Rise of the microbrewery, fall of the pub and the demise of Melbourne's historic built form

It seems many of inner Melbourne's pubs are in trouble. Times have changed, but more specifically the core demographic, entertainment options and the city itself have changed.

Long gone are the days where the corner pub was the staple (and in some cases the only) option of previous generations; Melbourne is now a 24 hour city with a multitude of entertainment options. And so in this respect it should come as no great surprise that many of inner Melbourne's pubs are under pressure in terms of remaining viable businesses.

The list of pubs under threat in recent times has ballooned. Urban Melbourne first broke the news that Port Melbourne's London Hotel and South Melbourne's Palmerston Hotel were both subject to apartment-based developments.

In recent times the CBD's Great Western and St Kilda's Greyhound Hotel have been added to the list, whilst the latest endangered venue is Kensington's The Quiet Man - a pub with heritage dating back to the 1880's.

The Quiet Man's new purpose? Planning image: Plus Architecture

The Quiet Man's planning application would see the structure, which has been augmented at various times over its existence, demolished completely for a 9 level apartment building containing 46 dwellings and ground floor retail.

The why

So why has the pub scene across Melbourne declined to the point where many of this city's well known venues are struggling, or have conceded? In the broader sense, Australians are drinking less alcohol overall than any time in the previous 50 years, as per this ABS media release and this ABC news article.

Whilst top end consumption is lessening, the humble pub is also under attack from the bottom end, aka the microbrewery.

Evolving drinking habits are backed by current planning trends; planning applications for genuine 'pubs' are few and far between, but not so the humble microbrewery.

Melbourne City Council for instance are currently handling at leash three planning applications for new small-scale breweries/bars, namely 38-44 Barrett Street Kensington, 40-48 Stubbs Street Kensington and 22-24 Bennetts Lane Melbourne. The latter replaces a mid-rise apartment proposal for the narrow CBD site.

In this sense people are not necessarily turning away from the enjoyment of alcohol, but increasingly heading down a different avenue - an avenue which shuns 'old school' pubs' or at least pubs which haven't moved with the times.

Whilst the increasing popularity of microbreweries is merely a more recent contributing factor to many a pubs woes, it along with a gradual cultural shift away from the humble pub has led to the rash of closures and development.

The how

Great Western Hotel no more? Planning image: DKO Architecture

So how is it that many of inner Melbourne's grand pub venues can be bowled over for development? Pubs are no more or less important than many of Melbourne's heritage structures that have fallen in recent years, but they represent a very tangible link to Melbourne's past for many people - memories and first-hand experience go a long way. Just ask the masses who fought to save The Palace on Bourke Street.

Emotional attachment aside, Melbourne stands to lose some historic buildings, a loss that is detrimental to this city's urban fabric. The Stork, Duke of Kent, Footscray's Belgravia Hotel and The Corkman Irish Pub fiasco are but a few examples.

The right to development exists, but at what cost? Is it the failure of successive councils to adequately protect of heritage? Undoubtedly some Urban Melbourne members would argue yes, and emphatically. So many of Melbourne's historic pubs are disappearing for the sake of development, when in many cases the heritage structure could be incorporated into the development.

When lamenting the loss or likely loss of many of Melbourne's historic pub venues, Prahran's Station Hotel comes to mind. An equitable outcome of both development and heritage...if only it were more commonplace!

Prahran's Station Hotel: a blend of old and new. Image: Figurehead


Duke's picture

Sadly, it's not just the loss of the pubs which are detrimental to Melbourne's heritage. What replaces it is usually a poorly designed and cheap apartment block which looks uncomfortable in its surroundings; especially within a heritage overlay. See the renderings above.

It's embarrassing when compared to infill in other historic cities. From an outsiders perspective, it makes Melbourne look provincial and the architecture amateurish and cringeworthy. You don't see this in a historic area of, say, Berlin or Boston.

HeyZeus's picture

Isn't it more the land value of where these pubs are, more so than changing drinking habits? These pubs, are mostly, in built up, inner city suburbs, that are highly desirable postcodes, with the right zoning for development. Also, often the people who hold the lease don't own the freehold. A developer comes along and offers the owner a shitload above market value, and the venue disappears.
Conversely, if you look at where craft breweries are located, generally they are in industrial zoned areas, as a production facility is the most important facet of choosing a location. Richmond, Abbotsford, Collingwood and Brunswick are a example of such suburbs with breweries in industrial areas. Other than one inner city brewery (7 days a week), all the other ones are have limited hours and trading days.
How many well run, inner city pubs have actually gone bust?
I believe there are a lot of well run, more than viable pubs out there, that will continue to thrive, as long as they are left to their own devices.
We are indeed drinking less, but many are drinking better quality, eating out more, and still spending money. It's now up to a venues to tap into the wants of the public.
State governments, local councils and developers are more the blame than change in drinking habits or small breweries.
There is more competition out there for the humble pub, especially since the liquor licensing changing in the 80's. These developments have also brought 1000's people of to live in these suburbs, in turn creating a desirable area to live, and giving even more reason for developers to develop. I don't really like them, but they certainly have helped reinvigorate Melbourne's inner burbs.
It sucks that we are losing iconic pubs, but I have to disagree, at least in part, on why it's happening.

Bilby's picture

Of course, for every example of a pub being demolished for average apartments, there are cases of high quality adaptive reuse:


Adam Ford's picture

?? Well. To be contrary, and consistent...
Can anyone explain what the Heritage value of the Quiet Man is?? There is NOTHING of the 19th century building left. It was passed over in the recent Kensington heritage study.
How and why would you ask someone to adaptively re-use a massively compromised non-heritage structure.
The REAL arguments people are actually making here are around the social value of a pub to a community. Those are valid points. But if you want a basis to put something around this in the planning scheme, you need to look otherwhere then Heritage.
We are going to keep on coming up against this. The design is spectacularly unsympathetic to its surrounds. But again, if you can't do nine storeys on that stretch of racecourse road, we may as well all give up and leave town tomorrow.

Peter H's picture

472 Beach Road Beaumaris is a great example of how to incorporate development with heritage.

Bilby's picture

That's a fraught example - albeit an impressive transformation. The Beaumaris hotel was total gutted and facaded prior to reconstruction of most of the building. The before and after photos of the place are extraordinary - but is it right to call it "incorporating development with heritage" or something else?

It's certainly a good example of how a developer can reconstruct lost / demolished heritage elements well, rather than some of the shoddy jobs we have been seeing around town recently (BANCO Collingwood, PACE St. Kilda, etc)


Melbourne_Fragments's picture

The fact that the article doesn't mention the main reason being developers who can buy the land for multi millions of dollars, thus making any use besides high density apartment development pointless, is a bit telling of an agenda...


theboynoodle's picture

Developers will pay millions for the sites *because* they can developed as high density apartments. Site values are a function of development options.

If a site can be redeveloped because the planning rules say so then, of course, the owners only have that option if they want to realize that site value.

Other then hoping for site owners to choose heritage over vast financial gains, the options are stricter heritage controls that make development impossible or (which I prefer) air-rights trading rules that allow the owners of undeveloped blocks to unlock the value of the space above by flogging it to owners of other sites. So, for example, instead of using undefined standards of "state significance" to enable Crown to go beyond the height limits, we could have had them purchase air rights from (say) the Celtic Club.

Nicholas Harrison's picture

The 208 King Street proposal has been amended to retain the facades of the ‘Great Western Hotel’ On King Street and Little Bourke Street. This is probably as good as you could ask for on a site with no heritage overla.

Bilby's picture

Theboynoodle has a point - other cities trade air rights for uplift in just this way (e.g. New York). In the case of the Great Western, the outcome should in no way be seen as a "win" - instead, it just cements the bad practice of facadism as somehow "acceptable" in heritage terms. In this case, given the extent of loss to an otherwise intact, original gold rush era pub, it would have been better to just demolish the whole thing. The key features that were of interest here (the yard and original rear bluestone walls) will be lost anyway

theboynoodle's picture

Quite. The system is so perverse that, economically, speaking, it's better to develop a site with a two-storey heritage pub than (say) a three-storey non-descript 60's office block. Because the pub is worth less as it stands, and so the gain from development is greater.

There's a chance for some really good journalism here (are you reading, Clay?) asking why this keeps happening to pubs (and other small old buildings). And I think it's a function of the types of buildings that pubs are, how and when they were built, how social/lifestyle changes have diminished their value in use, and how the planning system makes them obvious targets.

Developers shouldn't get a 'pass' for the contempt they have for heritage buildings, but they're just doing what makes sense, economically, for them. If the system changes then they will respond.. so it's for Spring Street to take notice and take action. We need development, especially in the central and inner city... but there are SOOO many sites that should be getting it before this one. How obvious does it need to be that something is wrong??

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