What's happening to the Palace?
UPDATE Thursday 20th November: The Palace interior is being demolished, despite awaiting a full heritage report. Follow Melbourne Heritage Action for a blow-by-blow account.
Everybody loves a grass-roots campaign to save a cultural heritage icon. People power saved La Mama Theatre, the Astor Theatre and sticky carpet haven the Tote. The idea that these places are worth more than dollars and cents cuts to the core of this city.
Over 24,000 people have signed a petition to save the Palace Theatre, formerly the Metro Nightclub, from a $180 million, 100m-high, luxury hotel and apartment development. The Bourke Street building has had more reinventions than Gaga, having previously operated as a theatre, cinema and live music venue hosting high profile gigs like Kylie, the Flaming Lips, Nick Cave, and Arctic Monkeys.
Developers argue that whilst buildings like these have history, the fond memories do not outweigh the need to reinvent the sites.
Melbourne City Council recently agreed to a heritage review of Bourke Hill Precinct which takes in the Palace. Bordered by Lonsdale, Exhibition and Little Collins Streets the area has a sordid history of its own as Melbourne’s former red light district.
The Palace project is controversial, not just because the current height limit for the area is 23 metres and the proposal sits 77 metres above this but also because Lord Mayor Cr Doyle declared an indirect conflict of interest and excused himself from a council meeting when the project was raised.
The trouble is that saving these buildings costs a significant amount of money. In each instance where there was public outcry (with La Mama, the Astor and the Tote), the protests started before the properties were sold and/or new leases signed and there was a benevolent, arts-friendly sugar daddy waiting in the wings to fund a proposition that was not as financially viable as the alternate proposal of apartment blocks. Cinema aficionado Ralph Taranto bought the Astor. Seasoned rock music venue owners Jon Perring, Sam Crupi and Andrew Portokallis (Bar Open, Yah Yahs) bought the Tote. La Mama raised the $1.8 million it needed to keep its premises through performance fundraisers, private donations and by lobbying local, state and federal government for contributions. Meanwhile, at Flinders Street Station, the once grand ballroom – now full of pigeon poo – quietly continues to fall into disrepair.
Is it only when the threat of development looms that Melburnians will rise up to lobby for its preservation? Maybe we need to get angrier sooner. Perhaps we need to hit up our politicians to get heritage on the agenda. Joni Mitchell nailed it when she sang: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”