In Douglas Adams “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”, the hitch hiking alien names himself after a motor car, believing it to be a safely inconspicuous nom de plume while visiting planet Earth after erroneously misidentifying the dominant life form of our world. Look at any Melbourne road at peak hour these days and you might forgive the alien his misconception. In the words of a recently defunct Federal Treasurer, “poor people don’t drive cars” but if that were true, then judging by the traffic on Greensborough Rd these days, we Melbournians must be an entirely wealthy lot.
Last November in the process of writing about the one-time site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, formerly located across the river from Yallambie at Lower Plenty and removed at the end of the 1950s, I made the rather farfetched yet hopeful suggestion that the old hotel might be reconstructed on vacant ground adjacent to a new housing development at Edward Willis Court.
Ten months on and there is activity all aplenty down on the Plenty, but not the sort I necessarily envisaged when writing that post. You see, what’s being built over at the Lower Plenty site right now is no piece of resurrected local history but a car park. As we all know, the world needs more car parks. We need them like music needs more cow bells.
When I saw the tractors trundle out onto the former location of the Plenty Bridge Hotel at the start of last month, I initially deluded myself that this might be the harbinger of better things to come.
Across the road, on the corner of Para and Main Roads, a newly installed public sculpture hinted at community pride while a notice in one shop window asked for public help developing a display describing Lower Plenty history.
Plans are even afoot to redevelop the former Ampol service station site as a franchise store of a certain large, German supermarket chain. An exercise in urban renewal I guess. So when I need a litre of milk in the future it will be handy to know that I’ll also be able to pick up a pair of snow shoes locally while I’m at it, just perfect for the next time we have a blizzard.
So it came as a bit of a shock to watch the tractors roll right across the site of the Plenty Bridge Hotel, grading its story into the dust once and for all time. The process even involved the destruction of the last Lombardy poplar on the site, a tree that is visible in nearly every old picture of the Plenty Bridge Hotel and the survival of which orienteered the casual passerby with an eye for history to the original location of the building.
Possibly the new car park will be a very nice car park, as car parks go. Adams’ hitchhiker might even feel at home. It appears that the Lower Plenty Hotel applied for planning approval to develop the area as a lower level car park for their hotel patrons as early as October, 2010. This was authorised by Banyule Council in May the following year with amendments in July, 2012. By 2015 work had not commenced on the project and Council refused to allow an extension to the permit. However this was over ruled on appeal at VCAT with work finally commencing about two months ago. Responding to my enquiry, an officer at the Department of Planning at Banyule Council informed me that the status of the Lombardy poplar as an “environmental weed” meant that it would not have been protected by the ”Significant Landscape and Environmental Significance Overlay controls which affect the site”, whatever that statement might mean. The poplar was on the periphery of the development and not intrusive. Its removal was unnecessary and however it’s dressed up, from the perspective of historical significance, it strikes me as misguided.
Next month I note that, as a part of the Royal Historical Society History Week, a representative from Banyule Council is booked to lecture at the Watsonia Public Library about the importance of the Significant Trees and Vegetation Register. Yes, there really is a register and a number of the trees at Yallambie within both public space and on private land are on it. What this actually means in practice I would be interested to learn. At Yallambie in the last few years we have seen a century old Hoop Pine and similarly aged Irish Strawberry removed from private gardens. Add these to the disappearance of the Pre-phylloxera grape vine in Yallambie Park and the demise of assorted Italian Cypresses and the old stand of English elms and it is easy to see a pattern developing.
The Yallambie Hoop Pine referred to above was destroyed ostensibly because of the potential damage its root system might do to the drive way of the private home it flanked, although the needs of cars in this city are nothing new. The recent state election was largely fought as a referendum between the freeway and public transport lobbies but it is a debate that has been going on much longer than that. The very first “self-propelled” vehicles of the 19th century were required to be led by a pedestrian waving a red flag or carrying a lantern to warn bystanders of the vehicle’s approach. The F18 Freeway, the so called missing link in Melbourne’s road network and designed to connect traffic on the Western Ring Rd with the Eastern Freeway, is still mentioned every time traffic on Greensborough Rd grinds to a standstill. That battle was fought in the 1970s and won by the anti-freeway lobby. Today it is discussed in the terms of a tunnel under Banyule.
Cars might be a fact of life but what would aliens really think if they happened to drop by and observed the precedence we give to them? In 1960, Lucerne Farm, the former home of Thomas Wills at the confluence of the Darebin Creek and Yarra River, was demolished to make space for a car park for the La Trobe Golf Club. Thomas Wills had been the first owner of the land that became Yallambie. He purchased it in 1836 from the Crown (nobody asked the Wurundjeri what they thought of this) and held onto it for only a few months before selling it to Thomas Walker at a profit. He would have done well in the real estate trade of the 21st century.
More recently, on the corner of Yallambie and Lower Plenty Roads, an assembly hall was built by an evangelical church. Even before the building was finished a car park went in across the site, obliterating in the process the remnant features of a dam which had survived there from the farming era up to that point. An old weeping willow was fortunately retained and it survives on the corner to this day, despite having earlier lost approximately one half of its canopy when Lower Plenty Rd was widened 20 years ago.
So where do cars fit in with life in a capital city of the 21st century living under the looming threat of Peak Oil? Many people are defined by their cars and cannot envisage a life characterised without them. I’m fast approaching that time in life when a man is supposed to go out and purchase a Harley Davidson in vain glorious pursuit of youth, but when our son recently asked which vehicle would I replace our 16 year old Japanese car with if I had the choice, I replied, “A Morris Minor.” I think he was hoping I would say a Lamborghini.
The Morris or so called “Noddy” car was the first car I ever owned and came with me when I moved to Yallambie. It sat out in the open in front of Thomas Wragge’s old brick garage for years, gradually rusting into venerable retirement. I let it go eventually, fearful that if I left it there much longer it would eventually become a roost for chickens. Observing it leave Yallambie for the last time on the back of a trailer was like watching the days of my youth driving off out of my life. The inclination to one day own such a car again proves I’m really not so different to the next man.
Or visiting alien.