News / Planning

Battle brews over Lygon Street heritage site

Residents say a new apartment building in Brunswick East should be no more than five storeys high

The building facade on Lygon Street will be retained in the development.

Mark Phillips
Wednesday, April 28, 2021


A 96-YEAR-OLD building in Lygon Street that was home to Brunswick’s last operating cinema will be partly demolished to make way for a multi-storey apartment block and a cultural centre — but there is heated debate about how tall it should be.

Moreland Council’s Planning and Related Matters committee will decide on Wednesday night whether to approve plans by the Cyprus Community of Victoria & Melbourne (CCVM) to redevelop the site at 495–511 Lygon Street, Brunswick East. The only issue at stake is the height of the building.

The proposed seven-storey development encompasses both the current home of the CCVM in the historic Liberty Theatre building, and the vacant former factory building that most recently was occupied by the Lost & Found market.

Approval of the plans would be the realisation of a decade long dream of the CCVM to secure its future both financially and with a permanent, purpose-built cultural centre that will cater for both current and future generations of Cypriot-Australians. It has been based at the Liberty Theatre building since 2002.

But it faces significant opposition from local residents, who have lodged more than 200 objections against the development with concerns including the height of the building, traffic, and its impact on local amenity.

“We know we’re not going to stop them — we live in Brunswick and we understand that this is an important corridor for development and there are benefits from doing so, it’s just about keeping the development within recommended levels,” said Dom Fitzgerald, who lives in Stanley Street behind the site.

Council planning staff will recommend approval of an amended development with a reduction in height to six levels.

The façade of the heritage-listed Liberty Theatre will be retained in the new development, while the rest of the building and its neighbour will be fully demolished.

The project will be partly funded by two grants from the Andrews state government totalling $500,000 and has previously been reported by the Greek publication Neos Kosmos as being valued at $30 million.

In a nod to both the building’s heritage and its current owners, the design of the new apartment block will include large circular columns inspired by ancient architecture found in Cyprus.

Under the plans, the building façade, 11 metres of its original roof and parts of its northern and southern walls will be preserved to maintain the streetscape. A new café, function/reception centre, and facilities for Melbourne’s Cypriot community will be built behind the façade. The rest of the development will combine retail space on the ground floor below the levels of apartments, which will be set back from the street.

The overall footprint of the site is 1135 square metres.

An architectural drawing of how the finished development would look on Lygon Street at its original 10 storeys.

A heritage report for the Lygon Street precinct describes the original Liberty Theatre as a landmark building.

From 1935 until it closed for good in 1987, the building was one of the entertainment hubs of Brunswick East showing Hollywood and foreign films, adult cinema and art house pictures.

The CCVM has been based there since the 2002 when Victorian Premier Steve Bracks opened the cultural centre.

CCVM spokesman Evros Evripidou said the organisation had made significant modifications to satisfy residents’ objections and he could not understand why there was still such opposition to the project.

“This is not a big development. We started with 10 floors and then compromised with the objectors and council and town planners and came down to seven floors. We have applied for seven floors and still we have objectors who don’t want that development. I can’t understand why they don’t want that development when there’s big developments all the way down Lygon Street to Carlton.”

But Mr Fitzgerald said even at six storeys the proposal was too large and bulky for the area.

“The original development was 10 storeys which was ridiculous but … seven storeys is still really, really high compared to the design overlay of the area,” he said.

“We don’t think it should be any more than five storeys which would be close to or just over the design overlay.”

Mr Fitzgerald said an additional concern was the increase of traffic in a tight area around Stanley and Albion streets caused by residents of the apartment building entering and leaving their underground car park.

The last picture house in Brunswick

The Liberty Theatre building occupies a special place in Brunswick’s history.

According to Ben Abbott, who wrote a university thesis about the heritage building, it first opened in the 1920s as the Broadway Dancing Palais, and was converted into a cinema seating 700 in 1935. During the golden age of Hollywood, it was one of up to a dozen large cinemas operating in the Brunswick area.

It was renovated at the cost of 4000 pounds in 1938 to adopt a hybrid Egyptian-Art Deco design and fought off the advent of television in the 1950s by catering to newly arrived Italian and Greek migrants settling in Brunswick as the renamed Teatro Moderno.

It was revamped again in 1973 as The Galaxy Cinema, showing soft-core pornography and martial arts films.

Renowned film critic Paul Harris of 3RRR’s Film Buff’s Forecast fame was the cinema’s final operator, acquiring the lease in 1986 and showing art house and independent features such as Repo Man and Blood Simple before it closed at the end of 1987.

“The original development was 10 storeys which was ridiculous but … seven storeys is still really, really high compared to the design overlay of the area,” he said.

“We don’t think it should be any more than five storeys which would be close to or just over the design overlay.”

Mr Fitzgerald said an additional concern was the increase of traffic in a tight area around Stanley and Albion streets caused by residents of the apartment building entering and leaving their underground car park.

He said that at its current scale, the building would impact on the “village like atmosphere” of the northern end of Lygon Street and he hoped that the developers would compromise further to reduce its size.

Stanley Street resident Dom Fitzgerald, pictured in the laneway behind the development, is leading the campaign against the size of the building.

Mr Evripidou said the CCVM had been planning the redevelopment for a decade and saw it as essential to secure its future. He said the CCVM wanted to remain in Brunswick, which was where many of Melbourne’s 50–60,000 people of Cypriot origin live, and the project had strong support from the broader Greek community.

“We’re very disappointed because we’re not a private company, we’re a community organisation but if we don’t build the apartments, how are we going to find the money to keep the facilities we’re asking for?” he said.

“If we can’t get the finance to support what we’re planning to do by building the apartments and selling the apartments to cover the costs of the community we want to create there and the facilities we want to provide there, where else will we get the millions of dollars we need?

“We want to stay in Brunswick. If these people don’t want us to stay in Brunswick they should tell us now.

“We don’t want to have enemies in the area. We welcome anyone to our festival and events, we want everyone to come and see our culture and see what we’re doing.”

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