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A “for sale” sign finally appeared at the disused former Kangan TAFE college in Coburg North last month.
Twelve years after the state government closed the doors of the sprawling campus, leaving it unloved and fenced off from the surrounding community, the property was to be auctioned this month.
But a few days later, the sign was gone, and the auction cancelled.
The disused former Kangan TAFE college in Coburg North.Credit: Joe Armao
The 1.1-hectare site is one of more than 150 across Victoria currently either for sale or being prepared for sale as part of the state’s rolling program of buying and selling land.
While many, probably most, of the sales are not worthy of note – a police station here, a surplus office there – others deserve attention.
Located a stone’s throw from the Upfield train line and Batman station, the Sydney Road tram, a bike path, shops and services, the Coburg North TAFE has long been an ideal site for a model, green, housing and/or mixed-use development, according to planning experts and residents. It’s an even more attractive proposition during a housing crisis.
“The government should hold onto this site, buy up surrounding sites, consolidate them and rezone all of them to residential,” says David Gabriel-Jones, government land specialist and principal of the Public Land Consultancy.
“You could house a thousand people there, as you could with many well-located sites like it across the middle suburbs.”
The curious case of Coburg North TAFE raises questions about whether we are making optimal use of well-located government land, and whether good planning or good politics are deciding its future.
Until the 1990s, Coburg was the heart of Melbourne’s industrial north, home to textile factories, and businesses and colleges, like Kangan, that serviced the once-booming local motor industry.
The seismic economic restructure of the late 1980s and early 1990s left Coburg North with a surfeit of industrial buildings and a diminishing role for the TAFE. While alternative long-term uses were found for some of the factories and warehouses, that was not the case with the college site.
For a decade, locals pressed for the government to retain the property and open it up for housing, artisan manufacturing, much-needed green space, and as a thoroughfare to trains and trams, shops and services.
All that campaigning seemed to have come to nothing when the government this year commissioned real estate agents to sell the site on the open market, based on its existing industrial zoning.
But three factors appear to have contributed to this month’s rethink of the sale, just days before the scheduled auction.
First was the 2022 state election campaign, during which local lad and Labor diehard Anthony Cianflone replaced frontbencher Lizzie Blandthorn – she transferred to the upper house – as the ALP candidate, and now MP, for the seat of Pascoe Vale.
Pascoe Vale MP Anthony Cianflone with Coburg North residents and business owners Maggie Cowling, Jacqui Maitland and Tom Danby at the disused Kangan TAFE site. Credit: Joe Armao
Second was that although Labor held Pascoe Vale by a whopping 22.3 per cent at the 2018 election, its margin was slashed to just 2 per cent last year, with the advancing Greens now viewing the seat as very winnable at the 2026 poll.
Third was that housing has emerged as a hot political issue, especially in the tussle between Labor and the Greens for young voters in inner and middle-ring seats such as Pascoe Vale.
No doubt alert to both the concerns of his constituents and their ability to make him a one-term MP, Cianflone has actively worked to keep and transform the TAFE site.
He has met with locals opposed to its sale and has lobbied within government, highlighting how the site is a great location for housing and, possibly, a training facility to support a continued local role for manufacturing. When the “for sale” sign went up, Cianflone stepped up his efforts.
“Building on conversations I’ve had with local residents, I’ve advocated strongly for this site to be considered for future job, skills and housing opportunities for central Coburg,” Cianflone tells The Age.
“I’ll continue to put forward the views of the local community as part of ongoing central Coburg revitalisation prospects and efforts.”
Exactly who Cianflone convinced in government, and how, about the folly of the sale is unclear.
Local artist Maggie Cowling lives with her furniture-making partner in a community that includes artisans and “makers” including woodworkers, puppet and film makers, painters, sculptors, and gin distillers.
She is thankful for the accessibility and energetic support of her new local MP, while observing: “We’re also in a once very safe state seat that is now more marginal. So I don’t think we’re being taken for granted as much as we used to be.”
The former Kangan TAFE site in Coburg North.
The government has multiple policies and guidelines it is supposed to use to assess whether sites are surplus and, if so, what to do with them. The Victorian Government Land Use Policy is one such document.
It states that government land use should focus on “delivering social, environmental and economic benefits that meet the needs of the Victorian community, while offering value for the Victorian community”. A test that is supposed to apply to larger surplus sites includes consideration of access to transport and services, social inclusion and equity, and housing diversity, supply and affordability.
The government did not respond when asked whether such filters were applied in the case of the Coburg North site, nor would it explain why it had decided to sell, then not sell, the property.
Instead, a spokesperson would only say: “We’re developing options on how a future development of the Charles Street site can provide the best value to the community.”
As part of its much-spruiked Housing Statement released in September, the government ambitiously promised 800,000 homes over the next 10 years across Victoria.
Victorian Premier Jacinta Allan and her predecessor, Daniel Andrews.Credit: Gus McCubbing
The plan includes a promise to make use of well-located government land for housing, noting that 45 sites across the state will accommodate 9000 additional homes.
But the government has refused to release the locations, claiming the information is “commercial in confidence”.
Nor would the government explain whether the 45 sites are among the public list of 150 sites currently being prepared for sale.
A spokesperson said: “We know housing is one of the biggest challenges Victorians face, and through the bold reforms we announced in the Housing Statement, we’re creating the conditions needed to build 800,000 new homes in Victoria over the next decade – particularly in established suburbs like Coburg close to transport, jobs and services.”
One week, a long neglected, dilapidating property is on sale on the open market for industrial use; the next, it is not for sale and is a much-valued and ideal site for addressing a housing crisis.
“Governments work in mysterious ways sometimes,” says Cowling.
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