An EXCELLENT article by Teresa Murphy – Bayside Review Local – July 2012
For 66 years the CSIRO site in the back streets of Highett has been a hotbed of scientific research and a haven for flora and fauna.
TERESA MURPHY reports on controversial plans to develop it into a massive residential estate.
What do the world’s first mechanical cheesemaker, fire-resistant building insulation, zero-waste spray coating and lightweight concrete have in common?
They were all invented in Highett.
At its laboratories in the quiet seaside suburb, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has been producing ground breaking research and technology for 66 years – from dairy products and meteorology to the development of Australian building standards and sustainable ecosystems.
Many award-winning scientists have worked there (some still do), as the organisation has evolved into one of the world’s largest and most diverse research bodies.
The research facilities are on a 9.3 hectare piece of prime real estate between Bay and Highett roads, flanked by Graham Road to the east and Middleton Street to the west. There has been talk of redeveloping the site for the past 15 years and last year the CSIRO announced it would sell the site in 2012. But as of last week it remained in Commonwealth hands.
Staff continue to work at the site but are gradually moving to the CSIRO’s Clayton facility, near Monash University, a process expected to take another two years.
The state government’s development arm, Places Victoria, is negotiating with the CSIRO to buy the site, and plans to redevelop it as a mixed-use residential estate with hundreds of dwellings. Places Victoria bought adjoining land on Bay Road in early 2011, although no development has begun on the site.
Even before the CSIR (as it was then known) sequestered the site in 1945, it has been largely off-limits to the public.
During World War II, it was a top-secret location for the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC), which made sections of bomber planes on site. The idea was that if the Japanese bombed the CAC’s main factory at Fishermans Bend, work could continue at Highett.
Before the 1920s, a John Williams owned the land, working it as a market garden. A road ran from his house on the site to Highett Road, where he would leave his cart laden with vegetables, ready for an early departure to the Melbourne market in the morning. Behind his house was an area of forest, timbered all the way to Bay Road.
Williams died in 1922 and the land fell into disuse.
In 1928, a cemetery was proposed for the site, but locals and the then Moorabbin council scotched the idea. The locals, who considered it common land, grazed cattle near Highett Road and urged the council to buy the entire site from Williams’ relatives for public use.
The council baulked at the cost but after the war it did telegram Prime Minister Ben Chifley seeking two hectares at the Highett Road end for public use. Chifley declined but said they could possibly have 2.4 hectares at the southern end, with its remnant forest.
In the 1950s, the Highett Citizens Association debated how to retain the forested area, but by then the CSIRO was ensconced, and expanding.
The CSIRO still occupies most of the original site, a block so large that staff often cycle or drive from one location to another within the cyclone wire fence. Over the decades, more than 50 buildings have been added, ranging from sheds and laboratories to the monolithic administration block.
The CSIRO has yet to release a recently completed architectural study of the site, but its property resources manager, Ross Stevens, says some buildings have been recommended for heritage protection when the site is sold and redeveloped. But it is the site’s remnant woodland, with its rare indigenous trees and unique grasses, that is considered the jewel in Highett’s crown and which residents and Bayside council are determined to safeguard.
Ignoring the hotchpotch of buildings, it is a beautiful site, with landscaped lawn, a tree which is said to be a direct descendant of Sir Isaac Newton’s famous apple tree, and 600 indigenous trees, including grand river red gums (some 300 years old), the only remaining yellow box trees in Melbourne’s sandbelt region, and plentiful birdlife and fauna.
Six decades of CSIRO occupation has helped protect the last of Highett’s native vegetation in an area known as the Highett grassy woodland. A spokesman told the Review Local last week that the CSIRO was continuing discussions with Bayside council and the state government about the site’s future.
‘‘All parties are mindful of the conservation values on the land and also its strategic values for housing,’’ he said. ‘‘All parties also acknowledge the importance of the remnant woodlands trees and vegetation and are working to identify the appropriate area of land to establish a conservation area.’’
Bayside council and Friends of Highett Grassy Woodland want at least three hectares of the woodlands area and some trees elsewhere on the site protected from any development, as well as passive open space.
Highett is fast becoming a desirable place to live, but many believe it is in danger of being too built up. This year, Goldstein MP Andrew Robb tabled a petition signed by 1960 people pushing for more green urban space in the suburb and conservation of the woodlands. The council has been lobbying Canberra and Spring Street for the same outcome.
Friends of Highett Grassy Woodland spokeswoman Pauline Reynolds says the woodland area is an important flora gene bank, with many plant and tree seeds waiting in the soil for the chance to regenerate.
‘‘We need the whole community to get behind us, to keep applying the pressure so we can save this precious area and ensure that Highett is not covered in high-density housing,’’ she says.
‘‘It’s vital that the design of whatever development is done on the site is of the highest quality and must integrate with open space to be used by all. We desperately need open spaces and trees as a relief from all the concrete. The CSIRO has some amazing habitats that must be preserved, as should some of the site’s amazing history. There’s nothing quite like it. Once it is gone, it is gone forever.’’
KEY BREAKTHROUGHS AT CSIRO HIGHETT
• World’s first mechanical cheesemaker (late 1950s)
• Zero-waste spray coatings for the car industry
• Energy and solar testing since the 1950s
• Aerated concrete that is as strong as normal concrete but half the weight
• Computer software that applies the Building Code of Australia to all types of buildings
• Development of building acoustics, including the Sidney Myer Music Bowl
• Development of building materials to withstand bushfires, earthquakes and cyclones; involved in the reconstruction of Darwin after Cyclone Tracy
• Invention of fire-resistant insulation, a plastic that turns to ceramic when exposed to fire
Source: CSIRO- Behind the cyclone wire