– When is a building worth protecting?

Growth of Costco, 1976 - 2010 (animation)

The planning Tribunal’s decision on the former AMPOL building highlights a couple of issues about preserving significant buildings. In reaching its decision that demolition could proceed, VCAT’s thinking was that ”a greater community benefit for present and future generations will ensue from the establishment of the Peter Doherty Institute than from retention of the former Ampol House”.

I think this highlights a couple of issues over and above what I discussed last time. It implicitly says that what a building is worth is a function of what’s planned to replace it. We now know VCAT doesn’t think the AMPOL building is worth preserving when the alternative use is an immunology and infectious diseases research centre, but what if the alternative were (say) an apartment or office building? Might VCAT have concluded under those circumstances that AMPOL house is in fact worth saving?

It seems to me that if a building truly is worth protecting (a broader ambit than ‘preserving’) on the basis of its architectural and/or historical significance then it is, by definition, worth saving. That value has nothing to do with alternative uses (they’re about the land it’s sitting on, not the building itself). A significant building isn’t any less valuable if the proposed alternative use is something worthy — like a park, social housing, a memorial, a shrine, a research centre — than it is if the alternative is something prosaic, like a car showroom, a shop or apartments.

If planning schemes weren’t muddled with so many “it depends”, there might be less money and time wasted on court battles. If there were a clear statement of what must be protected, councils would have to think a lot more rigorously about what is worth protecting and what isn’t. Developers, owners and the wider community might appreciate clearer guidance.

Another issue the VCAT decision highlights in my view is that understanding the social costs of preservation (or other regulations, like height limits) is too often overlooked. That’s not saying we shouldn’t protect appropriate buildings, but we should know what it’s costing and we should know who’s paying.

Looking at individual cases doesn’t adequately expose the cost issues. Denying a single new apartment development (say) will usually look reasonable if it saves an old building that by definition can’t be replaced. After all, the argument goes, someone can always build another apartment building elsewhere.

The true cost is only revealed when we look at the costs and benefits of protection across all projects. Then we can see what sort of aggregate impact, if any, there is on housing supply and hence perhaps on affordability. Or how office supply is affected and what possible consequences there might be for rents and ultimately the region’s competitiveness as a business location and as a job market. Or whether or not protection affects the potential for density and buzz in a particular neighbourhood.

This is not anti-protection. It’s saying we need to understand the implications of what we do. Perhaps if it rules out some borderline cases it will strengthen public support for protection of more significant buildings.

6 Comments on “– When is a building worth protecting?”

  1. Well said. While I suspect I wouldn’t want to wind back as many heritage protections as you might, I agree that the current system means everything is always up for grabs and that creates a lot of angst. The longstanding gripe with VCAT has been that decisions can depend entirely on the Member you get on the day, and that’s esepcially true for heritage matters where the value assigned to the building is so susceptible to the Member’s attitude to preservation. That’s not a criticism of VCAT: that’s a systemic issue relating to the vagaries of how schmes are written and how heritage overlays are applied.

    The other point about factoring in the replacement building’s use is that in practice it’s impossible to lock that in as part of an approval. Here it seems pretty likely that the replacement building will go ahead, but that’s not always the case.

  2. Michael says:

    The argument that the new building presents a greater community benefit for present and future generations from the establishment of the Peter Doherty Institute seems to me irrelevant in this particular scenario because there isn’t any reason why the building can’t be built on an alternative site. Although it is possible to imagine that in a different circumstance that argument might be valid.

    That block really does contain some low value buildings some of which look like they might be land banked. There should be some kind of compulsory autioning if valuable land isn’t suitably developed within a reasonable time frame – say 7 years?

  3. rohan says:

    Yes planning is a muddled beast, with many subjective decisions made along the way. Heritage listing should mean ‘cant demolish’ (as many people think it does) but successive governments and tribunals have always insisted that its not a prohibition; which just makes for uncertainty, court cases etc. And it is also a given that the planning schemes say many different things, sometimes contradictory, and its up to Concils or VCAT to decide what to give weight to – ‘public benefit’ has recently been given a much higher status in all planning schemes, so it can trump heritage and other considerations. In the AMPOL case the public benefit was clear, but the danger is that it can be interpreted (and has been) that simply providing lots of flats in a 15 storey tower is providing a public benefit (urban consolidation) so VCAT will say yes, even if the height limit is say 4 storeys, or its in the middle of or next to a low rise heritage area. Not a lot of consistency.

    As to the ‘costs’ of preservation controls, dont forget to factor in cultural cost – imagine if Carlton was not a heritage suburb, and say, only the ‘best’ terraces were kept, and the oldest or most interesting shops on Lygon Street and everything else was replaced by 4-6 storey flats, offices etc. Lots of consolidation, perhaps more urbanity, but huge loss of historic character and charm, which is a major contributor to attracting bussiness and residents in the first place. Have a look at Christchurch (before quake) to see what Melbourne might have looked like without the huge heritage battles of the 70s – scattered preserved buildings between pretty awful stuff from 60s-90s, including randomly placed dominating 8-20 storey high rise. They celebrated the heritage that was left because it was so much more attractive than the new stuff !

  4. Alan Davies says:

    Interesting comment on Offsiders on ABC TV today that’s relevant to what heritage means. It was claimed that there is not a single structure at the MCG today that existed in 1990 — every piece of concrete is new. Yet there has not been a loud noise about loss of heritage values at the G. The G is “sacred” to many people — any threat really would be a grassroots heritage issue — but what actually is it that warrants preservation?

    • rohan says:

      Yes well heritage listing and preservation are not exactly the same thing. Listing sometimes simply recognises the heritage value, and these days this includes historic, social and even spiritual values. There has been lots of debate in heritage circles about this and similar issues, to the point that UNSECO now lists ‘intangible’ heritage, such as dance ceremonies (and isnt Aussie rules a kind of ceremony? not that UNESCO has listed it – yet). When the G was listed by Heritage Victoria, the 1930s members stand and the 1956 Olympic stand were still there, but they were allowed to be demolished, leaving only the c1890 cast-iron fence around the oval as the only historic ‘fabric’. Listing a place with only historic or social value means that it would be difficult for to act preserve such things if circumstances changed. But even if we all stopped playing aussie rules tomorrow, the place would still have historic values for having been famous in an earlier era. But that sort of value can change and indeed fade away. Kooyong tennis stadium for instance is losing its significance as once being the home of tennis in Australia as time goes by. All very interesting.

  5. Alan Davies says:

    An interesting viewpoint on the issue of preservation

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