North Fitzroy Star
Interior of existing North Fitzroy Star, from front page of hotel web site. Doubt it looked much like this 50 years ago, let alone 137 years ago

The Age reported on Saturday that residents of North Fitzroy are “in a lather” about plans to redevelop the North Fitzroy Star hotel.

Residents are rallying to protect the 137-year-old North Fitzroy Star hotel, the latest in a string of inner-city 19th century pubs slated for housing development. A group called Save the North Fitzroy Star fears the obliteration of a “unique and beautiful place” they say is a family-friendly community hub.

The implication is an historic building’s about to be razed, the neighbourhood will be deprived of a local, and a valuable “community hub” will be lost forever. Is that what’s really happening here?

The North Fitzroy Star might have a pub licence and it might be in an old pub building, but for all practical purposes it’s an up-market restaurant and bar (see first exhibit). It was a restaurant and bar when I lived in the neighbourhood in 2000 and for all practical purposes it still is, although it’s branched out into receptions and functions – have a look at how the Star sees itself on its web site.

The building isn’t going to be “obliterated” (here’s what it looks like now). The 137 year old exterior won’t be altered and the streetscape form won’t change significantly (see second exhibit). Here’s what the applicant’s heritage architect says:

In summary, the partial demolition of the hotel at 32 St Georges Road and the proposed new two-storey additions are acceptable in terms of their impact on the `individually significant’ building on the subject site and the broader heritage area. The additions respond sensitively to their heritage context through their location, scale, gabled form and external treatment. While the works will clearly result in a degree of change, this change will not adversely affect the significance of the heritage place. The scheme has been designed with appropriate regard for relevant Council policy and heritage considerations more generally.

The major changes will be to the interior of the site which the owner says was “gutted” in the 1990s. There’ll be five two-storey townhouses (3 x 3 bedroom, 2 x 2 bedroom) and a wine bar with capacity for 80 patrons.

The residents say they don’t want to lose a local pub. But this is North Fitzroy; residents have a huge range of pubs, restaurants and bars nearby in Brunswick St and Nicholson St. The Lord Newry is in the same street, 200 metres away. The Tramway Hotel is in the same street 250 metres away.

The nub of residents concerns’ seems to be that the Star is special; it’s a “family-friendly community hub”. But there’s no guarantee or even liklihood these qualities would be maintained even if it remained a pub. According to The Age’s report, it’s not commercially viable in its current form; the owner and operator aren’t prepared to subsidise the locals and the latter aren’t prepared to pay what it would take to keep it going.(1)

The building’s been a hotel for 137 years but it’s current sophisticated incarnation is relatively recent. For most of that time it was the Morning Star Hotel, then the Star Hotel, Lord Jim’s, and from 1999 the North Fitzroy Star.

I expect the locals might doubt the value of keeping it as a pub were some new publican to bring in poker machines and a betting agency. Or if it reverted to being the sort of swill & blood house that’s almost certainly more representative of the major part of its history than the present operation.

This is one of those cases (like here and here) where the real issue isn’t the change in use or protection of an important building. Rather, it’s about residents expecting government to intervene to protect an ambience or a special quality that’s largely come about serendipitously rather than by design.

The fact that it’s impossible to codify this elusive quality; that it’s inherently unstable; that it doesn’t work commercially for the operator; and that the locals aren’t prepared to pay the real cost of such an amenity, seems to be of no concern to them. It’s a bit like forcibly preventing the life of the party from leaving for fear it’ll diminish everyone else’s fun.

The proposal might give rise to other more conventional concerns (parking for wine bar patrons?) but the issues raised by residents are irrelevant. The proposed redevelopment will expand housing supply in a neighbourhood with good access to public transport and where the scope for new housing is severely limited.

It’ll do it without detriment to the streetscape and it’ll even provide a wine bar; perhaps the locals can make the effort to create a similar sense of a community hub in the new establishment? (1)

I really have to wonder why The Age even reported this story. The fact that enough agitated people can be gotten together for a photo op seems to be the guiding principle, not whether there’s an important issue or principle at stake.

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  1. Council is building a grand community hub in St Geroges Rd, North Fitzroy.
Street view of proposed redevelopment, St Georges Rd
Street view of proposed redevelopment, St Georges Rd