Minister approves Brunswick development that will swallow heritage-listed substation

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Key points

  • There are 14 electrical substations in the inner north council of Merri-bek that have been heritage listed as “historically significant” for their association with the establishment and development of the Brunswick’s electricity supply network. 
  • One of these substations is part of a site at 699 -703 Park street in Brunswick, across the road from Princes Park, where a development was proposed for 333 apartments. 
  • Last month the Planning Minister Sonia Kilkenny overturned a council decision to reject the development application and approved a revised plan for 168 apartments that retains the substation. 

The planning minister has overruled a local council to green light a 10-storey apartment development in Brunswick around a graffiti-covered heritage-listed electricity substation.

The contested development – across the road from Princes Park and best known as the site of the Princes Park Motor Inn – has been the subject of multiple applications and hearings over seven years. It was most recently rejected by Merri-bek council last year.

Lachlan Smith questions whether a heritage protected electrical substation in Brunswick should be preserved in a new development.Credit: Jason South

The initial plans for 609-703 Park Street in Brunswick, submitted in 2016, involved demolishing the century-old substation and the motel to build 333 apartments and a childcare centre.

That plan was rejected after a hearing before the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, but property giant Mirvac submitted amended plans in 2019 that retained the heritage substation, reduced the number of apartments to 168 and replaced the childcare centre with commercial space and a cafe.

A local group of 1700 residents, known as Protect Park Street Precinct, fought against the development in VCAT in 2020 arguing that the development would overshadow the park’s running track, that many of the apartments didn’t meet proper guidelines and that the incorporation of the substation resulted in “the building appearing in an entirely false setting that utterly obscures and dominates its aesthetic values”.

Merri-bek rejected these plans in May 2022, in part because the development would dominate and overwhelm the substation, describing the plan as an “inappropriate response to the heritage substation”, and concerns over massing and overshadowing of Princes Park.

Mirvac then lodged plans directly with the planning minister to have the development fast-tracked by the state government under a scheme introduced during the pandemic to speed up projects and stimulate investment.

Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny last month overruled the council, approving the $280 million development including construction of a multi-storey apartment building with the “adaptive re-use” of the heritage substation.

“All applications for planning approvals are assessed thoroughly taking into consideration the provisions of the planning scheme and addressing issues such as the environment, heritage, economic and social impacts,” a spokesman for Kilkenny said.

“The redevelopment of the site achieves an acceptable balance between heritage protection and the need for additional housing.”

Artist’s renders of the approved development retaining the electricity substation within the apartment complex.

Planning student Lachlan Smith, who has followed the development closely, said he was sceptical about the minister intervening in what was traditionally the domain of councils.

“I’m not sure we should necessarily be taking away local decision-making,” he said.

However, Smith also questioned whether the heritage system was working and said the preservation of the substation ahead of other priorities was “a bit ridiculous”.

“Heritage seems to almost have a veto over certain other policy objectives,” he said.

“As someone looking down the chasm of buying a house one day, that sort of prioritisation seems askew to me. As this development is bouncing around the legal system, the developer is spending money on legal fees and designs and ultimately adding costs to the final cost of the housing.”

The substation is one of 14 in Merri-bek that have been heritage listed as “historically significant for their association with the establishment and development of the Brunswick electricity supply network”.

The heritage listing describes the substations as having “played a critical role [in] the residential, commercial and industrial expansion of the municipality during the interwar period”.

Merri-bek Mayor Angelica Panopoulos said the substations, which were built between 1912 and 1940, were historically significant.

“We believe that our architectural history should be protected for our community and visitors to observe and celebrate,” she said.

“That’s why we’re glad that VCAT originally supported council and the community in our request for the substation to be retained in this development. We are pleased that the substation will now be retained as part of this latest proposal.”

However, Panopoulos said Merri-bek was concerned about the small amount of affordable housing in the development.

“Without mandatory requirements for the provision of affordable housing as part of major development in Victoria, developers are able to circumvent the normal planning process and obtain pathways for ministerial invention,” she said.

“In this case, on the basis of providing 10 per cent or 17 apartments, at a 35 per cent discounted price for affordable housing.”

Panopulous said a development of this scale should have a much greater contribution to the provision of affordable housing, especially to warrant the intervention of the planning minister.

“Council sees this as a missed opportunity to deliver much-needed affordable housing for both struggling families and those of the lowest income bracket of affordability,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Mirvac said the planning permit enabled the developer to commence work on the site, which was “in need of renewal”. The project would create 300 construction jobs and 52 ongoing employment opportunities, she said.

“The views of local stakeholders [were] well understood, and the tribunal determinations provided clear guidance on the preferred built form envelope, and other key redevelopment issues for the site, including the retention and revitalisation of the heritage substation,” the spokeswoman said.

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