Residents have been left frustrated following Yarra City Council’s perceived approval of apartments to be built at the site of the former historic Austral Theatre building.
The former theatre opened in September 1921 at 200 Johnston Street, Collingwood, and was run as a cinema until 1959. It is currently used as a carpet store.
Property developer Deluca Property Group (DPG) purchased the site in 2017 for a reported $8 million, and last year announced plans for an 11-storey development. The plans would see the partial demolition of the 100 year-old Austral building, with only the façade to remain.
Unimpressed locals submitted over 80 objections to council, gathering support through door knocking and distributing flyers.
Matthew Carabott is one of the residents who lodged an objection. He said he’s afraid if the development goes ahead it will lead to even more high rise buildings along the strip.
“If you look down Johnston Street from Smith Street, this section is mainly lower rise [buildings] that are equivalent of [sic] three storeys. So 11-storeys is quite imposing,”he said.
“Along this section of Johnston Street there's a lot of older buildings that are owned by developers, so the Austral is sort of a little toe in the water for what will be allowed to go up in this area.”
Both Yarra City Council and DPG did not reply to multiple requests for comment, but Collingwood Historical Society President Karen Cummings shared her letter to council objecting to the development and said the demolition should not be supported.
“The Austral Theatre meets heritage criteria not only as one of Yarra’s few remaining picture theatres, but also as the first and only picture theatre in the suburb of Collingwood,” Ms Cummings said.
The building is inside the Johnston Street Heritage Overlay Area, and Heritage Council Victoria has noted the Austral building’s local significance as a former cinema.
Unfortunately, their ‘statement of significance’ and the Heritage Overlay have failed to give any protection to the building outside of its façade.
If plans go ahead, the development will also remove an 80 year old Dutch Elm tree from the rear of the property, which Mr. Carabott said felt like a strange decision from Yarra’s Greens council.
“Do they not stand for the environment? For a Greens council to take down an 80 year old tree without good cause, it just feels a bit wrong”, he said
Also being questioned is who will live within the properties, with many residents taking issue over the lack of affordable social housing in the new building’s plans.
Other developments within Yarra such as the Alphington Paper Mill site have set aside a number of apartments for affordable housing, aimed at low income households. But this is not the case for the Austral site.
“With this Austral development, Yarra [council] says the one-bedroom apartments form a social housing affordability aspect. However, I asked what the expected price for something like that would be, and it's probably around $600,000, which is not something I would classify as social housing,” Mr Carabott said.
When council announced they would approve the development in September, some concessions were made, and the building will now be 10 storeys rather than 11, once the developer resubmits their plans with the agreed amendments.
The council also announced they had secured a discounted lease on an area within the new building's ground floor to be used as a community arts space.
Although residents tried to have their objections heard once more, Yarra City Council has made it clear they won’t participate in any further discussion.
After 100 years in Collingwood, the Austral Picture Theatre will soon exist only as a façade, which residents have vowed to consider ahead of the 2022 council elections.
Article & Photos: James Gaunt