Tea for two: Southbank's historic Tea House up for a towering addition

Historic buildings on Southbank are as rare as proverbial hen's teeth. Yet one of the few that has not been subject to development thus far is in line for a major new addition, with plans afoot for a hotel and high-end apartments.

The Robur Tea Building or Tea House at 28 Clarendon Street is included on the Victorian Heritage Register for its scientific, historical and architectural significance, and dates back to 1887. Developer RJ International hopes that in addition to bringing the Tea House back to its past glory, the State Government will find their plans for a 39 storey tower satisfactory.

Geelong-based architecture firm CLWA and heritage architects Lovell Chen have undertaken design work on the the elliptical tower. 

In addition to pre-application discussions with various governing bodies, the project team have also met with the Department of Justice, which owns the adjoining Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, and CitiPower who maintain a caveat affecting the site; both have given in-principle support for the redevelopment.

28 Clarendon Street application summary

Rendered perspective of the tower's podium . Image: OCD
  • 2,948sqm site occupied in part by the Tea House
  • Proposed 39 level tower at 145m
  • Gross Floor Area: 35,035sqm including the Tea House
  • Floor Area Ratio: 1:11.9
  • 312 hotel suites across levels 1-23
  • 38 apartments: 30 x 3BR, 6 x 4BR, 2 x 5BR
  • Provision for 105 car parking bays and 23 bicycle bays
  • 1 retail space at ground level facing Clarendon Street: 100sqm
  • Amenities include a restaurant, gym, pool, conference and function centre

Tea House modifications

In addition to the tower, the intended development will include a refurbishment of the Tea House, with the southern lift core to be demolished and the original facade reinstated. The refurbishment will also see Tea House altered from a commercial building to a multi-purpose structure, encapsulating a retail space to Clarendon Street, hotel lobby, restaurant, function centre and hotel suites within the existing structure.

The intended tower abuts a section of the Tea House's southern facade, in order to provide passage between old and new structures. The tower's ground level is set back 13m to 20m from Clarendon Street, with a landscaped forecourt accounting for the remaining space. The existing northern car park will be reworked but maintained for the hotel's principal drop-off zone.

The tower's lower levels will be predominantly clad in tessellated and perforated masonry and concrete screening, effectively shrouding vehicle parking within the podium structure. Amenities crown the podium with further hotel suites and apartments behind black curtain glazing thereafter.

Tea House's southern addition will receive the chop. Image: Victorian Heritage Database

 Clarendon Street on a hotel hot streak

Melbourne's appetite for further hotel and serviced apartment suites is on show along Clarendon Street.

In addition to 28 Clarendon Street's 312 hotel suites, Yang Clarendon Pty Ltd has a mixed-use tower at 56 Clarendon Street under planning consideration. Along with hundreds of new apartments within the 48 storey mixed-use tower, 128 serviced apartment suites have been included over the design's lower levels.

64-68 Clarendon Street is also in the pipeline, with construction nearing commencement for a new Peppers Southbank hotel which is approved to yield a further 165 rooms over a 412sqm site.

28 Clarendon Street development team

  • Developer: RJ International (Aust) Pty Ltd
  • Architect: CLWA
  • Urban Context Report: The OCD
  • Transport Impact Assessment: GTA Consultants
  • Wind Assessment: MEL Consultants
  • ESD Statement: Murchie Consulting
  • Waste Management Plan: Leigh Design 
  • Structural Considerations and Design: Robert Bird Group
  • Building Regulations Compliance Report: PLP Building Surveyors & Consultants
  • DDA Compliance Statement: Before Compliance 
  • Geotechnical Report: Black Geotechnical Pty Ltd


Aussie Steve's picture


Dreadful outcome for this historic building. There is no need what so ever to add anything that will loom over this historic building, and in fact, there should be clear separation between the old and the new, and unfortunately, there is very little land on either side of the building to allow for such a development, unless part of the forecourt on the north and some of the (too wide) roadway to the south is taken over.

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George D's picture

I would have thought that the heritage value of this building is associated with all frontages, and this essentially destroys one of the two main aspects.

This appears to be another Pentridge, and will need major modification if it is to work with the building.

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johnproctor's picture

not sure there's enough info in the article for the responses above. By my reading the new building and tea house will be separate aside from a kiss' to allow passage between them.

Again subject to further info this seems like about as good an outcome as you can hope for development on the site. Seems like keep the Tea House 100% in tact and allow development on what is basically a very strange, underutilised little surface carpark.

The removal of the existing lift well which is a terribly shonky addition (as seen in the last pic in the article) will improve views down Clarendon Street to the Tea House given the set back of the new tower.

An alternative development would have been two low rise buildings on the north and south carparks all but abutting and hiding the tea house.

Meanwhile height and or 'looming over the building' is to me redundant given the backdrop of 100m+ buildings in southbank behind as you travel south over the Yarra.


Meanwhile Council/Minister - please require the developer to remove the left turn slip from Normanby to Spencer. Would improve pedestrian (and bike) safety through the intersection, reinforce this as an increasingly pedestrian priority, walkable precinct and return about 300m2 from cars to footpath.

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Bilby's picture

Are we really so desperate for space in Melbourne that we need to "develop" this iconic site at all? It's already dense - it's a huge 6 storey 19th century original warehouse with massive scope for improvement within the existing structure. How about the Heritage Council just saying no to the tower on this one? Is that really so radical? No. You can restore the building, incorporate modern facilities, including mixed use tenancies, and that's that.

Forget about looking to the future - the city will thank you for it in about 5 minutes' time, because at a time because almost every single heritage building has already been destroyed in Southbank. Hyperbole? I don't think so ...

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DesMond's picture

Clearly you don't care about cities themselves, only your own subjective opinion on aesthetics, since you seem to think an open air car park is a desirable outcome for central Melbourne.

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johnproctor's picture

Bilby not sure if you read and/or are replying to my comment or not.

From my reading all of the things you have said appear to be happening as part of this development. The original building is likely to have less external impacts to its facade aside from views to it than it does today with the hideous circa 1990's lift addition. Which in my view impacts that southern facade more than a modern tower would.

I really don't see what the fuss is about. From what I can see* they aren't facading the building or proposing to demolish any part of the tea house at all.

* noting very little specific information in the article. Buy some quotes.

"The intended tower abuts a section of the Tea House's southern facade, in order to provide passage between old and new structures."

"the intended development will include a refurbishment of the Tea House, with the southern lift core to be demolished and the original facade reinstated."

"The refurbishment will also see Tea House altered from a commercial building to a multi-purpose structure, encapsulating a retail space to Clarendon Street, hotel lobby, restaurant, function centre and hotel suites within the existing structure."

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theboynoodle's picture

I think I'm with Bilby on this. The building looks to be a perfect candidate for some kind of civic restoration and repurposing.. without a giant f*** off tower standing over if and taking up site space that would be much better cleaned up and left as open public space.

There are plenty of other places to build towers and if we were smart about planning permissions and value capture then all parties could win out.

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zenith's picture

It's old so it's naturally iconic?

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Bilby's picture

It is iconic, Zenith, but not merely because it is "old". Unsurprisingly, "old" is not one of the rigorous criteria for inclusion on the Victorian Heritage Register. Here are some of the reasons, quoted from the VHR listing:

"Why is it significant?
The Robur Tea Building is of scientific (technical) significance because of several innovative techniques employed in its construction. The most notable feature of the building is the solution to the problem of foundations. The building was erected on a swampy site and initial advice to the owners was that a building of the size proposed was not feasible. The engineer John Grainger was engaged and he devised a system of 450 ironbark piles and concrete rafts to support the six storey structure. It was a remarkable solution and no directly comparable buildings exist because such difficult foundations were not tackled again until after WWI.
Another innovation was the use of steel beams supporting the floors, one of the earliest uses of such technology in Victoria. These innovations are a tribute to John Grainger, architect and engineer, who, in partnership with several reputed architects, contributed to such noted structures as Princes Bridge, the swing bridge over the La Trobe River at Sale, the administration block of the Melbourne Town Hall, Elizabeth House and Collins House and the conversion of Cliveden Mansions, East Melbourne.

The Robur Tea Building is of architectural significance as one of the finest and most prominent examples of a 19th century warehouse in Melbourne. It was for many years one of the tallest buildings outside the CBD, its height and freestanding character making it a South Melbourne landmark even today. The functional requirements of a warehouse are clearly evident in its simple box-like shape, but a certain amount of pride is expressed in the restrained decoration of the eastern facade.

The Robur Tea Building is of architectural significance as a noted work of Nahum Barnet. Barnet was a most prominent architect in the four decades that saw Melbourne emerge from the 1890s depression and flourish during the Edwardian period. Certain architectural details indicate that this building was seminal in Barnet's development as an architect. In particular the central arched motif links the six storeys of the facade, a detail that became a major element in his central city buildings. Buildings such as the Auditorium Building, Paton Building and the Davison Building at the corner of Collins Street and Elizabeth Street are typical of his city buildings.

Barnet's practice was extensive, however, and included such buildings as the Villa Chandos in East Melbourne, the Florida Mansions in St Kilda and the Toorak Road Synagogue.
The Robur Tea Building is of historical significance as a reminder of the character and location of 19th century commerce in Melbourne. The Tea building is one of the few remaining traces of the industrial and warehousing establishments that until the 1970s and 1980s dominated the south bank of the Yarra, in an area where swampy land made substantial building difficult and residential development unattractive. These older uses have now been 'swamped' in their turn by leisure and luxury apartment developments. While the building has been known for some time as the Tea House, it is worth remembering that it was originally constructed as a stationer's warehouse and factory, and is now one of the few remaining factory buildings in the centre of the city. Its later use as a tea warehouse also serves as a reminder that this part of the river bank was once a thriving wharf area, before bigger ships and changed cargo handling methods led to the construction of larger capacity port facilities further towards the mouth of the Yarra."

Interestingly, it has been granted a permit exemption for alterations in the past:

"Permit Exemptions

The introduction of or alteration to office partitioning provided that such works are not attached to any original fabric, except where the attachment occurs through structurally sound mortar joints."

One would think that building a giant tower over one side of the building would require some degree of "attachment" to original fabric beyond the mortar joints, no? And even if it was entirely free standing, the concealment of the facade and total overwhelming of the warehouse are reasons enough for refusal.

Good luck then getting a permit for such an alteration that so demonstrably damages the heritage values of the site.

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Rohan Storey's picture

The images clearly shows that the new development would be butted up against the south face of the building, completely obscuring it, and the tower appears to cantilever little over it as well. I cant see how they would be joined together at all as a single without a number of knock throughs, at least as many as the current not beautiful but not offensive attached lift core. And the original building would become, like so many others, a footnote at the base of much larger development. This one is so surprising because it occupies what looks like pretty small area left over from the intersection works, not a spot that screams out as a 'development site' at all.


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George D's picture

The setbacks are from the road, but they need to be setback from the building as well. That would mean a much smaller floorplate, and a lower height.

Remove the slip-lane and it all becomes a lot easier!

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Bilby's picture

This whole plan just needs to be refused. This building is already a Melbourne icon, like Flinders Street Station - would we add a tower behind the dome there? No? Well then don't do it here either.

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