of significance and Federation Square has come to be highly valued by the community on both a cultural and architectural level.
“With significant changes proposed at Federation Square, we have fast-tracked our nomination to ensure there is a coordinated approach which takes into account the architectural and cultural significance of this important place. Additionally, the lack of transparency has been concerning, with no attempt to consult Victorians—the very people who Federation Square was built for”
The nomination was questioned by some as Federation Square was completed only 16 years ago. It was argued whether giving the Square a place on the heritage register was justified for such a relatively new development and last year the Tourism Minister John Eren said it was ‘unprecedented’ for such a new build to be put on the register.
Apple have decided not to appeal the refusal which means that for now the Yarra Building has been saved. This demonstrates the many complications that can arise when lodging a planning permit application in areas of heritage significance. If Federation Square’s nomination is accepted by Heritage Victoria and it is added to the register it will ensure the continued protection of one of Melbourne’s most significant public places.