The Corkman Irish pub in Carlton before it was demolished (RHS) with the trees of University Square in the distance (LHS)
This doesn’t look a neighbourhood that desperately needs a pocket park ahead of other potential uses (the Corkman Irish pub in Carlton as it was just over a week ago)

It’s been a week now since the Corkman Irish Pub in the Melbourne near-CBD suburb of Carlton was unlawfully demolished. There’ve been plenty of ideas thrown out there – many of them fanciful – about what should be done with the perpetrator and with the rubble-strewn site. Now it’s time for some more sober reflection.

Most commentators conflate their desire to punish the culprit with how the site can best contribute to the neighbourhood and to Melbourne. These are separate issues.

The offender needs to be brought to account and treated according to the law. Whether the law is strong enough to satisfy all the demands for punitive action is a moot point, although some observers are hopeful the potential penalties could be up to circa $1 million. The court might also require that the shell of the building is reinstated. Whatever; it’s a matter for the existing law – such as it is – to sort out.

For those interested in urban policy, the immediate concern is what should be done with the now vacant site. The most common suggestions are either resume the property and convert it to a park, or reconstruct the building with the original bricks so it can resume operations as the pub much loved by students from the University of Melbourne law school.

I think these ideas are generated more by the desire for punishment than what’s best for the neighbourhood or the city. It’s not clear the government would even have legally justifiable grounds to resume the property in the absence of a lawful purpose. In any event, it’s  doubtful a pocket park is necessary or is the best use of land in this area; the site is diagonally opposite University Square (see exhibit). And as I noted last week, while it’s possible to reinstate bricks and mortar, the chances of resurrecting the spirit of the activities carried on within the former pub are close to zero (see Can the spirit of this lost pub be resurrected?).

The best guide to what should happen with the site is what would have been likely if the building hadn’t been demolished. Although this building isn’t on the heritage register – indeed it’s classified grade C2 under the City of Melbourne’s heritage overlay – there are two things we can be pretty confident about; one is that a change of use would’ve been permitted and the other is that it would’ve been conditional on the façade – and possibly a small stone wall inside – being preserved.

Given the university didn’t buy it for an academic purpose, the most likely use would’ve been apartments, perhaps with some commercial space – maybe a restaurant and bar – at ground level. The perpetrator of this outrage might well have hoped for permission to build a tall building commensurate with the height of others in the immediate vicinity, but that outcome seems unlikely. A more plausible scenario is apartments over two levels within the original shell with perhaps four or five levels at the rear. In terms of streetscape it might look something like the proposed redevelopment of the North Fitzroy Star hotel (see Should the walls come down at the (North Fitzroy) Star hotel?).

Requiring reconstruction of the façade as a condition of approval for any development of the site should be a given whatever the ultimate use (the court might compel the owner to do it anyway). Obviously a rebuilt façade can’t be the original but it would give back to the public the most important heritage quality of the building; it’s contribution to the streetscape. However, since the facade is rendered, I don’t think it’s necessary that it be rebuilt with the same bricks; it would be better if the premium that would involve were put in the hands of the public for other purposes.

Development for apartments would make an important social contribution by increasing housing supply. Importantly, it’s likely to be a commercially viable option even if  the cost of replicating the former facade is included in the development costs. There might be other possibilities though e.g. if the site were put up for sale – and there must be a fair likelihood it will be – it might appeal to the university at the right price for an academic purpose, possibly even including as a student amenity.

The biggest issue is how to prevent this sort of wanton destruction happening again. Most seem to assume in the case of the Corkman that the penalties don’t exceed the incentives for devastation, but we’ll have to wait and see how the legal process plays out to know if that’s right or not; perhaps the culprit simply miscalculated. If it turns out the fines are inadequate to protect against future actions of this type – and there’s prima facie evidence they might be – there’s a strong case for significantly higher penalties (at least in cases where the property is privately owned; it’s harder if government is the owner).

A component of a reformed penalty regime must allow for the full cost of making good any damage. But reinstatement shouldn’t be left in the hands of the party who demolished the building in the first place; that’s a bit like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.