Pentridge heritage destruction an international disgrace

[By Martin Smith] Over 100 people attended a public meeting held in Coburg calling on Victoria’s Planning Minister to refuse permits for proposed 19-storey and 8-storey apartment tower developments within the Pentridge heritage precinct.

The community meeting, called by the Save Coburg Residents’ Network and chaired by the City of Moreland’s Socialist Alliance Councillor Sue Bolton, also called for a moratorium on any further high-rise development proposals above the height of existing heritage-protected walls and buildings, pending a review of the design guidelines and masterplans for Pentridge Coburg and Pentridge Village.

Pentridge Prison was decommissioned in 1997.  In 1998, it was placed on the Victorian Heritage Register.  Since then, the sell off of the site to developers has resulted in a debacle, the magnitude of which has been described by eminent  RMIT Professor of Planning Michael Buxton as “an international disgrace”.  Promises, backed up by a legally enforceable covenant, were made by the developers to respect the heritage value of the prison precinct.  The approach has instead been one of incremental destruction of its heritage values. The external bluestone walls have been incrementally ruptured to make way for roads. The bluestone wall of the H Division exercise yards has been demolished.  The past nine years has witnessed a succession of developers building low to medium development apartment blocks up to and sometimes over the height of the bluestone walls  with little regard for the aesthetic consequences.  

Now the Shayher Group, which has already gained permission to build two high rise apartments in the north east corner of the precinct, has now sought permission to build a 19-storey tower.  If approved, it would be the highest building in the City of Moreland.  Meanwhile, Future Estate, the new developers of the Southern portion of the precinct are seeking a permit to build an 8-storey residential tower on the Southern portion of the precinct.

Emeritus professor Michael Hamel-Green informed the meeting that the wholesale degradation of the precinct has occurred despite the former prison’s importance in terms of its historical, architectural, archeological, scientific and also its aesthetic significance being recognised under the Heritage Register.  The register also notes the social aspects of the criminal history of Pentridge, including its role as Melbourne’s main female prison for over 50 years; its role in carrying out and triggering opposition to capital punishment and its jailing of political activists, including anti-conscriptionists, and the incarceration of indigenous people, including the famous indigenous artist, Ronald Bull.  Bull’s most famous work, a mural of Albert Namatjira, is housed in the precinct.  It has been allowed to seriously deteriorate and requires significant restoration despite a requirement for the site’s developers to provide for its upkeep and maintenance.

When private development of the precinct was originally approved, the sop offered to the people of Victoria and local residents was that a professionally designed and operated museum would be built on the site pursuant to a legally binding covenant between the developer and the Heritage Council of Victoria.  Nine years later, nothing has been done.  Instead, as Professor Hamel-Green wryly notes, the offering has been dumbed down amusement frivolities such as ghost tours, overnight stays in freshly painted cells and anecdotes of “Chopper Reid style” celebrity criminals.

The meeting also heard that Moreland Council intends to cut down a magnificent 30 metre heritage listed spotted gum tree at the behest of the developer who has indicated it interferes with plans to cut through the prison wall for further road access.

The Pentridge precinct planning process has been flawed from the beginning.  The community has been locked out of the planning process.  Decision making, largely in the hands of developers, has been incremental while the more complex obligations such as preserving and protecting the precinct’s social history and heritage have been ignored. While this has been happening, successive Victorian governments and Heritage Victoria have done little.  

In addition to the resolutions calling on action from the Victorian government and Moreland City Council, it was agreed that an ongoing residents controlled community group be established, the aim of which would be to monitor, protect and preserve the Pentridge heritage precinct from inappropriate development which would threaten the visual and heritage values of the precinct and which would adversely affect the amenity of residents in and around the precinct.

There will be a protest at the Champ St tree near the Pentridge Prison entrance on Wednesday 13 April, 6pm @ Champ St, Coburg.