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A 141-year-old house on one of Hawthorn’s oldest streets is facing demolition to make way for nine townhouses, prompting the state opposition, Boroondara Council and residents to urgently push for it to be granted heritage protection.
Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny is being asked to reconsider a decision made by her predecessor, Lizzie Blandthorn, after the council’s bid to protect 76 Wattle Road was rejected the day before the caretaker period began before the November state election.
Anna Prenc is among a group of Hawthorn residents fighting to stop the redevelopment of 76 Wattle Road, seen in the background.Credit:Joe Armao
The property, which was owned by the prominent Kroger family until 2015 and sits on a narrow, leafy street once inhabited by 19th century German winemakers, has been the subject of a lengthy heritage and development dispute that this week landed at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
The Italianate-style house in the wealthy suburb was sold for $6.25 million in June 2021 after being advertised as a “thrilling” development opportunity with 1700 square metres of land and no heritage overlay.
Development company New Merger Pty Ltd submitted plans to demolish the home and build nine three-storey townhouses.
A render of the proposed townhouse development at 76 Wattle Rd in Hawthorn.Credit:Ascui & Co. Architects
Its application was rejected by Boroondara Council in September because the proposed development’s size, setback and limited greenery would impact the neighbourhood amenity and streetscape. The developer is fighting the council’s decision at VCAT.
Residents are baffled as to how 76 Wattle Road has not been heritage protected and why the former farmers’ laneway has so few homes listed compared with the wider streets either side of it, Lisson Grove and Manningtree Road. Signs stating “we will oppose inappropriate development” hang on fences along Wattle Road.
A sign on Wattle Road.Credit:Joe Armao
A 2012 heritage study commissioned by Boroondara Council did not propose to list Wattle Road as a precinct, but pointed to several potentially significant properties that should be considered for protection, including number 76. In 2014, heritage overlay was not recommended.
Now the council is scrambling to save the property. Councillors voted to support a new 16-page heritage assessment last July, four months after the developer’s planning application was submitted.
76 Wattle Road was built in 1882.Credit:Joe Armao
However, the then Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, under delegation from the former planning minister, rejected the council’s permanent heritage request because there was not “sufficient new evidence” to justify protecting the property.
The decision meant the council’s assessment could not be tested publicly before a planning panel and should the developer win at VCAT, 76 Wattle Road is likely to be razed unless Kilkenny intervenes.
A Boroondara Council spokesman said the council was disappointed with the former planning minister’s decision.
“While the building still stands, the minister [Kilkenny] has every opportunity to protect [it],” he said.
“Council has written to the new minister and hopes the current minister will authorise council to exhibit a planning scheme amendment to provide heritage protection for the property and at least allow the matter to be consulted with our community.”
Despite already refusing permanent controls, a Victorian government spokeswoman said late on Tuesday that Kilkenny and the Department of Transport and Planning would assess a council proposal for an interim heritage overlay.
Opposition Leader John Pesutto, who is the member for Hawthorn, wrote to Kilkenny last week urging her to delay the VCAT case until the heritage issue was resolved. David Davis, who leads the opposition in the upper house, also raised the matter in parliament.
“Wattle Road and surrounding areas of Hawthorn possess sites of great heritage value that we want to preserve as far as possible,” Pesutto said. “The precinct has already been forced to absorb a great deal of high-density residential living.”
A photo used to advertise the sale of 76 Wattle Road in 2021.Credit:Domain
The number of apartments in the Hawthorn electorate has grown dramatically in the past decade – to 42 per cent of all dwellings – but Australia is still battling a housing shortage with high property prices and a tight rental market.
Resident Anna Prenc said she worried about the increase in traffic the development would bring to an already narrow street that was close to primary schools.
“It’s hugely frustrating. We feel like its all just all been done quickly without any opportunity for us to [have our say],” she said.
“Development needs to be sensitive to the area, so putting nine three-storey townhouses on a glorified lane that has congestion issues and children everywhere is a bad decision, on top of putting it in a place that is so historically significant.”
In early 2021, the council initiated a new study of Wattle Road, however the draft was not completed until this month. It identifies 14 properties and two precincts, but number 76 had to be omitted following the minister’s decision.
Resident Andrew Nunn, who started a community petition that attracted more than 600 signatures, was critical of the council for doing “too little too late”.
Nunn is appearing at VCAT this week as a respondent to the developer’s case. He said that he was devastated by the prospect of losing a “beautiful heritage house” to townhouses that would “totally overwhelm a historic precinct”.
The Age has sought to contact the developer via its architect and lawyer.
The council spokesman rejected the suggestion that delays in its Wattle Road study impacted the protection of number 76 because the individual citation for this property was prioritised.
“Council would have hoped the building would be protected by now however early works in 2021 were hampered by the state government’s COVID-19 restrictions.”
He said the council had spent $1.3 million in the past five years implementing a municipal-wide heritage study that has resulted in 5000 additional buildings being preserved, making for a total of more than 15,000 with heritage protections.
Boroondara Heritage Group convenor Christina Branagan said she had been fighting to save Wattle Road properties after a number were lost, including number 58, which is being developed into townhouses.
“It would be dreadful and terribly disappointing for Hawthorn to lose another place that council showed meets the heritage grade,” she said.
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