News / Planning

Historic warehouse to gain new life as music venue

Owners plan to host leading local and international acts in state-of-the-art hall

Image source: Shutterstock

Mark Phillips

AN historic bluestone warehouse in Brunswick will become a new 500-person capacity live music venue following approval of plans by Merri-bek Council in the face of dozens of objections from neighouring residents.

The council’s Planning and Related Matters committee last Wednesday night cleared the way for the redevelopment of the 135-year-old warehouse near the Upfield railway line despite neighbours’ concerns about the impacts of noise, traffic and parking and anti-social behaviour.

The developer, Americana Property Holdings, a company controlled by Richmond Football Club President John O’Rourke and his family, wants to convert the Colebrook Avenue building into a “cabaret style” venue that would host sit-down concerts by leading Australian and international musicians.

Americana plans to spend $17 million fully refurbishing the building, which would include an innovative “box within a box” design in its vast interior to enhance sound quality within the venue and to minimise external noise.

With entry from Colebrook Street, the venue would include a large auditorium that could be configured for seated or standing audiences and a commercial kitchen.

The warehouse as it looks today.

Speaking to Brunswick Voice after the meeting, James O’Rourke said the project had grown from his family’s love of music, and country music in particular.

He said the developers’ vision was of a venue where patrons could enjoy dinner and a show that would be different from almost any other entertainment venue in Melbourne.

The vacant building, at 11-17 Colebrook Street, is part of a complex of four bluestone warehouses that were commissioned by Donald Melville, a successful politician and businessman in 1888 and used to store grain. It directly faces the Upfield railway line.

Later owned by the State Electricity Commission, it was saved from demolition in the mid-1980s.

It is in an area that is zoned for commercial use and the street is mostly made up of light industrial businesses, including a bus depot and an accident repair shop, although another of the former warehouses at the corner of Tinning Street was converted into 22 residential dwellings in the 2000s. The building is separated by a rear laneway from houses in Cassels Road.

The PARM committee meeting narrowly approved the proposal 4-3 but scaled back the venue’s capacity from 800 to 500 and reduced its opening hours, while also attaching other conditions including noise abatement and crowd control.

The application received 87 objections and 46 letters in support, with more than a dozen objectors personally addressing councillors at the committee meeting.

Their concerns centred around noise, anti-social behaviour, including drug use, and traffic and parking issues.

One man who lives in Cassels Road directly behind the warehouse building said the venue would disrupt a “peaceful corner of Brunswick”.

“This isn’t mere change; it’s an absolute reversal of our area’s character and identity,” he said.

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But the council committee decided the overall benefits of a new music venue outweighed the concerns of residents.

Merri-bek Mayor Adam Pulford said it was important to support live music in Brunswick, and the venue was appropriate for a predominantly industrial area.

“This is a live music venue, this is Brunswick,” he said. “We are such a creative city full of songwriters and artists, and if a live music venue can’t be held in Brunswick, where would it be?”

Cr Mark Riley, in whose South Ward the building is located, said he wanted to see arts and music grow in Brunswick and he believed the developers had taken care to address concerns about noise and patron behaviour.

He said the proposal was for a dedicated music venue, which was very different from a bar, pub or nightclub.

“I don’t think it’s going to be as bad as many have made out tonight … we need to give arts venues more of a chance,” he said.

Riley said if the council rejected the proposal, he was sceptical whether it would be on solid enough grounds to prevail against an appeal by the owners to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

What happens when the music stops?

Councillors Sue Bolton, Monica Harte and Helen Pavlidis voted against granting a permit.

Harte said the regeneration of an historic building and the possibility of a new live music venue was enticing but the Colebrook Street proposal would be a “residents’ nightmare”.

“I’m concerned that as a council we become more and more enticed by developers’ dollars, the notion of jobs, the notion of investments and to the detriment of residents we’re making those decisions on council,” she said.

The Bluestone Music Hall is a passion project of the family of Richmond Football Club president John O’Rourke, a lifelong fan of blues, roots and country music.

O’Rourke, who grew up in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, is the founder and chairman of the Plenary Group, a global investor and developer of infrastructure projects, including the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre and the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre in Parkville.

James O’Rourke said the Colebrook Street warehouse had been identified after a long search for a suitable site in Melbourne and would be extensively renovated with particular attention being given to ensuring the sightlines of the stage throughout the venue were unimpeded.

He said the developers were sensitive to the concerns of local residents and would invest in “state of the art” acoustics to ensure minimal external noise.

 “This is aiming to fill the gap between huge arenas and the showgrounds and smaller pub band rooms,” he said. “There’s a need [in Melbourne] for more of this cabaret style where you can sit down and have dinner and see some live music.

“It is a heritage building and a chance to do something that’s never been done before in the area and that’s what’s driving the people behind the project.” 

Ultimately, Americana intends to team up with music industry promoters and hospitality operators, but O’Rourke said the project had to overcome several other hurdles first, including approval from Heritage Victoria and Liquor Licencing Victoria.  

Under the conditions attached to the development, the venue will be limited to a maximum of 500 patrons at any one time, and will be required to close at 11pm on Sunday to Thursday and 1am on Friday and Saturday. It will also need to conduct acoustic testing within three months of opening and will not be allowed to display external electronic signage.

This story was updated to clarify that Mayor Adam Pulford was not required to make a casting vote.

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