Deep family ties drive mayor’s call for decision in Preston Market redevelopment battle

Darebin Mayor Julie Williams’ family connection to Preston Market runs deep, which helps explain her passion for wanting to keep the beloved shopping hub exactly as it is.

“It is the heartbeat of our vibrant community,” she said. “[My mother] would be devastated if there was a 5 per cent change to the Preston Market … she’d be turning in her grave because she knows how important it is – not only for her family, but for my family.”

Darebin Mayor Julie Williams at the Preston Market on Saturday.Credit:Scott McNaughton

The mayor said her mother, Pauline Williams, arrived from Malta in the 1950s with little English, and later found Preston Market to be an inclusive community hub in the culturally and linguistically diverse north of Melbourne.

But the 50-year-old market has been at the centre of a long redevelopment struggle between developers proposing modernisation and 2200 apartments on well-connected land and a resident push to leave the site untouched.

Darebin City Council has now written to the Andrews government calling on it to release an overdue report that will recommend what to do with the privately owned site.

Julie Williams’ mother Pauline, who would be “turning in her grave” at the thought of an expansive Preston Market redevelopment.Credit:Scott McNaughton

Planning Minister Sonya Kilkenny was due to release the Victorian Planning Authority standing advisory committee report in early January after receiving it in December. She will ultimately decide on the market’s fate.

“This [proposed development] would kill our municipality,” Williams said. “It’s the second-biggest market [in Melbourne]. This is where people of the north come and shop. We’ve got huge employment there. It’s imperative that we keep the footprint of the market. It enriches our diverse community.”

Community opposition to the market’s proposed development almost cost the Labor government the otherwise safe seat of Preston at the state election. Independent candidate Gaetano Greco campaigned primarily on opposition to the market redevelopment and nearly won the seat, with an almost 20 per cent swing against first-time Labor candidate Nathan Lambert.

Joint owners Salta Properties and Medich Corporation want to modernise stalls with night markets and rooftop events through profits from building apartments up to 19 storeys. The council has proposed the site be developed with flats while existing stalls are left in place.

The Andrews government previously downgraded its submission to the planning committee from 2200 to 1200 apartments after fierce local opposition, despite blueprints for Melbourne’s future expansion advocating for a focus on improving density in middle suburbs.

The Save the Preston Market group wants the land to be compulsorily acquired by the government and says it is not against considered housing development.

Most market stalls would be moved under the developer’s current plan, to realign the site to make space for apartments. The owners have said significantly fewer apartments would make the market modernisation unviable.

A Salta Properties spokesperson said the company had engaged extensively with the community and the redeveloped market would retain the fruit and vegetable block building while adding a new deli and meat area, and continuing to have open-air amenities.

“Pretending that nothing needs to change is the biggest risk to permanently damaging the market,” the spokesperson told The Age.

Williams says it is “imperative that we keep the footprint of the market”.Credit:Scott McNaughton

For once, the community action group, council and private developers can agree on one thing: they want the government to release its overdue report.

“Any continued delay of the release of the report is detrimental to the market, as it leaves all stakeholders in the dark regarding the market’s future,” the Salta spokesperson said.

Independent councillor and state election candidate Greco said the minister “has to come clean and release the report”.

George Kanjere from Save the Preston Market called on the planning minister to release the report after the group participated in the consultation process.

“There’s a shocking lack of accountability from the government and minister about the development,” Kanjere said. “There’s a strong feeling of exclusion and lack of empowerment of us as citizens.”

Preston MP Lambert used his maiden speech in parliament to highlight concerns about the developer’s plans.

“For those of us who live near Preston Market and love it, we do feel that the proposals put forward very clearly say that the people who wrote them value apartments over the market,” he said. “There are other proposals about, including from the Save the Preston Market group, that have an alternative proposal that many of us think is much more reasonable.”

A Victorian government spokesperson said: “We know how important the Preston Market is to the local community and are currently considering the committee’s recommendations.

“A decision on the plans for the Preston Market precinct will be made in due course.”

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