Trust Advocate Explainer – The Palace Under Threat

Following reports yesterday afternoon by Save the Palace, it emerged that part of the interior of the Palace Theatre was being stripped by a demolition crew. There has since been an outcry on social media from supporters of the Palace Theatre, as well as heritage advocates including the Trust and Melbourne Heritage Action. Here, the Trust Advocates will attempt to sift through these reports and answer questions around the legality of the work, and what steps can and are being taken to protect the building. If you have any questions or would like to add any information, please leave a comment.

Does the interior of the Palace Theatre have heritage protection?

NO. Firstly, the Palace Theatre is not classified on the City of Melbourne’s Heritage Overlay as an individual place. It is included within the Bourke Hill Precinct (HO500), however the planning scheme does not include internal controls for this precinct. In fact, as recently highlighted by Melbourne Heritage Action, the City of Melbourne has not classified ANY interiors to date, instead focusing on street facades. The Age also recently drew attention to the City’s 15 best unprotected interiors, listing the Palace Theatre at No. 1.

Is a permit required to strip the interior of the Palace Theatre?

MAYBE. Cr Rohan Leppert has stated that “there is no permit to demolish the building“, however it isn’t yet clear if a permit is required. The City of Melbourne has two kinds of permits.

Building Permit

A building permit is required in a range of circumstances, including for the following work:

  • Changes to any essential safety measures (ie. exit signs, fire sprinklers, emergency lighting, exit paths etc.)
  • Structural works
  • Change of use of a building
  • Buildings included on the Heritage Register

The extent of work at the site has not been confirmed, so it is unclear whether or not a building permit is required. The City of Melbourne’s Planning Enforcement and Building Surveying officers are investigating.

Planning Permit

Section 43.01-1 of the planning scheme only requires a permit to “internally alter a building if the schedule to this overlay identifies the heritage place as one where internal alteration controls apply”. As no internal alteration controls apply to the Palace Theatre, it is likely that these works do not require a planning permit. As Cr Rohan Leppert has stated, it is probable that the “demolition of the Palace’s internal heritage fabric is an arrogant move to pre-empt the proper planning processes.”

What can the City of Melbourne do?

On 7 October 2014, the City of Melbourne Future Melbourne Committee requested a draft planning scheme amendment recognising the Palace Theatre as a site of local significance to be presented at the Committee meeting on 18 November 2014. This did not happen in the requested timeframe. On 20 November, Cr Leppert stated that the amendment was to be considered at the 2 December meeting. Cr Leppert yesterday stated that Council is seeking “interim protection, an exercise in pulling forward the 2 December planning scheme amendment and seeking the State Government’s immediate support for it, on an interim basis.”

Meanwhile, when reports emerged of work at the site, the City of Melbourne sent enforcement officers to the site. As yet, they have not been able to access the site, which has been secured, and have stated that “it would appear some sections of plaster and some internal doors have been removed”.

What can the State Government do?

City of Melbourne council officers are seeking State Government support for emergency heritage protection under the City of Melbourne Planning Scheme. Because the government is in caretaker mode, the Department, not the minister, has the authority to determine whether an interim control can be granted.

What lessons can be learned?

The current situation at the Palace Theatre raises important questions about the effectiveness of heritage controls, particularly at a local level. Despite the fact that it has clearly been found to be of local significance, the Palace Theatre still isn’t protected by the City of Melbourne’s planning scheme, even though plans for demolition were first floated in mid-2013. (The timeline below illustrates the excruciating progress towards protection.)

The Palace saga has also illuminated the lack of recognition of social significance and interiors in the planning scheme. Just last week the Age and Melbourne Heritage Action highlighted the fact that the City of Melbourne’s heritage overlay does not provide protection for significant interiors. The Trust also has concerns that there has been no requirement to fully document the interior of the building before any work can take place.

Sadly, the hard fought but slow move towards the protection of the Palace Theatre may be a case of too little, too late.

What can I do?

The City of Melbourne has requested anyone with concerns to contact the City of Melbourne with feedback, to ensure that community concerns are captured in writing. We will provide updates as they come to hand.

Palace Theatre Development Timeline

1912 Brennan’s (National) Amphitheatre & was constructed by architect & vaudeville promoter James Brennan in association with Nahum Barnet

5 July 2013Plans are made public for the for demolition of the Palace Theatre and construction a 72.25m tower with 200 luxury hotel rooms and apartments.

13 August 2013 – At a Future Melbourne Committee meeting, a motion is moved by Cr Rohan Leppert proposing a review of the Bourke Hill Heritage Precinct.

12 November 2013  – Melbourne City Council votes against initial proposal to demolish the Palace Theatre and replace it with a tower.

January 2014 – The Department of Transport, Planning and Local Infrastructure refuses a permit for the 72.25 tower proposal.

7 FebruaryRevised planning application lodged with Melbourne City Council.

March 2014Announcement that Palace Theatre lease has been terminated and the venue will be forced to close in May.

2 May 2014 – Heritage Council Hearing to determine whether Palace Theatre should be listed on the Victorian Heritage Register

10 June 2014Discussion about Palace Theatre postponed by Future Melbourne Committee.

19 June 2014Planning Minister indicates he will make height limits on Bourke Hill mandatory – potentially scuttling development proposal for Palace Theatre site.

27 June 2014 – The Planning Minister formally introduces interim 12-month mandatory height limits for the Bourke Hill heritage precinct. The new height limit means it is impossible for the W- Hotel proposal to be approved as it exceeds the height limits.

1 July 2014 – Palace Theatre on the Agenda for Future Melbourne Committee meeting but discussion postponed after the developer submitted an amended application that fits within the mandatory height limits.

3 July 2014  – Heritage Council announces determination that the Palace Theatre is not of cultural heritage significance to the State of Victoria and does not warrant inclusion in the Heritage Register. The Heritage Council refers the recommendation and submissions to the City of Melbourne for consideration for an amendment to the Melbourne Planning Scheme.

7 October 2014 – Future Melbourne Committee agrees with the Heritage Council’s assessment that the Palace Theatre is significant at a local level, and requests an assessment of the significance of the external and internal components of the site as well as a draft planning scheme amendment which recognises the Palace Theatre as a site of local significance.

20 November 2014 – Skip bins outside the Palace Theatre are filled with plaster and tiles from the interior of the building. Protesters call the police, who advise that they are unable to take action because it is a planning matter. The City of Melbourne sends inspectors, but the site is locked up and the skips removed.Cr Rohan Leppert advises that the Council is seeking interim heritage controls on the building’s interior.

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