The Victorian government kept plans for a flagship Apple store at Federation Square secret from the public and Melbourne Council to protect the tech giant’s interests, and to ensure other states didn’t have a chance to bid for it, new documents have revealed.
The claim that the new store would bring in an additional two million visitors to the city centre, which the state government relied on in justifying the move, was also based entirely on Apple’s own figures, documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show.
The state government announced just five days before Christmas last year that a ‘flagship’ Apple store would be established at Federation Square, with the planning minister already having used his exemption powers to override the need for public consultation and exhibition.
The plan involves the demolition of the existing Yarra building at Federation Square to make way for the store, with Apple signing on to a 21-year lease at the prime location.
The announcement was met with a quick and widespread backlash, with concerns surrounding the commercialisation of Melbourne’s main civic space, and a lack of transparency and consultation surrounding the approval process.
The new documents now reveal the rushed process behind the approval of the planning amendment for the store, the push to keep the plan secret from the public and local council and the efforts to comply with Apple’s wishes.
The documents, which include letters between ministers and reports prepared for the department, show that Tourism Minister John Eren was the driving force behind the store, despite Planning Minister Richard Wynne being required to provide final approval.
In a letter sent to Mr Wynne in early December last year, Mr Eren said special powers should be used to ram through the planning amendment as the project is of “state significance” because of the “high visitation numbers that are likely to be generated”.
In media releases and public statements following the announcement of the Apple store at Federation Square, the state boasted that it would bring in an additional two million visitors each year.
But the report reveals that this figure is based entirely on Apple’s own predictions for its store.
“Apple anticipate 1.8 to 2.1 million visitors per annum to the Fed Square store (based on visitation to existing Melbourne, Sydney and other stores), with typically 50 per cent local, 20 per cent outside of Victoria and 30 per cent international visitors,” the report said.
The report provided two main reasons to the planning minister for why he should use his special powers to prevent a public exhibition and consultation on the plans: to ensure the building is completed quickly, and to prevent another city vying for the flagship store.
“Prompt approval will help to secure the project for Melbourne rather than another city location and will assist in the timely delivery of the project within the period of construction of the Melbourne Metro Tunnel Project to avoid prolonged disruption within the Federation Square precinct,” the report said.
“This is important as there is a need for urgency to secure the project for Melbourne rather than an alternative location. There is a need to secure the investment before it is lost to another jurisdiction.”
“A standard amendment process would allow other jurisdictions to become aware of the project and compete for it.”
This echoes statements made by Premier Daniel Andrews and Federation Square boss Jonathan Tribe following the announcement, declaring concerns that the store could be moved to Sydney if opposition continued.
Mr Wynne received the letter requesting the use of his planning powers on 6 December, and replied four days later that he would be approving the request. Ten days later on 20 December, the Apple store was announced to the public.
The Melbourne City Council was not informed of the plan before it was publicly announced, apart from Mr Wynne writing to then-Lord Mayor Robert Doyle on 10 December to inform him of the use of his planning powers to allow for it.
In the letter, the minister stated the benefits of having the store at Federation Square.
“The project facilitated by the amendment will strengthen Federation Square as Victoria’s premier civic and cultural space, have positive economic impacts through increased visitation and capital expenditure, and grow Melbourne’s global profile for the visitor economy, retail and innovation sectors,” Mr Wynne wrote.
The council was not informed or consulted on the plans, with the documents showing that this was because the project was “commercial-in-confidence”.
“Due to the commercial-in-confidence status of the proposal, only limited informal engagement has occurred to date with the OVGA, Federation Square Pty Ltd and Transport for Victoria. The Melbourne City Council has not been consulted,” the report said.
The council later took umbrage to this, and demanded that the store be redesigned and further consultations take place.
The lack of public or council consultation came despite the state government having been in discussions with Apple over the store for at least two years. In a letter sent to Mr Wynne, Mr Eren referenced an in-principle agreement the planning minister had made in January 2016 to use his ministerial powers to approve the store.
Mr Wynne is understood to have opposed the Apple store in heated Cabinet discussions, with Mr Eren and Innovation Minister Philip Dalidakis the main proponents of the scheme. But the plan was eventually approved by Cabinet, and Mr Wynne signed off on the planning amendment.
The documents show that the process behind approval for the Apple store was a “farce”, Victorian Greens member for Melbourne Ellen Sandell said.
“This shows that Labor and planning minister Richard Wynne didn’t consult Victorians or the council on whether we want a big corporation to take over our public square – they consulted Apple, and only looked at Apple’s own research before making the decision,” Ms Sandell told InnovationAus.com.
“This is yet another example of this Labor government making decisions in the interests of big corporations – such as Apple, Transurban and Crown Casino – not in the interests of everyday Victorians.”
The plan has spawned a new group to oppose it, with Citizens for Melbourne lobbying politicians, holding protests and planning to take the issue to November’s state election.
Citizens for Melbourne president Tania Davidge said the new documents reveal the “hasty” process in approving the store.
“There’s a case to be made for commercial in confidence at some points but I can’t really see how the entire proposal could be commercial in confidence – it’s a public space and I think that due process should have been followed and public consultation taken on board,” Ms Davidge told InnovationAus.com.
“I think it’s a real problem in this space to think that Apple is going to be a solution to the kinds of issues Fed Square is facing in providing public space in the future.”
They also show that little independent analysis has been undertaken on the potential benefits and negatives of the Apple store, Ms Davidge said.
“There’s no real analysis of the net community benefit. They hit the main objectives of the charter but only look at the positives Apple will bring, and there’s no real independent analysis of the downside to having Apple in the Square. It paints Apple in an incredibly glowing light,” she said.
“It shows the government was not thinking about this deeply and genuinely, and not thinking about the impact it would have on the cultural and civic life of the square. I don’t think we should primarily be considering public spaces as investment opportunities, they’re for the people.”
The internal department report includes a number of positives the store in Federation Square would bring, including the increased number of visitors, new jobs and improved access to the neighbouring Yarra River.
But Ms Davidge said these would also be realised through placing the store somewhere else in the Melbourne CBD.
“A lot of the positives put forward in having Apple there would happen anywhere else in the CBD. Visitors would be moving past a lot of other businesses, the jobs would just as similarly happen if Apple was in the CBD. A lot of these things are really not an argument for Apple to be placed in Fed Square, it could be anywhere,” she said.
The National Trust has also nominated Federation Square to be included on the Victorian Heritage Register, with a 60-day interim heritage order now applied to the site. If approved, the listing wouldn’t necessarily prevent the store, but it would require permission from Heritage Victoria.
The Victorian Opposition has also come out against the store, with Liberal leader Matthew Guy criticising it last month.
“You’ve got places like Tiananmen Square or Trafalgar Square. You don’t stick a retail store in the middle of them. They’re public spaces. I think public spaces are for the public, not corporations,” Mr Guy said.