At arm's length: 696-708 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne

In isolation it's a typically dashing ARM Architecture design that would provide a visual focal point in an area already heavy with architecturally dominant buildings. Yet place the freshly submitted 696-708 Elizabeth Street planning application in context and the overall picture becomes somewhat obscured.

During 2013 Jobs Australia Ltd's 696-708 Elizabeth Street site formed part of a larger development plot with intended joint partner PDG Corporation. For reasons unknown both parties chose to develop their own sites separately, which now sees PDG Corporation's Royal Elizabeth at construction under the guidance of Hamilton Marino builders.

It is of course not 696-708 Elizabeth Street's frontage to Elizabeth Street or Pelham Street which may raise eyebrows, but the close proximity it seeks to hold in relation to Royal Elizabeth, in addition to the gutting of the existing historic structure's interior.

Project summary

696-708 Elizabeth Street in isolation. Image sourced via ARM architecture plans
  • Current 380sqm site use: former 1880's bank branch
  • Planning application received 3rd March 2015
  • Proposed 20 level residential tower @ 75.7 metres
  • 89 apartments: 9 two-bedroom apartments and 80 one-bedroom apartments
  • 307 square metres of office space, continuing the existing use
  • 0 car parking spaces & 19 internal/12 external bicycle spaces provided
  • 25sqm cafe and communal garden included
  • GFA: 6,984sqm

At arm's length

Windowed facade and precast paneling. Images courtesy Elenberg Fraser, PDG and ARM Architecture

Royal Elizabeth's project website which currently hosts a set of marketing images depicts glazed windows wrapping the exterior of the building, including seemingly to the rear of 696-708 Elizabeth Street. If these are indeed windows and integral to the design of Royal Elizabeth, they will be confronted with sheer precast walls at close proximity should 696-708 Elizabeth Street be approved.

Based in the 696-708 Elizabeth Street planning application drawing set, the Elizabeth Street frontage sees both towers flush against one another as seen below. As part of 696-708 Elizabeth Street's key planning considerations the impact to adjoining properties has been taken into account:

The proposal provides a design that is highly cognisant of its impacts on adjoining properties. Of note, is the relationship of the proposal having regard to the property to the south and east:

  • The proposal provides a scheme that is highly responsive to its neighbouring properties to the south and east which is was recently granted a permit for its development. We note that this site is located at 690 - 694 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne and forms part of the PDG 'Royal Elizabeth' Development
  • The proposed development seeks to build to its southern boundary- which currently presents as series of 'green fins' when viewed along Elizabeth and Pelham Streets
  • The proposal fronts a council laneway to the East. Beyond the laneway is the northern portion of the PDG development. The proposal seeks to screen windows along its eastern boundary to mitigate overlooking issues
  • Having regard to the matters above, it is considered that the proposal will have little to no impact on adjoining properties
Extract from the Urbis Planning and Urban Context Report

One can only assume that the northern-facing windowed facade over Royal Elizabeth adjoining the 696-708 Elizabeth Street has been scrapped?

Is a precast wall set to abut a windowed facade? Image sourced via ARM architecture plans

Heritage considerations

It is proposed to demolish the internal volume and cast and south walls of the existing former bank, retaining only the street facades, a short section of corner return walls at first floor level and part of the roof structure including one chimney. Conservation works will be undertaken on the retained facades.

Bryce Raworth Pty Ltd, Assessment of Heritage Impacts report

Designed by architect Peter Matthews and dating back to the 1880's, the existing building was once the Haymarket Branch of the Commercial Bank of Australasia Ltd. The classically inspired structure is a rendered brick exterior finish atop bluestone foundations, and is of heritage value.

The Planning and Urban Context Report explains that the intended tower is set as far back as possible from the existing Commercial Bank of Australia heritage building, with the existing facade restored and rejuvenated.

We recognise the significance of the existing Commercial Bank of Australia building and will work with expert heritage consultants to ensure the heritage facade will be restored and rejuvenated to its former glory. The form of the proposed tower is set as far back as possible, to allow the form of the bank some breathing room, the new build cut back to ensure that the "tailing" edges of the old bank are visible from Pelham and Elizabeth Streets.

Likewise the tower cut back reveals the roof pitch and chimney. The "Flat Iron" shape of the new tower with its sweep of the leading edge reinforces the corner, porch an idpediment of the original.

ARM Architecture

696-708 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne development team

  • Developer: Jobs Australia Ltd
  • Urban Context Report and Architectural Plans: ARM Architecture
  • Planning: Urbis
  • Traffic Engineering Assessment: Traffix Group
  • Wind assessment: MEL Consultants
  • Waste Management: Wastech
  • Heritage: Bryce Raworth
  • ESD: Simpson Kotzman
  • ​Environmental Site Assessment: Kleinfelder


Adam Ford's picture

"We recognise the significance of the existing Commercial Bank of Australia BUILDING and will work with expert heritage consultants to ensure the heritage FACADE will be restored and rejuvenated to its former glory.” (My emphasis added)

If a set of this city’s leading architects are incapable of discerning that there is a considerable difference between a BUILDING and a FACADE, that the two are in no way equivalent, that one is a pathetic simulacra of the other, and is is effectively tokenistic heritage, accepting the vile notion that heritage includes nothing of the lived fabric or context for a building, then god help us all.

Seriously, ARM, how's about refusing a commission that treats heritage with this level of disrespect? How's about this building sports a totally unique, lovingly restored 1880s bank interior as its foyer? How's about that becomes a key sales pitch for the development? How's about someone takes the time to use their brain for half a day on a project rather than opting for the simplest, easiest, cheapest solution in any context? How's about the architects are actually forced to earn their coin by addressing all the issues in relation to this site, not just the ones with the simplest solutions.

I generally love ARM's work. Their Finders Street design was easily the best for mine. But seriously, guys, screw you collectively!

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Aussie Steve's picture

WOW Adam, that is very powerful language.
Well said. I agree.

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Riccardo's picture

Yeah, whatever Adam. Really, you gotta be able to make money in a city, and clearly the old buildings weren't otherwise nobody would be getting rid of them.

Next chapter: Adam will explain to the rest of us his amazing scheme for turning a dime on old buildings whwre clearly everyone else has failed.

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Bilby's picture

ARM deserve every ounce of critique Adam has levelled at them and more. It really is pathetic that it has come to this in Melbourne - this contributes less then zero to the public realm, to civic amenity, to good design in the city or to architecture. It is badly compromised on every level and the architects working on it surely know it. Worst of all, they are risking trashing their reputation over a building that will simply not be approved in this form under the current political administration.

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Bilby's picture

Riccardo, your argument is week - you present us with a classic false dilemma. It is not a case of either make money or keep old buildings. This site currently generates good money through rental income. ARM and the developer present us with a rapacious, private interest concerned only with one thing - maximising return at the expense of the civic good, including orderly planning, as well as more intangible social goods like built heritage.

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Riccardo's picture

Your tag is Bilby and your arguments definitely fluffy. When did it become 'rapacious' to expect maximum profits from a site you own. You shouls volunteer to earn a lot less? And why should government restrict economic opportunity? Definitely wrong side of the Berlin Wall on that one!

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Bilby's picture

You didn't respond to the substance of my criticism, Riccardo - your argument is indeed a false dilemma. Old buildings, as you call them, are perfectly capable of generating good income without facading, gutting, demolishing or sticking structural support posts through their roofs. Your problem is that you want a system where anything goes in the pursuit of profit. When your expectation of maximum profit conflicts with other social and civic aims, then we have a problem. Perhaps you would abolish taxes too, since to tax involves the recognition that property owners owe something back to the society that collectively provides them with the basis of their livelihood? Built heritage is no different - these sites provide a social-civic good, and simply cannot be sold off for purely personal gain. Perhaps you would privatise all schools and hospitals for profit too if it meant that owners of the sites could maximise returns?

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Riccardo's picture

Neither false nor dilemma Bilby - the evidence is all around you that people can't generate "good income" from old buildings. The market is voting with its feet even if you are stuck in Soviet Union somewhere.

There are some benefits from old buildings but they are marginal at best. Of course they can be sold off.

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Bilby's picture

Riccardo, you are not even making sense anymore. What do you mean by "good income", as a percentage of return on investment, let's say? If you are confident in your assertion, then provide some evidence to demonstrate your claim or give up the argument now.

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Rohan Storey's picture

So VCAT has given the modified version of this one the green light (16 Dec 2016).

I only have plans of some of the apartments for the Royal Elizabeth, and hints of the general layout from the plans for this one, and it seems that there's units in the inside corner of the RE, with the lounge looking up what will become a narrow slot of space above the lane. Those units, and the ones in the west wing of the RE both have their single bedroom on the north wall of that wing, with a lightwell between them, to which they both appear to have windows (presumably highlight windows). They also have (full?) windows on the north boundary wall, setback 300mm from the boundary that will be facing a blank 300mm from the boundary on the other side, so 600mm in total. Windows where you can reach out and touch the wall of the next building ! (if they open, and if they were actually installed). The only light will come from the lightwell, but only units near the top will actually get any, those in the lower half might as well not have windows at all (maybe a heliostat here would help ?? But then, like many apartments before the new code, barely lit or borrowed light bedroom arnt unusual). But it all seems a bit crazy ! Did the CofM take this into account when issuing a permit for the RE ?? Also, what happens when the finishes on that wall, the glazed parts and the green metal parts, need some maintenance ?? or will they all be removed just before the new thing goes up ? Apparently the two developers have an agreement with each other about all this, though the VCAT decision doesn't say what it is. All a bit bizarre.


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