By Penny Mulvey
The Uniting Church is about to embark on a significant property development that will restore its place and identity in the heart of Melbourne.
After more than 30 years of discussions and several attempted project proposals, the Synod Standing Committee has approved final negotiations with Leighton Properties as the preferred developer to restore and redevelop the Wesley Upper Lonsdale Street site.
Wesley Mission Victoria, Wesley Church Congregation and the Synod have signed a tripartite agreement embarking on a partnership aimed at reclaiming the vibrant role the Wesley Church has played in Melbourne’s religious, social and political history.
The mission objectives of the redevelopment are threefold.
First, to provide a place of worship, through the restoration of the heritage-listed neo-Gothic church, with provisions for its ongoing maintenance.
Second, to provide a place of service, as Wesley Mission Victoria, synod offices and other commercial businesses operate from the site.
Third, to create new opportunities for the Church to engage city life, through the interaction of meeting places, commercial endeavours, arts and educational venues.
The Request for Proposal document made clear to prospective project partners that any development on the site needed to place a high emphasis on building relationships between people and to foster community relationships. It also outlined the need to restore and, where possible, enhance, the historic buildings while respecting the original custodians.
Minister of the Wesley Church, Rev Alistair Macrae, has been a member of the Project Control Group (PCG) which has worked through all aspects of this significant development.
“Mission objectives have been considered along every step of this journey,” Mr Macrae said. “For example, we want to ensure that the space enables relationships between people, that its uses are consistent with the values of the Uniting Church and we reflect God’s concern for the environment.”
“The transformation of this historic site as an important social, corporate and missional space places the church at its centre, opening up opportunities for the Wesley congregation to be in mission with the changing demographic of the inner city.”
Following the authorisation of the Standing Committee, the non-binding term sheet with preferred developer Leighton Properties was executed in May. The project is now undergoing a process of documentation and approval with final execution expected in September.
A further advantage of this project is that Church land is not being sold. Instead, the Church will enter into a 125-year ground lease, ensuring that this prime asset, bequeathed to the Church at the beginning of the 19th century, remains a part of the Uniting Church’s vision for mission and worship into the future. Therefore the developer will fund all costs associated with the redevelopment of the site.
As can be seen in the projected image above, only the eastern portion of the site is being developed, the western portion will remain with the Church. The proposal from Leighton Properties includes the refurbishment of the key heritage buildings – the Wesley Church, the manse, the school house and the caretaker’s cottage. Ongoing maintenance of external areas and all buildings in the Ground Lease area will be overseen by the developer.
Wesley Mission Victoria chief executive officer Rob Evers, also a member of the PCG, said Wesley would be temporarily leaving the site. It will move its central office to another CBD location, returning to Lonsdale St when the development is completed in 2019.
“This is a significant development in the history of the Uniting Church – but also in the history of Wesley Mission Victoria,” Mr Evers said. “I welcome the strengthened relationship between Wesley Mission Victoria and the Wesley congregation. The tripartite deed demonstrates what can be achieved when all parties work together. Wesley Mission Victoria looks forward to returning to the site on which it has presided since inception in five years’ time. It will be good to be part of a distinctive Uniting Church presence in this part of the city.”
Synod offices, Uniting AgeWell and UCA Funds Management will lease two floors of the refurbished building. Additional floors will be occupied by Wesley Mission Victoria and the Wesley Congregation.
The future of 130 Little Collins Street has not yet been resolved. The Standing Committee has committed to the synod offices relocating, but decisions relating to whether the Little Collins Street property is to be sold or redeveloped for sale is yet to be brought to the Standing Committee by the Property Board.
The Synod’s director of property, Paul Walec, said the Property Board has considered in detail the various divestment options and has subsequently endorsed a specific option for Standing Committee to consider at its August meeting.
“The plans for 130 Little Collins St have utilised the mission motivated development framework and have taken into consideration the need for long term sustainability of the Church.
“The Property Board, in considering the Wesley development, has been very conscious of the legacy of the Acacia College governance failures and subsequent enforced property divestment under special circumstances. This project is part of the new era of the Church.
“The project has undergone both an external independent financial and project review and a separate independent ethical review of the preferred developer, as well as scrutiny by the Church’s risk, audit and finance committees. A clear single point of accountability, prudent project management and a common objective from Wesley Mission Victoria and Wesley Congregation has driven the success of the project to date,” Mr Walec explained.
The Project team has prepared a Question and Answer document which can be found on the website: www.victas.uca.org.au/communityservices/Pages/Wesley-Upper-Lonsdale-Project.aspx