The proposed restoration of the Forum Theatre is a welcome proposition by the Marriner Group. This exotic one-of-a-kind building has endured (enjoyed?) a very decayed and unloved appearance inside and out for some time. Up the road the bad news is that the heritage-listed Palace Theatre will be closed in May. Its demolition and replacement with a modern tower looms closer.
The Marriner Group proposition shares some of the controversies of the Palace Theatre redevelopment, and of course the Windsor Hotel. We can expect the Windsor ‘curtain’ to start being raised later in 2014, and a similar hotel curtain is now proposed behind the Forum, a boutique 4 star hotel seeking to break the height limit by a factor of at least two.
Paying for restoration of large historic venues like the Forum is a large part of the issue. But it is Melbourne is being asked to pay for the restoration with some possible unintended consequences. The linking through of the development to Hosier Lane will have a considerable impact, including a significant loss of graffitied wall space – about 20% of the eastern side of the laneway. However much the develop seeks to integrate its hotel operation into the area, the operations of a boutique hotel will be very much against the grain of the area and could alter the tolerated (and encouraged) counter-culture and dynamics of Hosier Lane.
A swag of controversial developments including the Windsor Hotel, the new tower behind Scots Church (which required demolition of Melbourne’s earliest multi-storey carpark), the Palace Theatre and now the Forum backdrop illustrate how , in practice, many of the height controls in the CBD are pretty-much useless. The non-mandatory 40m height controls were designed to accommodate minor breaches with good design not wholesale evasion.
The 40m limit is descended from the 132ft height limit introduced in 1916 which had the aesthetic of visual consistency in mind. We have to ask ourselves if it is working and what are we really trying to achieve and where. Changes introducing mandatory height limit controls in sensitive parts of the CBD including the top of Bourke Hill are outlined in the Plan Melbourne strategy. Therefore 2014, with the accompanying state election, should emerge as the biggest year in the CBD heritage planning debate in recent history.