Hyperlocal news about Melbourne's first suburb: Fitzroy 3065

one of Fitzroy’s old cinemas is threatened with demolition


The former Lyric and Star cinema on Johnston St (previously Jimmy Possum then Dog’s Breakfast and currently Dimmey’s) near the corner of Smith St may be demolished if planning approval is given for a new apartment building proposal to be located on the site, which spans the warehouse on the corner (currently Tongue and Groove) and the former cinema.

johnston st history fitzroy fitzroy city of yarra

Planning application PLN13/0566  is inaccurately listed as 239-243 Johnston St on the City of Yarra website planning database but is actually 239-249 (it was listed 17 July 2013). I’ve obtained the original plans from the City of Yarra. I don’t understand why they don’t publish them on their website when they receive them. They expect you to go to Richmond to view the hard copy! Ridiculous. Here’s the planning application (dated 10 July 2013, 6.4mb pdf).

Update 3 October 2013: the previous paragraph is now out of date as the current plans are now available on the City of Yarra website.

The only reason I’m able to publish this now is thanks to a regular reader who alerted me to the issue, and who phoned council to clarify whether the plan included the cinema. His call clarified the issue faster than the response to my email query arrived. Council really does make it difficult for busy people to get information out of them. I’ve also asked them to correct the database record in relation to the street numbers.

If you’d like to know more about the history of the cinema, a research student has published a detailed website about it, and photos of the interior ceiling and exterior wall on the east side are below. I’m not a conservation or heritage absolutist. Not every old building needs to be saved. Some are more important than others. I do like how the original perimeter walls at least of some old Fitzroy factories and warehouses are preserved when the sites are redeveloped, such as with the new apartment building on the corner of Rose St and Gore St (where Breakfast Thieves is).

johnston st history fitzroy fitzroy city of yarra

A drawing from the plan showing the view from the same corner as the above photo / courtesy of Hayball / copyright: used under the fair dealings provisions of the Copyright Act 1968 / c2013

What is significant about the cinema? The ceiling is impressive, and the porthole windows are charming. It’s a shame these couldn’t be incorporated into the new building, but that presumably imposes too many limitations on the use of space. If you wish to make an objection to council on heritage grounds, the time to act is now.

johnston st history fitzroy fitzroy city of yarra  johnston st history fitzroy fitzroy city of yarra  johnston st history fitzroy fitzroy city of yarra  johnston st history fitzroy fitzroy city of yarra


  1. And … for quite a while this was also the site of Nicholas Dattner’s furniture showroom as well … in the 1980s.

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    • KNOCK IT DOWN!!! It’s finished. Currently, it’s an under-utilized eyesore and a waste of good, affordable living space.

      Heritage is one thing but fight the good fight for the preservation of old buildings that are truly worth the time, money and effort. All the good stuff in this area is mostly confined to Smith Street.

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  2. “All the good stuff in this area is mostly confined to Smith Street”. Umm … Have you actually ever been to Fitzroy, Ash?

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  3. There appears to be little respect for heritage buildings in Victoria on the part of our state government. Even if the council decides to preserve it, it will be a sure win at VCAT – Developers know this.

    Our corrupt planning system stinks.

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  4. Ten storeys! Classic developer behaviour I presume – pitch absurdly higher than intended and be seen to make concessions when objections are made.

    I seem to remember that the “Cheese grater” development on Kerr/Napier Street was originally proposed to be a few storeys higher than they settled on after significant objections. As transparent as that might seem, I don’t feel that the planning or VCAT process is likely to have much impact on this kind of ugly development.

    Development and growth is inevitable and necessary in many respects, but giving developers carte blanche with toothless attempts at minimising impact to amenity is worrisome indeed. Allowing this to go through will be the beginning of more massive development along Johnston Street to match the increasing number of high rise buildings being created on Smith Street.

    Presumably Brunswick Street and Gertrude Streets will follow suit, with Fitzroy – Melbourne’s first suburb (as “Newtown”?) – eventually being consumed by the city. Progress?

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    • It’s not inevitable – all the planning decisions made in this city are choices – of our political representatives, and also of the voting population more generally. They are also influenced by how active citizens are in defending their interests and the interests of the city and its people more broadly. It is very hard to imagine a proposal like this in Paris, for instance. There is nothing sacrosanct about Paris, nor anything more intrinsically valuable about its heritage, but it’s citizens do have a clear sense of civic activism when it comes to decisions about the place in which they live. I also don’t buy the mantra that growth and development is necessary everywhere in inner Melbourne in order to avoid sprawl. We have a vast amount of infill land available (even in the inner city) that would have no direct impact on heritage built fabric. Likewise, the poorly planned outer suburbs can be made more dense from the word go, rather than developing more single house lots on greenfield sites as we are still doing. And lastly, other cities (like Vienna) demonstrate that it’s not necessary to go higher than 6 stories to achieve the highest residential densities in the world – high rise buildings are simply gold mines for developers that overall decrease the amenity of cities and contribute higher carbon footprints and (paradoxically) lower density than their more modest 6 story cousins.

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      • Thanks Bilby – but I think you misunderstood my comment that “Development and growth is inevitable and necessary in many respects …”, in that I believe any society that isn’t in decline or artificially frozen in time will inevitably develop and grow. That’s not to say that high rises and congestion is inevitable, but that the uses and impact of things will change.

        The problems with amenity and impact on all fronts arise with effectively giving developers carte blanche to work the system to doing as they please.

        Unfortunately I don’t believe that our town planning and political system genuinely allows for logical sensitivity on these issues – as evidenced by a number of recent inner city developments (e.g.: exceissvely high or intense demolition and development in Armadale, Richmond, Collingwood & Fitzroy) that completely ignored local Council and resident objections.

        I remain actively involved in my local area, and never cease to be amazed at the lack of impact or genuine power residents and local government have in these decisions. To give just one or many examples of how poor the system is, I and some local residents sat with two City of Yarra Councillors over a year ago to discuss a planning issue and they simply shrugged their shoulders saying “there’s nothing we can do, as Planning is a separate function and they’d approved it”. It then went to VCAT where some compromises were made and the development was approved. The developer then ignored the terms of the agreed outcome, so we went to Planning to alert them to the problem. The new Planner told us that his interpretation of the permit was different to ours and, despite him not being involved in any of the previous discussions, his decision was final.

        The entire process is toothless.

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        • Thanks for your clarification, Andrew. The process is not toothless, however. The process is more or less inscribed in the planning legislation, and as we can all plainly see, the planning process has plenty of teeth … it strongly favours intensive development in ‘Major Activity Centres’ like Smith Street, Fitzroy, for example. That is why ‘we’ never win. You can only win when the law is favourable to your argument, and in Victoria, the planning laws are not currently written to favour heritage, human scale (in the CBD), or the concerns of local residents. That is why community / collective activism is absolutely crucial in a democracy. Unfortunately, our education system hasn’t trained us (and isn’t currently training our students) to be active citizens in this way, and instead we work, consume, worry and feel ‘powerless’. We are not powerless, however, when we join together and advocate in a mature and politically savvy way for our interests. That’s why I joined Melbourne Heritage Action and the Yarra Heritage Advisory Committee in recent years, it’s why I teach civics & citizenship and encourage my students to be active and critical citizens, and why I write on blogs like this. It’s why I flew to Boston earlier this year to investigate heritage issues there (they have a blanket law called ‘Article 85′ for instance, which provides for heritage assessment and interim protection of any building over 50 years old before a demolition application can proceed, regardless of whether it is ‘heritage listed’ or not). I am not about to cave in to wealthy and powerful interests and see my community and city wrecked – to a large degree, the nature of the place we live in determines the sort of lives we will all live into the future. I want to live in a place with genuine respect for heritage, culture, community spirit, equity and social justice. These things are all ‘must haves’ for me – the planning system is political, and therefore reversible, impermanent and changeable, even if the results of what have to work with now sometimes are not.

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  5. Well, there has been a very interesting development in this particular planning debacle in the last day or so. Heritage ‘expert’, Bryce Raworth had last year produced a heritage report on the site for council and gave the following sworn advice:

    “No evidence has been located confirming the single storey built form on the subject
    site at the corner with Gore Street was built by the MacRobertson company …No remnant signage on the Gore Street elevation indicates an association with MacRobertson.”

    He goes on to say:

    “The Gore Street frontage of the site is not specifically identified in Council’s
    heritage schedule and is not separately graded. It is a modified single-storey, early
    twentieth century building of little architectural distinction. Although it appears to
    date from the early twentieth century, one of the key historic periods identified in the statement of significance for the precinct, it is not a landmark building, or one
    that is emblematic of a particular company. Its demolition will therefore not result
    in a substantial loss of significance to the surrounding precincts and streetscapes”.

    Really? Well, said ‘expert’ obviously didn’t look too hard on the day he inspected the site, because hidden in plain sight was a huge 3 metre long encaustic tiled heritage sign, which quite clearly read, ‘Macroberstons’ in that beautiful flowing script many residents of Fitzroy know and love. All you had to do was to stare at the place you would expect to see a Macrobertsons sign – the tiled letters were still visible under the paint. If you go there as of today, the historic signage has been revealed for all to see – I guess the recent rain must have washed off the paint … And since Heritage Expert, Bryce Raworth (who is behind dozens of recommendations for the demolition of historic sites across the inner city in recent years) has admitted that any extant signage would make the site a ‘landmark’ which is ‘emblematic of a particular company’, he has ensured that the developer he works for will have a hell of a time now arguing for their desired demolition permit – particularly since this part of Fitzroy is specifically cited for the contribution made by the famous ‘White City’ as Macrobertson’s collection of factory buildings were once known.

    You can read the full heritage report here:–building/major-developments/pln130566/

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