THE Carlton United Brewery (CUB) on the corner of Victoria and Swanston streets was once considered a “black-out” area in Melbourne CBD.
The prime piece of real estate was bought by RMIT University in 1980, but has been left mostly unoccupied.
Don’t look now, but by 2011, the overgrown brush and prison-bar-windows that occasionally housed rave parties with its looming shadows will be a distant memory.
The land surrounding the familiar red brick façade decorated with concert posters and graffiti is undergoing an extensive redevelopment – with RMIT’s much lauded Design Hub to be built on on one side of the CUB, and Grocon’s QV2 shopping centre on the other.
The estimated price tag on both projects is $900 million.
The Federal Government has invested $59 million into the $100 million RMIT Design Hub project through its Education Investment fund.
The hub, once up and running, is expected to generate 450 new jobs.
RMIT has claimed the Design Hub as the university’s “quarter of Melbourne”, or cornerstone of the city. It will effectively bookend the CBD’s central axis across from the Shrine of Remembrance.
The 12,000 square meter Design Hub comes replete with a smart second-skin of 16,000 sand-blasted glass discs that rotate with the sun to help heat, power and cool the eight-storey building.
The smart skin will include glass cells fitted with photovoltaic collectors for harnessing solar power.
In a statement, Victorian Planning Minister Justin Madden said the smart skin aimed to achieve at least a five star rating under the Green Star Education rating scheme.
It’s a tall order, to say the least.
In late 2006, Grocon bought their share of the land from RMIT for a cool $39 million.
Work has already begun on the $800 million project which features apartments, commercial buildings and shops.
With nearly a billion dollars being pumped into both these buildings, is it really all that it’s cut up to be?
Another project is under way down the road from the CUB where RMIT is building its Swanston Academic Building.
RMIT Architecture alumnus Nicholas Ling had his reservations about what the development meant for the area, which he described as a “fragile ecosystem of small businesses and students’‘.
“There is a very specific demographic that congregates at that end of the city,” he said.
“I personally think that one QV for our city is enough, and another one will squeeze out small businesses in the area.”
But small business owners disagree.
Jim Fang, who owns Café Crema directly across the road from the CUB, welcomed the developments.
“It’ll be good for the business environment – there’ll be more foot traffic, which will mean more business,” Mr Fang said.
“With the residential and office blocks, there will be more than enough customers to go around, so I’m not too worried about the competition.”
Dominic Bifano, owner of Baron’s Wine and Spirit Merchant a little further up the street said the developments would bring “new life to the area”.
“Anything will be better than seeing the empty block there now,” Mr Bifano said.
“With a few thousand people in the offices, shops and apartments, there is sure to be some small surplus of people who will leave the mall.
“My mother always told me ‘little fish are sweet’, and I’m sure there will be room for everyone.”
Heritage Victoria spokeswoman Kerry Taylor said what was left of the CUB was of historical significance – a piece of “early manufacturing history of Melbourne’s inner suburbs”.
Developers have been mindful of the land’s heritage value, with Grocon commissioning archaeological studies of the former brewery site.
Permits are also required from Heritage Victoria to significantly alter the existing CUB building.
And no permit applications have been received to date, Ms Taylor said.
So, will this so-called “environmentally sustainable development” really deliver the promises of a greener future?
Monica Richter is the program manager for Sustainable Australia, an initiative by the Australian Conservation Foundation.
She feels that although RMIT’s development has ‘“the potential to be leading edge…[it] is nowhere good enough.”
“I’d like to see targets that take the building towards zero net energy and water consumption – if 60 Leicester St can do it, there is no reason for this building not to,” Ms Richter said.
Many apartments in the area have a large international student tenant base with weekly rentals going up to nearly $600 per week, says Douglas Tsoi of the Australian Federation of International Students (AFIS).
“I don’t believe that the developers [of QV2’s new apartments] aim to alleviate any [international student] issues,” Mr Tsoi said.
“More affordable and accessible student housing needs to be worked on by education providers and government quickly.”
“If we [want to] host international students as a country, we need to ensure sufficient housing that is both affordable and accessible.”
“It also needs to reflect the $12,000 per year living expenses guideline set by DIAC – the latest senate report has recommended DIAC change the $12k per year figure to a more realistic figure of $18k.”
The opinions may differ, but the landscape of Melbourne CBD’s northern fringe is evolving, whether we like it or not. The question is if the community can envision a future for the city, and the kind of spaces we’d like to inhabit.