Hope remains to protect heritage values of the Royal Exhibition Building

Hope remains to protect heritage values of the Royal Exhibition Building
Brendan Rees

The threat of developments encroaching the areas of the UNESCO world heritage-listed Royal Exhibition Building and surrounding Carlton Gardens is real, according to the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV).

But with a strategy plan underway to consider the ongoing protections for the site, the RHSV is hopeful that the “problem of the division of the world heritage buffer zone” – which aims to prevent overdevelopment and protect the views of one of the world’s oldest exhibition buildings – will end.

It comes as concerns were raised about a proposed five-storey building at Gertrude St, and an 11–storey tower extending St Vincent’s Private Hospital to the west (which is currently under construction) would impact the heritage value of the Royal Exhibition Building.

Currently, a World Heritage Management Plan for the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens is being reviewed as a World Heritage Listed place, which must occur every seven years.

The review has resulted in a new draft Strategy Plan in accordance with the Heritage Act 2017, which is being prepared by Hansen Partnership Pty Ltd in partnership with HLCD Pty Ltd for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

Under current controls, the buffer zone was split into two sections in 2009 – one as “an area of greater sensitivity” with the other being more relaxed.

The RHSV “strongly supports” the recommendation to “remove the distinction” between the two, with Dr Charles Sowerwine, chair of the RHSV’s heritage committee, arguing the area of greater sensitivity “turned out to have no protection at all.”

Dr Sowerwine told Inner City News the lack of specific controls meant a 60-storey tower at 308 Exhibition St was built “smack bang in the middle of the view from the dome and right against the gardens.”

“We don’t have serious protections, and that’s why we have written twice to UNESCO, promised each time to investigate but we haven’t got anywhere,” he said.

The development along with the 11-storey St Vincent’s building have raised questions about a proposed redevelopment of the former Cancer Council building at 1 Rathdowne St and whether it would create an “incursion” on the gateway to the World Heritage Environs Area of the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens.

The City of Melbourne brought in height controls last September for developments in the buffer zone, which is also known as the World Heritage Environs Area (WHEA), with councillors also voting to extend the boundary to the west and south of the Royal Exhibition Building.

The move was roundly welcomed by residents who believed the new controls would see large properties along Rathdowne St and south of Pelham St be subject to the same built form controls as the surrounding area.

But according to the RHSV’s submission to the draft strategy plan, “The world heritage provisions in the current Melbourne and Yarra planning schemes relate only to the Area of Special Sensitivity, which makes a mockery of the designation of the remainder of the WHEA.”

Dr Sowerwine said the proposal “that the buffer zone be restored as it was promised to UNSECO in 2004, that the whole area be covered, which would make a significant difference if that is accepted by the panel and then by the Minister.”

“Some horses have bolted, but still it would be a big improvement. We’re just waiting on that one, everything we that can do has now been done – we and the National Trust and a number of other bodies made very strong supportive submissions through the panel,” he said.

“On the one hand the present situation is not good, but we do have a hope that something better will come through.”

Felicity Watson, advocacy manager for the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) said the National Trust hoped that the new Strategy Plan, once finalised, would “strengthen protections in the buffer zone around the Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, and prevent developments which could negatively impact the site’s world heritage values.” •

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