The news that Federation Square will be the likely new home for an Apple megastore should be a wake-up call to Melburnians to protect one of our city’s most loved and frequented public squares and cultural precincts before its character is irrevocably changed.
Apple is believed to be in the final stages of lengthy and secretive negotiations with Fed Square management and the state government over a new $50 million glass-ceilinged megastore to be housed in a redesigned Yarra building – now the home of the Koorie Heritage Trust.
Allowing access to such a significant public site to one of the biggest US mega-corporations will irrevocably change the character of Fed Square from a thriving and diverse public square and vital cultural precinct to something more akin to a generic shopping mall.
At the very least, the Victorian public should expect a proper process of public consultation before this proposal proceeds.
Apple have been searching for the right location in Melbourne’s CBD to open a new megastore for more than a decade. Thus far they have secured suburban locations at Chadstone, Southland, Highpoint, Doncaster and Fountain Gate shopping centres. And surely shopping centres are the appropriate place for megastores.
It’s not hard to understand why Apple would jump at the opportunity, though. Fed Square ticks all the boxes and more. It is one of Melbourne’s top tourist attractions, having attracted more than 100 million visits since opening. It is listed along with the Red Square in Russia and Naqsh-e Jahan Square in Iran as one of the top international icons of the world.
It’s Melbourne’s Times Square or Louvre Museum – so what’s not to like for Apple?
Fed Square management and the City of Melbourne might take note of the recent reaction of Parisians when city authorities allowed McDonald’s to open a restaurant in the hallowed ground of the Louvre Museum. The move prompted a fierce reaction from the French public, with critics describing the decision as “bad taste” and blaming the galleries’ directors for failing to prevent “fragrances of fries drifting under Mona Lisa’s nose”.
But even leaving aside the opportunity for maximum visibility and brand exposure, Fed Square offers something else that must be tantalising for Apple. It offers the chance to align its brand with a pre-loved public space – thus conveniently blurring the lines between the square’s cultural and public value and the corporate agenda of a US mega corporation.
Since opening in October 2002, Fed Square has attracted the type of tenants that enhance and build on the multicultural and welcoming ambience befitting a central square in Melbourne. SBS and ACMI have been long-term tenants whose values of multiculturalism and accessible cultural immersion clearly align with that of Fed Square, which markets itself as “Melbourne’s meeting place”.
Just last year the Koorie Heritage Trust opened a shopfront in the Yarra building, comprising a gallery and information centre, running guided tours for thousands of people to learn about Melbourne’s Indigenous heritage. How an Indigenous organisation focused on cultural education would sit alongside a global technology giant that generated $308 billion in profit last year is anyone’s guess.
Moreover, tenants such as SBS, ACMI, NGV and the Koorie Heritage Trust add value by offering services relevant to the city, its people and its history.
The same surely cannot be said for Apple. They are a technology company whose primary interest is in selling products and expanding the reach of their brand. Of course, they are entitled to do so in the free market – and most of us use and appreciate their products.
But that doesn’t mean they should be granted special access to occupy and brand Melbourne’s most visited and iconic public space. The story of Apple is not Melbourne’s story.
Federation Square should be kept as an open space serving the community of all Victorians and visitors who pass through it rather than becoming a flashy corporate shopping mall.