Palace Theatre’s Significance Debated at VCAT

The Palace Theatre issue at VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) wound up last Friday afternoon after a five day hearing. VCAT will now go through the documents and give a final decision on whether to allow Jinshan Investment Group with its proposal to replace the century-old theatre on Bourke Street with a 12-storey hotel.

The City of Melbourne joined with community groups wanting to save the 1650-capacity venue on heritage and importance as a live music venue and nightclub. In 2014 much of the interior was pulled down by workers, so part of the debate was how much heritage protection was an issue, as was the building’s continued cultural significance.
The City of Melbourne’s barrister, Adrian Finanzio  SC, on the point of cultural significance, argued that VCAT was the best place to decide this. His framework was that the Bourke Hill precinct, which the Palace was part of, is a sum of its parts. Therefore a highly significant building in the precinct should be assessed more cautiously than a less-significant building. Jinshan’s proposed demolition would leave only “a thin veneer” of façade, which would not fit in with the precinct’s heritage overlay.
At this stage, there is no clear idea on how the VCAT decision will go.
The Save The Palace group posted on Facebook: “How it all went? Honestly? We don't know. We do know that we are incredibly proud of the cases by both our team and that of Melbourne City Council. They made strong, powerful arguments establishing the significance and for the retention. We heard evidence from 3 separate heritage experts.
“There could be no question as to the significance of the Palace Theatre at a local level in the Bourke Hill Precinct. There was also debate on whether that significance was at State Level and mistakes had been made.”
That the Save The Palace group Facebook attracted 36,000 likes was significant in assessing community support, said media and communications lecturer Dr Anthony McCosker of Swinburne University. "I'm aware that courts and tribunals aren't used to hearing about social media and social media analysis, but I think they should," he pointed out.
Kate Gray from architecture company Lovell Chen, for the developer, rejected Dr. McCosker’s contention, arguing that the test of social significance should be on the attachment that “a definite definable community” has to a place, not by popular vote. She added that the removal of much of the Palace’s interior has decreased its value.
Architectural historian Bryce Raworth, for Jinshan, also argued along these lines, that the building’s heritage protection on social or historical reasons was now irrelevant. He also said since it opened in 1912, the Palace Theatre had been used by a number of businesses, including a hotel, So it would not be an "abrupt break from the past" to now become a hotel.
However, Emeritus Professor Graeme Davison of Monash University, for City of Melbourne, argued that the Palace Theatre had huge cultural significance especially as a home for vaudeville among other things and should have been included in the state’s heritage register in a 2014 Heritage Council decision. He also opined that the theatre had gone through many physical transformations, and that the destruction of much of the interior would not decrease the building’s cultural significance.
National Trust acting conservation manager, Anna Foley, said an argument is still held for the Palace to become an entertainment venue once more.  She was quoted in The Age, "The amphitheatre is still intact, the stage still stands so my overall impression is it wouldn't take much more than a cosmetic fix to bring the venue back to life as a music venue again".
The Age reported that it was banned from attending a VCAT site- visit by a representative of the developer.

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