Hands off our pub: Unions unite to save The Curtin from development

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Brendan Rees

The Carlton community has thrown its weight behind unionists who have vowed to form a picket line, if necessary, to thwart any plans of redeveloping the historic John Curtin Hotel.

It comes as the Building Industry Group, which represents building and construction unions, declared a “green ban” on the site – a strike action first used in the 1970s – after learning the iconic pub had been sold to an overseas buyer.

The ban will mean union members will be advised not to participate in any development of the 150-year-old institution – with any other construction worker to be told to “go work somewhere else” if they attempt to walk onto the site.

“We are very worried that these international developers are going to come in and rip this building down just like what happened to the Corkman [Hotel] to try to whack up apartments – that is inappropriate to this site,” Victorian Trades Hall Council secretary Luke Hilakari said in announcing the ban on April 29, which saw a group of unionists, community members, and musicians come together in solidarity to protect The Curtin.

“We’re going stand by this building, we’re going to protect it, if necessary, with ourselves, and you’ll see people form their own picket line to protect this building.”

“We can’t keep losing them like this. We need to ensure that The Curtin is still there in 150 years’ time.”

Green bans have been credited with saving Melbourne icons such as City Baths, Princess Theatre, Hotel Windsor, Flinders Street Station and the Queen Victoria Market from development.  

Managers of The Curtin announced earlier this year that the pub would close when its lease expired in November after the owners put the building up for sale – leaving the community fearing that they would lose their beloved watering hole forever.

Mr Hilakari told reporters the pub had been sold for $5.5 million to an overseas developer, however, agent CBRE would not confirm these details, nor say whether the buyer knew about the cultural and historical significance of The Curtin, providing a “no comment” response to Inner City News.

Mr Hilakari said he was “surprised” by the sale result, saying, “the union movement in partnership with RMIT had tried to buy the building. We had the highest bid, but that was not taken up.”

He said the green ban would create a “very significant disruption” to any developer who attempted to knock down the historic building “for a quick buck”, adding “what they have bought is not a pub – what they have bought is a giant problem.”

 

We will not stand by and let our precious, historic buildings be destroyed by international greedy developers.

 

“We can’t have it; we want to keep Melbourne special.”

In March, the Victorian union movement joined forces with the National Trust of Australia in nominating to have the historic pub protected on the Victorian Heritage Register after citing its significance to Victorian and Labor Party history.

The Curtin was named after Labor Prime Minister John Curtin and is one of few dedicated live music venues in Carlton – which residents also described as the “heritage and the social fabric of Carlton.”

In a sign the City of Melbourne is also backing campaigners, the council granted The Curtin an interim “significant” heritage protection in March under the Carlton Heritage Review Amendment C405.

The council said the measure “was in the works” before the proposed sale of the site – with the review now sitting with the Planning Minister Richard Wynne for approval.

Deputy Lord Mayor and planning chair Nicholas Reece said the interim protection would help ensure The Curtin “receives the strongest possible level of protection in any redevelopment application.”

“It means any application for redevelopment of the site would be reviewed “VERY CAREFULLY,” he told Inner City News.

“Melbourne has lost too many of our heritage pubs, and it’s important that we protect the venues like The Curtin Hotel – not just as an important building in a heritage precinct but also as a venue with an enormous cultural and social significance to our city …  it has played host to live and sweaty pub rock as one of Melbourne’s iconic live music venues.”

Carlton Residents’ Association president Antoinette Sagaria said while she supported heritage and hoped that The Curtin didn’t fall into the hands of developers, the “larger question” was “if there is all this movement in protecting these sites like The Curtin and historical pubs ultimately, they become very poor investments for whoever is left with them.”

“I love the idea of that heritage remaining but what is the larger idea or driver behind this?” she said.

“How do we treat these long term because they are investments for someone?”

“Are we saying we want them to be council-owned? Who is going to maintain and invest in these establishments if they are so heavily regulated in terms of what you can do with them?

“Is the council going to step up and maybe assist or discount rates or land tax or something like that in order to still make them appealing, and ensure they remain in the right hands, otherwise what are people going to do with these assets?”

National Trust of Australia (Victoria) advocacy manager Felicity Watson said buildings like The Curtin were more than a treasured heritage site.

“It’s also about the life of those buildings – it’s about the cultural life that they are able to nurture in our cities, and to make a really incredible destination to visit,” she said, adding the National Trust was doing everything possible to ensure The Curtin remained a pub and a live music venue.

Music Victoria CEO Simone Schinkel said The Curtin was part of the Melbourne’s “live music capital.”

“It is where we make the next international act, so we need places like this to try out new ideas and new people and new voices and even that community support that inspires them to keep going,” she said.

Local musician Lucy Wilson, who has performed at The Curtin for more than a decade, said, “the power of the community” was important so that venues like The Curtin didn’t fall victim to a “city of high rises”.

CFMEU construction branch assistant secretary Derek Christopher said he would not see developers turn the iconic pub into a block of apartments.

“There’s plenty of real estate around Melbourne where they can go and build their towers. [We] stand for the preservation of what is culturally right in Victoria.” •

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