East Melbourne residents push for mandatory planning guidelines for historic neighbourhood

Brendan Rees

The East Melbourne Group (EMG) will call on the City of Melbourne for “greater transparency and accountability” in its planning governance following its decision to approve the redevelopment of a historic guesthouse.

The group, which provides a voice for residents, announced it would push for mandatory planning guidelines “to restore clarity, openness, and trust in the planning governance system in East Melbourne.”

It comes as the council approved an application in April to redevelop the historic Magnolia Court property at 95-101 Powlett St despite receiving 95 objections.

Residents say the “major commercial expansion” would not be appropriate for the area, while also citing concerns of noise and amenity, increased traffic, heritage impacts, and the “negative precedent” the development would set for the entire precinct.

The EMG confirmed with Inner City News it would be taking its fight to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal after accusing the council’s approval “to be latest in a series of planning missteps and errors in what is one of Australia’s most significant and renowned heritage areas”.

“Despite overwhelming and detailed local opposition to the plan, residents’ concerns were largely ignored in the council’s planning department’s report, and subsequent decision by councillors, in favour of the developer,” the EMG’s planning convenor Greg Bisinella said.

However, in approving the plans, Deputy Lord Mayor and planning chair Cr Nicholas Reece acknowledged the “significant and extensive preserved heritage precincts” within East Melbourne and assured the application had been assessed on its merits.

He said the application had been “very intensely scrutinised” by councillors, and council believed a residential hotel would be an appropriate use in the East Melbourne neighbourhood residential zone, adding there would be no inappropriate demolition of the building’s heritage fabric.

But the EMG said a “lack of transparency and consistency” as well as a “lack of responsiveness” to the concerns of residents, “with this and other rulings now pointed to a planning governance system which had broken down.”

Mr Bisinella said the redevelopment of Magnolia Court had the potential to undermine the precinct’s planning and heritage integrity and represented a “significant departure from precedent which confined such proposals to the precinct’s periphery”.

Under the mandatory planning guidelines proposal, the EMG believed “clearer and more consistent” guidelines would be set down for planning decisions, based on consultation with all stakeholders.

The EMG has also lodged a freedom of information request to seek “detailed information” as to why the council approved the Magnolia Court planning application.

It will also work with other residents’ associations in the inner city to push for greater transparency and accountability in the planning governance system.

City of Melbourne deputy planning lead Cr Rohan Leppert said East Melbourne had a “complicated mix of mandatory and discretionary built form controls and policies, which don’t always satisfy everyone”.

“The most important tasks before us are completing the East Melbourne Heritage Review, to make sure those demolition prevention controls are as up to date as possible, and implementing a new Municipal Planning Strategy, to get our policy directions for each neighbourhood in line with community expectations,” he said. •

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