Saltwater River was the name given to the City of Melbourne’s ‘western’ river until 1913. It was an industrial nightmare. And it was the place to store explosives. From 1876 ‘Jacks Magazine’ – not far from present day Highpoint West Shopping Centre – stored a massive quantity of Gunpowder and Dynamite. These were the base materials driving the Gold Rush and were stored in solid Bluestone Vaults. These vaults were strategically placed in a natural amphitheatre below an escarpment. As time went by the vaults were then used to store highly explosive munitions from the factory on the hilltop and then the new complex situated further up the river.
With the new Edgewater development adjacent, with its myriad townhouses and apartments these unique buildings constructed from bluestone quarried on the site have been unoccupied and remained somewhat inaccessible. What’s more very few people these days even know of their existence.
Now, the government-appointed heritage body (Working Heritage) wants to find a use for the six-hectare site.
It consists of two gunpowder storage buildings surrounded by huge earth mound blast walls, tunnels, small tram lines once used to move explosives, a large ammunitions storage hall, a disused loading dock and even a canal – it’s blocked from the Maribyrnong but could be reconnected.
The catch is the land can’t be used for housing, and it has the highest level of state listing – meaning it is protected and can’t be altered without the Victorian Heritage Council’s approval.
“There’s a growing population in the area and Jack’s could be a really significant local amenity, completely different to the Highpoint shopping experience,” says the acting executive officer of Working Heritage, Ross Turnbull.
Working Heritage – until this week known as The Mint Inc, as a result of its role as the public manager of the leased Royal Mint in Williams Street – has commissioned planners Tract Consultants to oversee a process to consider what might happen with the old buildings.
The state-backed manager of treasured publicly-owned heritage buildings is responsible for properties across Victoria ranging from the old Mint to courthouses in country towns. The places the body manages are no longer needed for their original purpose, and Working Heritage tries to devise ways of adapting the buildings to suit contemporary needs.
It isn’t easy to think of what Jack’s Magazine – named after its former foreman and keeper Wally Jack, who served at the site from WW1 to 1943 – could be rebirthed as today.
“We want to see the place open – we want to see it become a place that’s known and treasured,” says Mr Turnbull. “It’s definitely not going to be a gunpowder store and it definitely won’t be housing, but other than that were not putting any limit to what it could be.”
Earlier this month the 12 hectare was advertised by the Commercial Real Estate Company Fitzroy’s. Fitzroy’s are seeking registrations of interest for the compound. It consists of 13 buildings on the site. As explained, the State Government organisation ‘Working Heritage’ currently manages the site. Up until 1993 it was a Department of Defence facility. After decommissioning it was returned to the State Government.
Most of the buildings were constructed between 1875 and 1878, and used for gunpowder magazine and ammunitions storage.
Among them is a loading dock shed, cordite store and examining room – all positioned amongst tramways, tunnels and earth blast mounds throughout the parkland.
The search is on for operators in retail, education, tourism, hospitality, creative industries and accommodation to bring life to the unique space – with lease terms of up to 65 years available for successful applicants.
Fitzroys is offering weekly tours of the site for potential vendors, and Working Heritage will look at all of the interested parties proposals to work out a cohesive game plan. Registrations of interest close December 15.
Fitzroys director Rick Berry said the site was one of the most unusual property he had handled – but it’s getting attention from the hospitality industry.
“We’ve had interest from restaurants, for wine storage, even a distillery and as a function centre. Everybody is looking for something that’s a little different.”
Rather than asking for a complicated proposal, the registration is a one page document (with supporting material), so people can put up their ideas without going to a lot of cost or effort.
“We want to cast the net as wide as possible, so people feel welcome to put something up.” Mr Berry said. “I’m hoping we get an outcome, because I think it will be a really interesting place to visit when the whole project is up and running.”
Working Heritage executive officer Ross Turnbull said the organisation, appointed managers of the property in 2015, was trying not to preempt the registration process.
“Our expertise is in heritage conservation, and we’re trying to stick to our knitting and look to the market to tell us what people think might work there,” he said.
Mr Turnbull said they were open to new buildings being constructed to complement the existing structures – and have approached heritage consultant and architectural experts Lovell Chen for assistance.
“We think there are opportunities to enhance and complement the existing fabric through the right architectural intervention,” he said.
Working Heritage has given local artists and makers short-term, low-rent licences in some of the buildings.
“Our thinking there was that if we can get people in there and doing things, they can give us feedback on issues or problems and benefits of working in that place,” he said.
Imagination will be the best tool for the successful candidates but Mr Berry and Mr Turnbull said the site was geared towards hospitality ventures.
“We want businesses or organisations that will generate visitation to the site,” he said. “The ultimate goal is to have the magazine and its buildings used and active seven days a week.”
This area of Melbourne has long been utilised for the storage and production of Munitions. In 1873 on the West Bank of the Maribyrnong River (or Saltwater River as it was then known) stood a Naval Battery. The site was used to test fire torpedos in the 1870s. It lay opposite a Government Ship Building Site on the other side of the river. It stood between ‘Henderson’s Piggery’ and the Ship Inn.
In 1888 the Colonial Ammunition Factory opened in Gordon St Footscray. The site sits above the river and looks east to the Melbourne CBD. It was access to the river from Jack’s Canal mentioned earlier that made this site desirable.
The factory provided the bulk of Australia’s arsenal in World War 1. More than two million rounds of .303 rifle ammunition was made annually during the war period.
A bigger facility was added in 1908. It was Australia’s largest at the time. Privately owned until 1927 it was transferred to the Department of Defence in 1927. During World War 2, the factories employed 20,000 men and women. There was a great fear that the Japanese would attack the facility and Melbourne’s Western Suburbs.
The factories were huge and spaced well apart to prevent chain reaction explosions. Most have since been demolished to make way for housing developments. Only one remains.
The State Government had through its Development Victoria arm earmarked a 3300 dwelling development plan for the site.
However, the current Federal Government announced in this year’s budget a plan to develop a 6000 dwelling development. It intends to sell the site to the highest bidder.
The site is heavily polluted with asbestos and other chemicals. The clean-up, it is estimated, will cost up to $300 million, with $580 million budgeted.
Currently the favoured bidder is – wait for it – a Chinese Property Developer – Zhongren. This group plan on building between 4000 and 6000 homes on the site. Their plan includes two new bridges, apartment blocks and office blocks. It would ‘incorporate Heritage Buildings, a military museum and a public beach and swimming pool’ – and a new canal through the land to provide more ‘Maribyrnong River frontage.’
Suffice to say the Heritage report produced by Heritage Consultants, Godden Mackay Logan is 147 pages long – not including appendices. We would suggest there may well be further due diligence required by Zhongren if it is to meet the State Government requirements.
The Maribyrnong has been locked up for over a century. With the Edgewater Project having been developed on the old Humes Pipes site and the old Footscray Abattoirs site and Flemington Saleyards also developed as intensive housing, the question is what of the green corridor this land represents. Is it to disappear without trace in a sea of townhouses, apartments and office blocks?
There is the possibility of a relaxed and meandering green ribbon winding through the western suburbs from Footscray Rd through to Avondale Heights. Flemington Racetrack and Footscray Park meet Edgewater and flow through along the Essendon Boulevard. It is the development planned beyond the housing across the river in current Maribyrnong that raises real questions.
Is there a linked plan? It seems there are strong conflicting interests at play here. With clever planning, intelligent architecture and an eye for open space, this former industrial no-go area could become a delightful and hidden gem of Melbourne living. A continuous river boulevard with great recreational attributes for all.
But not without planning, co-operation, vision and foresight. Who is going to pick up the pace and demonstrate some common sense? This is a golden opportunity. Let’s not waste it. It’s time for the proposed development plans right along the river to be synchronised with an eye to the future and deference to the past. Surely it’s realistic to at least present the vision to the public as was done by Development Victoria and the Victorian Government over 10 years ago.
At this stage, we think we can probably sit on that ‘virtual’ (at this stage) Beach and simply wait for a documented Masterplan – sometime soon please.