By Jewel Topsfield and Royce Millar
Successive governments have failed in their attempts to deck the Jolimont rail yards.Credit: Illustration: Matt Davidson
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A century-old civic dream of decking the Jolimont rail yards next to Federation Square to create a new city precinct connecting the CBD and Yarra River has been quietly shelved by the Victorian government.
The idea of roofing the rail yards, championed by a string of Victorian premiers, has long been considered the second phase of the development of Federation Square – affectionately known as Fed Square – which opened to the public 21 years ago.
Successive governments have unveiled and then shelved plans to develop the airspace over the rail yards amid concern about the cost. Some have included proposals for high-rise towers controversially overshadowing the Yarra, to help offset the price of a roof over the rail lines.
An internal 2018 state government document obtained by The Age outlines the most recent government vision for the precinct known as Federation Square East, along with Spring Street South, which is now called Treasury Square.
Decking the rail yards is a costly business, and successive Victorian governments have shelved plans to do so.Credit: Penny Stephens
“Federation Square East will become a city-shaping civic project incorporating a mix of cultural and civic uses and high quality public spaces,” the Richmond to Docklands Framework Plan says.
But in response to questions from The Age, the Allan government said there was no current plan to develop Federation Square East. “We’re always happy to listen to ideas about the best use of public land and assets,” a spokesperson said.
In a three-part series to commemorate the 21st anniversary of Federation Square, The Age has explored Melbourne’s controversial quest for a monument of its own, the future of the square and the thwarted civic dream dating back a century to build a deck over the rail yards.
Revamped arts precinct
In 2021, the government announced the square would be revitalised as part of an expanded arts precinct that includes the National Gallery of Victoria, Arts Centre Melbourne, the new NGV Contemporary and a new 18,000 square metre public garden.
The plan reorients the square southward to the arts precinct rather than eastward toward the MCG.
“Connecting Fed Square into the broader arts precinct across the river and really trying to glue that all together, that’s going to be our focus as we build the $1.7 billion Melbourne Arts Precinct transformation,” said Katrina Sedgwick, chief executive of the Melbourne Arts Precinct Corporation, which has taken over the running of Federation Square.
“We have not had conversations about Fed Square East. We may well in the future, but our eyes at the moment are very clearly towards our Melbourne Arts Precinct transformation project over the next few years. It is going to be a game changer for our city, and we want to get that right.”
Plans to roof and re-use the airspace above the rail lines have been mooted since at least the 1920s, with Melbourne engineer Jas Alex Smith saying in 1922 that it “might create an asset equivalent to many millions [of pounds] sterling”.
Through the decades, plans have included proposals for civic plazas, gardens, theatres, high-rise office and apartment towers, with an infamous and doomed design competition in 1978 attracting ideas including a giant crocodile, a “Freedom Bird Park”, an enormous steel V and an international women’s centre called Melbourne’s Monumental Mammaries.
The rail yards in 1970.Credit: Fairfax Media
In April 1963, premier Henry Bolte sold the air rights over a parcel of the rail yards and Lendlease built the much-maligned Gas and Fuel towers, in what was intended to be the first stage of a £100 million scheme to cover the entire railway yards with big buildings and a car park.
“It’s almost as if building over the railway has been this landscape of big, maniacal, urban dreams for decades,” says the chair of architecture at Melbourne University, Professor Philip Goad.
“And so was connecting to the river, but with no one really understanding how to do it.”
In the 1990s, the Kennett government toyed with the idea of building a new parliament house as part of a civic precinct.
Through the 2000s, the government, the city council and developers have put forward a string of proposals and/or promises to develop Federation Square East.
Victoria Police headquarters, a Commonwealth Games athletes’ village, ANZ headquarters, Melbourne’s tallest skyscraper and a proposal based on the Chicago Millennium Park with galleries, commercial space, a boutique hotel and parkland have all been mooted for the site and then scrapped.
Many of the plans were unveiled ahead of state elections. Most recently, then opposition leader Matthew Guy promised $5 million toward a business case for a three-hectare park just days before the 2022 poll.
Ideas flourish despite no funds
Former Labor premier John Brumby pledged to slot the “missing piece of the puzzle” into place at Jolimont, if only voters would re-elect him. Ex-Liberal premier Denis Napthine called the Jolimont rail yards “the black hole of Melbourne”.
“It’s a little bit like Melbourne’s high-speed rail – it rolls out at every election, and each year the cost of the deck has somehow gone up by $100 million,” says Decibel Architecture founder Dylan Brady, whom Major Projects Victoria commissioned in 2017 to map all the competing proposals for Federation Square East over the years.
Decibel Architecture founder Dylan Brady, whom Major Projects Victoria commissioned to map proposals for Federation Square East.Credit: Justin McManus
But struggling with a massive existing infrastructure program, a net debt of $135 billion and a construction industry in crisis, the Allan government has no appetite to take on a major new and costly project.
This has not stopped ideas for the site coming.
In May, Decibel Architecture proposed a $350 million redevelopment to Treasurer Tim Pallas, which would include a business and tourist attraction called the Melbourne Pin – a moving observation tower with a vertical cable car where visitors could experience 360-degree views of the city.
The precinct would also include a state planning centre, which would showcase major projects such as the Metro Tunnel stations, a function centre to replace Central Pier, a new public park above The Paddock, restaurants, bars and retail.
Decibel Architecture’s plan does not include decking the rail yards, which Brady estimates would cost about $450 million.
Instead, it proposes that the state government build the deck and create a master-planned new city block, which would link the CBD to the Yarra River.
“The state would get back the money on the deck by selling the parcels within the master plan to the market,” Brady said.
He said the proposal – called EpiCentre Victoria – would revitalise the CBD, which has struggled after the pandemic, and would serve as a starting point for the myriad proposals to develop the inner-eastern corridor.
Brady said Pallas was yet to respond to the proposal.
Former Premier John Brumby – who in 2010 unveiled a plan for a Chicago-inspired public space and cultural precinct at Federation Square – said he had been “red hot” on the idea.
“I really thought we could do this, we had a very strong budget position, we had capacity and capital works to do a big project,” Brumby said.
“I was really keen to do it because I think it is the missing jigsaw [piece]. And in the longer term, of course, you can imagine, theoretically, it’s possible to cover all of the yards running right down to the MCG and Richmond station. You would have a city unequalled anywhere in the world.”
However, Brumby said decking the rail yards was a complex and expensive engineering feat. This was compounded by the challenge of having to do the construction work at night when trains were not running.
He said if medium density or high-density development was allowed on the site to offset the cost of decking the rail yards, it would block views and access from Flinders Street to the river.
“That wasn’t ideal and would have obviously met with some pretty ferocious opposition from community groups and anti-development groups,” he said.
“You are then left with funding it entirely from the public purse and the cost estimates on it were just huge.”
He said the challenge now was that the Victorian government had a big capital program and interest rates had gone up.
“They are pretty well capped out in terms of debt, that’s the truth of the matter. And unless they were to cancel one project and replace it with this one, it’s not going to get there in the next few years.”
As The Age reported in the second part of this series, Kennett had always intended Federation Square to be the first part of a “rolling process” of decking the rail yards.
But he agreed that, given the level of state debt, an addition to the square was now unlikely for some time.
He said he did not support a high-rise, private sector redevelopment of the site.
“You don’t want tall buildings that cast shadows over what is a very popular area being the river and the other side of the river.”
Lord Mayor Sally Capp said there was no doubt the Jolimont rail yards were a challenging spot for revitalisation.
“However, advances in engineering and construction materials could mean the cost and complexity of transforming a transport hub is reduced,” she said.
Capp said the council would welcome more green space along the Jolimont rail yards to complement its Greenline linear park, provide more green space, and help cool the city.
“I’d encourage any creative-minded developers to put forward their bid, especially if it involves green space.”
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