Richmond residents who fought the development of a 10-storey office building at VCAT and won have been dismayed by the news that the decision could be effectively overridden by a special planning process.
The development, at 9-11 Stewart St, north of Richmond station, also was opposed by the City of Yarra, whose refusal to grant the application was appealed by the developer.
VCAT agreed with the council and residents that due to its height and setbacks the proposed building would "overwhelm the heritage facade that is to be retained and the streetscape more broadly".
A year after the tribunal dismissed the application, the residents who were party to the process have received a letter from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning informing them the Planning Minister is considering assuming authority for a revised version of the proposal under the Development Facilitation Program, which could see him adopt a planning scheme amendment to approve it.
A Victorian government spokesperson told the Inner East Review the building's design had been modified following its rejection by VCAT.
"Consultation is under way on an application that is different to the previous proposal for the site," the spokesperson said.
The proposal, by global real estate developer Hines, involves partial demolition of the existing two-storey warehouse building on the corner of Stewart and Margaret streets and construction of a 39m high, nine-storey office building which will contain ground floor retail and hospitality space.
The developers are seeking a reduction in car parking, from the 143 spaces required under the planning scheme to just seven, and will provide 45 bicycle spaces.
Local resident Michael Phillipson, who was one of the parties to the VCAT proceedings, claims the new version of the building has barely changed, with its height slightly reduced but its overall setback from the street actually made smaller.
He was concerned over the possible waiver of planning rules around car parking and queried why the application would have met the criteria for the development facilitation program.
Established in April last year during the height of the pandemic, the development facilitation program is a special planning body created to speed up the assessment of projects and stimulate the economy. To qualify for it, projects are required to "deliver investment into the Victorian economy, keep people in jobs and provide a substantial public benefit".
The program has been criticised by a number of non-government members of state parliament whose electorates have seen unpopular developments signed off under it, with little transparency.
In a speech to parliament, upper house member Rod Barton described the program as "a back door to controversial projects" in Victoria, the most notable being a six-storey aged care home in Prahran that was rejected by Stonnington Council, VCAT and the Supreme Court before being approved by the Planning Minister's office.
Phillipson, who has devoted weeks to opposing the development, described local residents' objections to it as based on heritage as well as amenity.
"The mixed-use zone used to be a knitting mills area and it's probably one of the only early industrial precincts left in Melbourne," he said. "I'm not anti-development. I just think development needs to be appropriate."