The Princess Mary Club. Photo: Getty Images/Pat ScalaThe Uniting Church has entered into what critics say is an unholy alliance with Leighton Properties, which will see the developer handed prime Lonsdale Street land bought by the church through philanthropic donations in the 1920s.
Opponents of the plan, which includes demolition of the 1926 Princess Mary Club to make way for a skyscraper, say the project will tear away an important heritage-listed building.
After nearly 30 years of discussions, planning knockbacks and failed attempts to develop the land surrounding the Uniting Church’s Wesley congregation in Lonsdale Street, it has teamed up with Leighton.
The church wants to give the developer a 125-year-lease on the land where the Princess Mary Club now stands, in return for a major revamp of its church and surrounding buildings, and office space.
The near derelict Princess Mary Club was built with donations from the city’s business community in the 1920s, to provide “a home away from home” for young women coming to Melbourne for work.
It would be knocked down and replaced with an office tower of at least 30 levels.
Melbourne City Council planning spokesman Ken Ong said the Princess Mary building was in a deplorable state. “Go and have a look at it. It’s been derelict for at least 30 years,” he said.
Cr Ong said that, if the development went ahead, there needed to be serious discussion about creating more green space for the city as part of it.
But resident group EastEnders argues the plans – which have not yet gone before Planning Minister Matthew Guy – must be rejected outright, saying knocking down the Princess Mary Club would be “unforgivable”.
“This beautiful building has been left by the Uniting Church to rot,” said EastEnders’ Maureen Capp.
Ms Capp said the church was not only granted much of the land on which the buildings stood, but had also paid no taxes or rates for more than a century.
The group says the church, instead of knocking down the Princess Mary Club and building a skyscraper, should spend an estimated $12 million restoring it.
The church’s December 2013 accounts show its total current assets at $116 million.
The church has an inauspicious recent history in property. It was forced to sell millions of dollars of church property after its Acacia College in Melbourne’s north folded, leaving the church to bail out the developer.
The church says the project is needed to restore its place and identity in the city centre, and would see the neo-Gothic Wesley Church restored.
It also says that, as part of the development, Leighton would help it build new meeting places, arts spaces and educational venues.
And its spokeswoman said the project would provide a rejuvenated town square, with “numerous green and reflective spaces”, with a forecourt an inviting space for people to meet.
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