Melbourne City Council has rejected Apple’s “completely undercooked” application to demolition part of Federation Square to make way for a “global flagship” store after receiving more than a thousand submissions from the public.
The Victorian government announced days before Christmas in 2017 that it had already approved planning permits for Apple to knock down the Yarra building at Federation Square and build its own store in its place.
The plans sparked widespread backlash over the commercialisation of Melbourne’s central public space and a lack of transparency and public consultation in the process. Federation Square has since been nominated to be included on the Victorian Heritage Registry, with Heritage Victoria recommending that it should be.
While a final decision is being made, Federation Square has been given interim heritage listing, meaning that approval must be sought before a building is demolished.
Federation Square applied earlier this year to demolish the Yarra building, with Heritage Victoria referring the application to Melbourne City Council for consideration.
The Future Melbourne Planning Committee on Tuesday night voted on the matter, with all councillors but one rejecting the demolition of the building to make way for the Apple store and affirming the heritage qualities of the site.
While the vote does not have a direct impact on stopping the Apple store, it will send a message to Heritage Victoria, which will decide next month whether to permanently list Federation Square on the heritage registry. It will also have to decide whether to grant the permit for the demolition of the building.
During the meeting, councillors heard from three members of the public, all opposed to the store.
Events producer Simon Thewlis said that Apple “hasn’t considered the enormous social heritage value of Federation Square as Melbourne’s main public gathering and event space”, and that the primary purpose of the new store would be for “retail brand activation.”
“This is a use of the site that is without precedent. It is a use that is completely different to any previous commercial activity envisaged for Federation Square and is not in keeping with its character,” Mr Thewlis said.
Architect Michael Smith, speaking for community group Citizens for Melbourne, said the Apple store would “fundamentally change the cultural and civic nature of the square”.
“The Yarra building is an irreplaceable part of Australia’s built-form heritage and allowing the demolition will significantly undermine the heritage value of Federation Square. The proposed store is designed as a standalone object and pays no respect to the heritage value of the square. It will act as a spatial billboard for the Apple brand in a place with minimal signage and no overt advertising and branding,” Mr Smith said.
Councillor Rohan Leppert said that out of the more than 1,100 submissions received by the council, only one was in favour of the Apple store.
“It’s not just a numbers game, but those numbers are pretty compelling. None of us are blind to the community sentiment that’s been expressed over the last few days and shouted in our direction,” Cr Leppert said.
He said that the submission to demolish the Yarra building shouldn’t have even been accepted because it was so incomplete.
“The most important thing actually isn’t whether or not the heritage permit should be granted, it’s whether or not it should have been accepted in the first place. This heritage permit application is completely undercooked, it’s one of the most inadequate applications I think Heritage Victoria must have come across,” he said.
Councillor Nicholas Reece said he supported the Apple store at Federation Square, but that the two design attempts from the tech giant have “fallen short”.
“There’s a reason why the management of Federation Square are crying out for a store to go there, it’s because their business model is really struggling at the moment. They need the revenue and the people an Apple store would bring that to Federation Square,” Cr Reece said.
“If it was done right then an Apple store at Federation Square could actually work. But I do accept the substance of the submission that whatever happens on the Yarra building site, we need to maintain that campus-style character we’ve got at Federation Square. We need to maintain the square. The Yarra building was put there with a purpose, and one of those was to maintain the square.”
The only councillor to vote in favour of the Apple store, Philip Le Lui, said Federation Square has already been commercialised.
“What about the cafes? What about the restaurants and shops that are there? Does that mean we also get rid of them? We have to take these into consideration because it’s a crucial thing,” he said.
“By building a new building we’re going to get 500m of extra space in the city. For me that is quite a big number. It means there will be more space for people to stand and more people to visit.”
Councillors were also critical of the process adopted by the state government and its lack of consultation with the council and general public, while praising the efforts of Citizens for Melbourne, which facilitated the vast majority of the submissions to council.
“It’s a shame that we couldn’t have had this debate over the last year in this room, that you couldn’t have come along and actually been speaking to the people that could make a decision and make a recommendation on your behalf,” Councillor Frances Gilley said.
“I want to acknowledge you for giving a place for that voice because we’ve been unable to give a place to that voice because of the way this has been undertaken.”