News / Planning

Neighbourhood House objects to plans for Saxon Street precinct

Community organisation urges council to defer final approval of $22 million-plus project

An artist’s impression of the new precinct. Source: Moreland City Council/Kennedy Nolan Architects

Mark Phillips
Monday, November 8, 2021

PLANS for a $22 million arts and community precinct in the centre of Brunswick have hit a snag with a cornerstone tenant objecting to the final design of the project.

The final concept designs for the site known as 33 Saxon Street are set to go before Moreland Council for endorsement this Wednesday, but the Brunswick Neighbourhood House is seeking to defer a decision until there can be further negotiations about its role in the overall development.

It is intended that the BNH will shift most of its operations to a heritage building within the site, but the organisation fears that this would not contain enough space for all of its activities and the proposed management model of the new precinct would take away much of its autonomy and independence.

A report for this week’s council meeting also reveals that the proposed cost of the project has blown out by almost 50% from its original estimate to $22.7 million.

Moreland Council has spent years working on the design of the precinct, which is planned to open in mid-to-late 2024 as a jewel in central Brunswick alongside the Brunswick Baths and close to the Town Hall, library and Counihan Gallery.

It was bought in 2010, and in 2016 opened as Siteworks, a community and creative facility. Blak Dot Gallery, which is a leading contemporary First Nations exhibition space, also began on the site in 2016.

The concept designs envisage demolition of most of the former Trinity Catholic Regional College buildings in Phoenix Street and of another building that currently houses the Blak Dot Gallery.

A new L-shaped five storey building would be constructed in the south-eastern corner of the site to provide space for galleries, work spaces and a café. The demolition of the school would provide open space at the northern part of the site along Phoenix Street, while the two-storey heritage building, Sherwood House, in the centre of the site would become the new home of the Brunswick Neighbourhood House.

In total, there would be 2700 sq m of net lettable floorspace and 2000 sq m of public open space area within the precinct. The precinct would be managed by a contractor.

The plan would allow the BNH to move out of its building in Garden Street, which is too small and no longer fit for purpose.

In the concept designs to be presented to the council, the neighbourhood house would occupy all of the 133-year-old Sherwood House building along with all of the second floor of the new building, but even this would not be enough to also contain its occasional child care centre.

The council is proposing the child care be relocated to an existing 27 place facility at the Brunswick Baths. The configuration of outdoor spaces at Saxon Street would also include a commitment to accommodate activities of the BNH.

The council intends to give the BNH until January 2 to confirm acceptance of the offer of relocation.

But BNH director Nelly Cabala said the current plans were inappropriate.

Brunswick Neighbourhood House chief executive Nelly Cabala at the organisation’s Warr Park building: “After years of negotiations, we feel that our needs and expectations are not being listened to they’re trying to fit us wherever they can.”

She said they would create a disconnect between different parts of the BNH and did not provide enough space for the wide range of classes and large group activities that the BNH provided. There is also uncertainty about whether BNH would continue to be able to use its mud brick building in Warr Park, which is leased for a peppercorn rent from the council.

The council report says the relocation to 33 Saxon Street is in accord with the BNH’s wishes, but it does concede the space provided will be insufficient for all of BNH’s activities.

The Brunswick Neighbourhood House’s objections are outlined in a five-page document sent to the council late last month. Ms Cabala said there had been no response from the council and the report prepared for this week’s meeting had ignored most of its concerns.

In a last ditch bid to prevent the plans being approved this week, the BNH has launched an online petition demanding further consultation.

The site as it is now with the heritage house in the foreground.

 “We feel that no matter what we say … very little has been incorporated into the report [to council],” Ms Cabala said.

“They say we’ve engaged and consulted with you, and yes, you have, but you haven’t listened to what we have said.

“We’re proud of our identity and autonomy and the fact we’re driven by the community and we’re open to everyone.

“After years of negotiations, we feel that our needs and expectations are not being listened to they’re trying to fit us wherever they can.”

Ms Cabala said she hoped that by Wednesday the petition, which was launched on Sunday, would have 200 signatures and that the BNH would have an opportunity to present its case before councillors.

The overall budget for the project is now $22.7 million, including $1.3 million to project architects Kennedy Nolan Architects.

This is $7.9 million more than concept cost estimates last year, with the cost increase being blamed on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which has led to cost escalations for building materials. The council will also allocate $30,000 to upgrade the child care facility at the baths.

It is intended that a planning permit application for the project will be lodged by April next year and construction would start in early 2023.

The council intends to use the sale of the BNH building in Garden Street, which is valued at more than $1 million, to offset some of these costs. But other funding will be needed from the state government and from philanthropic sources.