“It’s as bad as Jeff Kennett,” a property developer tells me. “No – actually, it’s worse.”

On the eve of the Xmas break, the Victorian Government announced that Apple would be opening a shop in Federation Square – not as another tenant, but by demolishing an existing multi-tenanted building, and replacing it with a bespoke structure whose sole purpose is to project a visually dominant brand presence over one of Australia’s most significant public spaces.

It’s a decision that’s been met with shock across the nation. And today it’s emerged that this decision was made despite passionate objections by several key members of Daniel Andrews’ front bench – including planning minister Richard Wynne and Creative Industries Minister Martin Foley, who will rightly be fearing the political consequences in their inner-city seats come this November’s election.

The decision neglects the procurement process and public consultation period required of major urban planning determinations, disrupts several other key tenants across the site, and undermines the Civic and Cultural Charter that is FedSquare’s founding and guiding document. So how is FedSquare different from any other public space – and what has now been jeopardised?

The Charter lays out the primacy of the site’s cultural purposes, allowing only those commercial uses that have “an identifiable synergy” with its cultural program. It sets out the objectives, key outcomes, implementation requirements and operating principles for FedSquare as a place for creativity and innovation. In his book on FedSquare’s first decade, Monash University’s A/Prof Seamus O’Hanlon puts it very clearly: the Charter “mandates if there is a conflict between public and commercial use, the public will always win.”

This sets a sophisticated set of civic responsibilities for any government, as enacted through its onsite management body. And yet, rather than take the Charter seriously as a key state asset, it’s being trashed in favour of a brand awareness project.

So what will this mean for public space? Any community gathering or public event presented at FedSquare becomes an ad for Apple. Any political gathering, planned or otherwise, becomes coopted as cultural cred for Apple. Any artistic programming, whether produced by FedSquare or by Melbourne’s leading festivals and creatives, becomes colour and movement for Apple.

A lot has been said about the relocation of the Koori Heritage Trust to make way for Apple – a relocation that its leadership is ok with, just as FedSquare architect Don Bates is ok with Apple moving in – but little has been said about the consequences of that relocation for FedSquare’s other key cultural institutions, ACMI and SBS.

To accommodate the Koori Heritage Trust, SBS is being forced to halve its footprint and constrain its operations in ways that have unknown and unplanned consequences. Staff have now been told that their two floors will be merged into one floor, losing specialised tv and multitrack recording studios, as well as executive, sales and marketing offices. All within a very busy year that includes a major tech upgrade – and a World Cup. It’s long been an open secret in broadcast circles that shutting down SBS’s Melbourne operations would be an easy way to cut costs. Exactly how the Apple shop plays into that Sydney-centric agenda is impossible to determine; certainly, undermining media capacity in Australia’s most culturally diverse city is irreversible.

The consequences for ACMI are also poor. Even in the most commercially-driven of shopping centres, as a leading arts figure put it to me recently, management would never agree to opening a David Jones onsite without letting a Myer know – indeed, their contracts would preclude it. An Apple store that aims to present free daily programming in “photography, music creation, app development, visual arts, and more,” presented by “the world’s top creators and high profile talent [on] how they use technology in their creative process” conflicts directly with ACMI’s mission “to connect makers, thinkers, viewers and players” in ways that foster new thinking across “the themes that underpin screen culture.” And with plans to introduce their own massive-scale public screen programming on more façades – plans they unveiled at my Digital Publics symposia a couple of years ago – FedSquare management are actively eroding the impact of ACMI’s expertise on the state’s key creative industries site.

Disclosure. As well as being a former SBS staffer, a former ACMI board member, and a former curator of design programming at FedSquare, my connection to the site predates its opening. At the turn of the millennium I was at the Bauhaus, working with an international team of diverse practitioners on cultural and commercial precincts that would address new C21st challenges through the design of new public and private spaces. FedSquare was hailed as a leader: exploding civic potential through new forms of cultural, social and commercial collaboration against the seemingly unsolvable problem of gifting to Melbourne at long last a town square that actually worked. We studied that potential closely, identifying it as a milestone in civic practice. Such a decision was unimaginable to our thinking and our expectations of FedSquare’s future.

Shopping malls that are closed to traffic are the natural home of the multinational flagship store – and Melbourne’s Bourke St Mall is home to several. Zara refitted several stories of existing building stock to create their massive presence. H&M occupied the old GPO, while the Emporium demolished the historically significant but rather run-down Lonsdale House to build their shopping centre.

Atop the Walk Arcade, which runs from the Bourke St Mall to Lt Collins, lie several stories of unused commercial floorspace that have remained vacant for years. Many years. They need work – probably about as much work as demolishing FedSquare’s Yarra Building – but Apple weren’t interested in that.

Rather than share a neighbourhood with other retailers, Apple imagines its flagship stores as town squares, performing a cultural role that’s elevated by the presence of prestigious institutions such as ACMI, the NGV and SBS. That readily coopted status comes precisely from their non-commercial focus: they each embody cultural values that cannot be bought or sold. To be located among prestigious neighbours whose values define the Australian culture, whose share price will never plummet, and who will likely never move out, is quite the tantalising prospect for any shop.

To all this, the public response has been swift – and organised. Several petitions have emerged that call on Premier Daniel Andrews to rethink the decision. Change.org is hosting several of these, each with thousands of signatures and fiery discussions on the nature of public space and the acceptable conditions in which it is contested. One Melburnian is calling for the most dominant retail presence to be held instead by Bunnings – because its weekend snags are a “quintessentially Australian experience.” This hilariously astute response says a lot about public expectations of public space.

So what’s the solution? We need to move well beyond profit to rethink what makes for success at FedSquare – and, thankfully, the Charter already outlines a helpful scope for that rethink. A management authority operating to a not-for-profit structure and reporting to the Minister for Creative Industries is vital to ensuring that smart thinking can drive civic and cultural innovation at this important place. Also essential is a culturally diverse board with strategic expertise encompassing planning or architecture, retail, media, arts and culture, and civic or public space practice. This is a rare opportunity for FedSquare management and its programming team to foster a long-term commitment to long-term goals and values by creating a culture of staff retention, as well as retaining key festivals by respecting their needs and championing their success. Restoring constructive relationships with key cultural tenants is essential, actively learning from their expertise, as well as collaborating meaningfully with external institutions.

Instead of making FedSquare a Xmas gift to one single business, let’s rethink Victoria’s civic and cultural responsibility to create a public space of enduring public value.

After all, even Jeff Kennett thinks it’s a bad idea.

The 13 February Apple in Federation Square debate was presented by Open House Melbourne and moderated by Andrew Mackenzie with a great line-up of speakers:

  • Martine Letts (CEO, Committee for Melbourne), Jill Garner (State Government Architect) and Jonathan Tribe (CEO, FedSquare) joining Don Bates for the affirmative
  • Councillor Rohan Leppert (City of Melbourne), Tania Davidge (architect, and representing Citizens for Melbourne) and Ron Jones (architect, and Director Jones & Whitehead) joining me for the negative.

It was a resounding win for the negative team and we look forward to the conversations continuing.

The video recording is made available thanks to Open House Melbourne (catch me from the 2h mark). Track back on #fedsqdebate and join the discussion.

UPDATE: On 5 April 2019 Heritage Victoria refused Apple a construction permit, and so this sorry saga is finally over. Congratulations to the consistently clear advocacy of Our City Our Square, to the National Trust Australia (Victoria) for making the heritage application, and also to the City of Melbourne for taking a strong stand against the proposal. Apple will not be appealing the decision.

IMAGE: Victorian Government visualisation of Apple Store at Federation Square.

This piece was republished by Daily Review as An Apple Store in Melbourne’s Fed Square Trashes Civic Values.