April 28, 2004
Traders and residents opposed to the development, with Geoffrey Rush (front) and Mary Drost (back row, right).
Camberwell residents say it will destroy their suburb. The State Government says it is a modest proposal. Either way, the dispute over plans to redevelop Camberwell station is proving a major test of the Government's resolve to reshape Melbourne. James Button reports.
Nearly 25 years spent fighting to keep Camberwell the way she likes it has taught Mary Drost a thing or two about political activism. A little red ribbon or red crepe paper stapled to the outside of a leaflet really gets noticed, she says. It was this splash of colour, amid a deluge of mail that he hadn't planned to open, that caught the eye of actor Geoffrey Rush one day last December.
Rush unfolded the leaflet to read: "Are State Government and developers in cahoots? Our quality of life is under threat. Help save Camberwell railway station." It warned of 10-storey buildings rising above the station, destroying views, bringing traffic and creating "another Box Hill (station) or worse". It urged residents to write to councillors at once.
Rush, who lives around the corner from the station and is a train traveller not a car driver, was alarmed. "I fired off a generic letter expressing my aesthetic regret," he says. "Suddenly I became the pin-up poster boy for the campaign."
Since then, the global actor turned local activist has lobbied traders and trade unionists, had coffee with Planning Minister Mary Delahunty and talked tactics with residents' groups in other suburbs. On Sunday, he and actor Barry Humphries will address a protest march (though, "in Camberwell, we don't march, we walk", says Drost).
Humphries, who will fly down from Sydney to speak, has promised to lie across the railway tracks if the station is developed. "Camberwell is my spiritual resting place," Rush says Humphries exclaimed when Rush asked him to speak at the rally. "I need to be there."
Rush and his red-ribboned comrades are objecting to a new concept in city planning. The Government's owner of rail property, VicTrack, wants to sell the land and air rights near railway stations and tracks. The plan has led to a new shopping centre at Sunbury station, housing at Elsternwick and an aged-care facility at East Camberwell. Developments in Windsor, Richmond and Thornbury are also being considered.
At Camberwell, the developer, Tenterfield, wants to put up a three-storey building that would stretch across the railway tracks, create shops and offices on the east side of the Burke Road bridge and cover a car park that stands to the station's south.
Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush at Camberwell station.
Delahunty calls it a "modest proposal". Certainly, it doesn't live up to some of the locals' wilder fears. There will be no 10- storey tower and the station will not be built over. It will be smaller than the Box Hill station development, which is widely seen as a failure, and, at this stage, it will have no housing. Yet the Boroondara Residents' Group (BRAG) has been formed to stop it and the battle is on.
Rush admits to being on "a steep learning curve" about planning issues. Yet he feels he has learnt enough to question the whole direction of Government policy as outlined in the Melbourne 2030 strategy. He feels that the strategy, which seeks to manage the city's growth as it gains up to a million new residents by 2030, is "a little driven by the crassness of developers' ideas" and "will fundamentally alter the tone and character of Melbourne in a way that I don't believe people are quite aware of". He fears the death of "that hidden, quiet, beautiful city aesthetic".
It is hard to hear Rush's words without having a sense of deja vu. In February, 500 people packed a town hall protest meeting to hear the Oscar-winning actor say that high-rise living was not "Melbourne's tone" and "not very Camberwell". A man in a gorilla suit fused two planning ministers into one with a placard that said, "Maclellahunty: don’t monkey around with Camberwell."
It felt like the 1990s, when resident groups led by Save Our Suburbs fought furious battles against the perceived pro-development stance of the Kennett government and its planning minister, Rob Maclellan. By contrast, the Bracks Government came to power promising to protect suburban streets by concentrating new business and housing in more than 100 already built-up areas, or activity centres. The Melbourne 2030 strategy was widely applauded when it was announced in October 2002. The devil was always going to be in the detail.
Rush concluded his speech by wondering how the 2030 plan to allow highrise development could not help but destroy the city's uniqueness. "I suspect," he said, "that Miles might help us with a few answers."
Historian Miles Lewis is a hero of Save Our Suburbs, the author of Suburban Backlash, the definitive text on the movement. But when he rose to speak, Lewis didn't give the answers the crowd wanted.
Instead, he urged the residents not to reject the station plan outright but rather to fight for a better result. The idea of activity centres, of concentrating development away from suburban areas, was basically sound, he said. What's more, here was a chance to improve the badly designed station and lift the quality of retail along Burke Road. "If you oppose this, would you not oppose development at every railway station in Melbourne? That's madness," Lewis says.
The crowd, though civil, was most unimpressed, one activist said later. But suburban politics have shifted since the roaring '90s. All the same, the Bracks Government is facing a huge test of its resolve to reshape the city. And this test is happening in the quietest, leafiest, most militant suburb in Melbourne.
"Save Our Suburbs? I call them Sell Out Our Suburbs," says Drost. She thinks that SOS has missed the new wave of suburban activism on planning issues that is rising against the Bracks Government. But it's not political, she says. "We couldn't stand Maclellan’s policies. He was the most unpopular man in Melbourne."
As it happens, Maclellan agrees with the opposition to developing the station: he thinks it will be too expensive and the junction is the wrong place for it. But asked for his views of Boroondara's activists, he says after a pause: "Energetic." Then he pauses again: "I was looking for a word that wasn't on the Ratsak packet."
It is hard for outsiders to grasp the anger development generates in Camberwell. For decades residents have fought brothels, bars and big shopping projects. They have stared down Grollo, National Mutual and Podgor, the company of the late developer, Floyd Podgornik. All tried to build in the junction, all failed.
For more than 10 years, until the early '90s, residents opposed a plan to build a mini-Chadstone centre behind the junction. They had friends in high places — a former judge, a UN diplomat and John Landy, now Victorian Governor — but they also had a kind of paramilitary wing. Placard-wielding protesters marched on the Camberwell home of a National Mutual director. One mayor felt compelled to request police protection after 400 residents tried to storm a council podium.
And residents learnt that no-compromise, direct-action works, says Nigel Flannigan, a senior lecturer in planning at Melbourne University. Although the council had to pay Podgor nearly $25 million after it rescinded its decision to approve the shopping centre, the junction remained, in the words of long-time activist, Michael Hellstrom, "one of the best shopping strips in Australia".
Boroondara Council no doubt had history in mind when it joined the station battle last year. In 1999, the rail authorities told the council they wanted to sell land and air rights at the station. But the current mayor, Judith Voce, says the council heard no more about it until last year, when it learnt that VicTrack had chosen a preferred developer for the site. Voce says that's when alarm bells started to ring at the council.
Melbourne 2030 stresses the need to improve public transport and increase housing in activity centres (such as Camberwell Junction). But here was a plan, says Voce, that did not mention housing or enhancing Camberwell as a transport hub by linking local buses and trams to the trains. And the Government had chosen a developer before any consultation with the community — another key promise of 2030.
In other words, says Voce, the Government had "failed to consider some of its own guiding principles". The council asked VicTrack and Delahunty to halt the process while it established a working group to consider options for the site. Both agreed to do so, but the damage had been done.
Hellstrom accepts that some residents' concerns are "gossip" and that some have drawn wrong conclusions. "But that's because they (developers and Government) don't tell us what they want to do. Everything is done in secrecy. That draws a lot of anger. We don't trust the Government, we don't trust the council and we certainly don't trust the bureaucracy."
VicTrack chief executive John Sutton acknowledges the residents' point about consultation. He says that while VicTrack followed the planning process, "there was a breakdown, a flaw, in that process . . . People in Camberwell and elsewhere are telling us, 'We want something far more open'. We don't have a problem with that. We will be right upfront. We will be talking to councils and to communities."
Sutton thinks the development will benefit the local community. He says that more than half the money VicTrack makes from the sale will be spent on the station, on better access for the disabled, security, lighting and so on. But while he thinks the proposal matches the principles of Melbourne 2030, there is no plan for housing because "it didn't stack up from a commercial point of view".
Since more housing in activity centres is vital to the 2030 strategy, it revives the question asked by Boroondara: how does this project fit with Melbourne 2030? A council working group, made up of council, community and Government representatives, will consider housing among a range of options for the site.
Other possibilities include new community facilities, such as a library or a public plaza. But many of these options won't meet VicTrack's requirement that the development fund itself. The group will also consider the option the residents want: no development at all.
The council is likely to vote on the matter by around the middle of the year, but that may not end the dispute. Residents fear that if the council rules against development, Delahunty will override the decision — an outcome Voce says Boroondara would "strongly resist".
Rush says that when he had coffee with Delahunty, "she did tell me, 'I think the no-development option is not going to happen'."
Delahunty believes she would have spoken more generally: that change is happening in Camberwell and Melbourne and it has to be well-managed. She points out that developing the adjacent car park have long been part of the Boroondara planning scheme. But she also says "nothing will be imposed" on the community. "This will be a co-operative solution."
Is that possible? The proposal, while offensive to the Camberwell activists, is small compared to other proposed developments across Melbourne. The Government is already looking at ways to speed up projects in some parts of the city: if Camberwell falls over, what chance does the Government have of making its activity centres plan work?
Drost foreshadows a long battle. "We'll be on the picket lines, we'll go to the Supreme Court," she says. "There are enough people around here who are totally determined. It is not going to happen."
If it were anywhere else, this might be dismissed as activist bravado but not, says Flannigan, in Camberwell. In the 1980s, Flannigan worked with residents' groups to oppose the proposed shopping centre. This time, however, he thinks there could be a development at the station, though not necessarily the one proposed by VicTrack.
He can imagine two-storey shop-top buildings on the bridge, some elderly people's housing at the car park, and thinks it could lead to a better station. But, like Drost, he thinks it won't happen.
"I never cease to be amazed at the power of these people," says Flannigan of the residents. "They are tenacious. They'll have the State Government running for cover. They have won before and I tell you now, I'd be betting on them again."