Apple Inc’s planned global flagship store in Federation Square. The existing pub, Transport Hotel, is in the stand-alone building on the right, fronting St Kilda Rd

There was a social media shitstorm in Melbourne over the holiday period following the announcement the Victorian government has given Apple Inc approval to build a global flagship store in Federation Square. There was no shortage of outraged citizens forecasting the new building would destroy, desecrate and defile the city’s much loved civic square.

The criticisms of the proposal include: it’ll be out of sync with the idiosyncratic look of the existing buildings; an international corporate with a dubious taxation record shouldn’t get privileged access to an important civic place; the development will privatise public space; it will turn Fed Square into a common shopping mall; the planning approval provided no opportunity for public consultation; it requires demolishing an existing building.

Some critics argue retail businesses are incompatible with Fed Square’s place as “the people’s park”. Others think it should remain a cultural precinct, limited to uses like the existing Ian Potter Centre and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI).

So, is it a reasonable idea? I should say at the outset that I’m unhappy with the high-handed approval process and with the look of the new building. And I don’t think an Apple global flagship store is the best possible use for Fed Square. But the downsides are grossly exaggerated in my view. The thing the whole brouhaha highlights is that the Square isn’t really “the peoples’ park”. It’s essentially a “high-art” and dining precinct that mostly benefits tourists and a limited number of Melburnians. There are plenty of defenders who want to keep it that way.

The key issue is that Federation Square isn’t functioning well as “the peoples’ park”. There are special occasions when it truly caters for all Melburnians – like when Cadel Evans won Le Tour – but for the great majority of the time it’s virtually empty of people in the inner reaches of the open areas and in the enclosed Atrium. The absence of life is reflected in the poor financial performance of the management body, which recorded a cumulative loss of $33 million over the last five years.

The current facilities are biased toward tourists, to those who can afford to eat and drink in all those bars and restaurants, and to the section of the population that’s very interested in visual arts. ACMI’s current exhibition, Studies on the Ecology of Drama, is fascinating but it doesn’t strike me as having broad appeal.

The Apple store promises to attract two million visitors a year to Fed Square. That sort of number will do a lot to activate it day and night, every day of the year. The fear it will somehow single-handedly turn the Square into just another mall is an appeal to extremes. It’s a rubbish argument. Apple’s new flagship store in San Francisco’s iconic Union Square shows that the idea “it’s just a shop” misunderstands the contemporary nature of this sort of business. Apple Inc isn’t spending $100 million just for a place to flog hardware; this is about creating an experience.

Sure, it’s ultimately all for a commercial objective. But that’s common with public spaces around the world, from Melbourne’s Victoria Market to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Something must attract people to go to places and there’s only so many public facilities with the required heft to do it alone; Fed Square’s current public tenants certainly aren’t doing it. In most cases much of the hard work is done by, or shared with, private operators.

Federation Square already has a multiplicity of private operators, including the Transport Hotel (with a dedicated building!), a 7/11, a tour operator and numerous bars and cafes. And no, these businesses aren’t “ancillary” to the main attractors like the Ian Potter Centre. The National Gallery in Canberra needs an ancillary cafeteria because it’s not near anything, but Fed Square is close to dozens and dozens of eateries, bars and pubs in the CBD. The various hospitality establishments in Fed Square are there in their own right; to pay rent to Federation Square Pty Ltd and ostensibly help bring in people.

Importantly, Apple’s presence should not only increase the number of visitors to Fed Square, it should also go some way toward redressing the “high-art” bias by bringing in a wider cross-section of Melburnians on all those days when there’s no major event. Mobile phone penetration in Australia is circa 84% of the population and iOS has 46% of the Australian mobile phone market. The sophisticated readers of The Urbanist might mostly prefer to go to Kathryn Del Barton’s current exhibition at the Ian Potter Centre, The Highway is a Disco, but I expect Apple’s global flagship store will appeal to a wider demographic.

Not that it’s the ideal use. I think something like the stand-alone Australian Museum of Popular Music I’ve been advocating for a few years would be the sort of facility that could go a long way toward “democratising” the appeal of Fed Square. It would help signal to a lot more Melburnians that it’s their place too, not just on big occasions. The trouble of course is the money would have to come from something else, very possibly from projects that many others consider more important.

I’m not happy with the design of the new building either. What looks to me like a stylised  “old country pub” aesthetic is grossly at odds with Fed Square’s “crazy paving” look. The visual integrity of the original design is severely compromised. Even something neutral, perhaps inspired by Apple’s original glass cube in Fifth Avenue might’ve worked, but not this shed, not here.

On the other hand, the principal of the firm that designed Fed Square supports the new design; so does the Government Architect. I acknowledge there are also plenty who don’t like the look of Fed Square and, ironically, that it was criticised when first revealed for being out of character with the surrounding streetscape. I note the new design will liberate more open space for public use and will improve connection to the river.

The Apple store looks like a done deal. We could’ve done better in an ideal world, but I expect it will contribute a lot to energising Fed Square and to making it a place a broader cross section of Melburnians wants to visit. I don’t think there’s much risk it’ll be the disaster for the Square that’s predicted in certain quarters. It doesn’t seem to me that opposing Apple’s presence in Fed Square, but accepting an alternative location elsewhere in the CBD, is a particularly effective way of objecting to its corporate practices.

It should’ve started before this decision was made, but we need a public discussion about what Federation Square is meant to be (it’s got nothing to do with 1901!) and about which Melburnians it’s meant to serve. There should also be a debate about its value; is it worth diverting funding from other important purposes for something like an Australian Museum of Popular Music? Is it possible the Ian Potter Centre isn’t the ideal use for Fed Square?

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