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Overseeing PENTRIDGE: Part Two

This article continues our in-depth interview with Pentridge’s Site Manager and his son, about the challenges and potentials of the former prison’s rebirth into a site the whole community can enjoy. As each wished to preserve their anonymity, they asked to be referred to as MM and MR for the purposes of this interview. Read Part One here.

If the deep history of Pentridge was complex, its recent past has proved no less so. “I’ve been here through all the different owners of the prison,” MM says.

As such, he’s seen it all – all the stumbling blocks, all the bad press and pushback about how previous developers had shied away from doing the hard work of restoration. Shayher Group itself has faced criticism in this regard, but MM won’t have it.

“Shayher Group is currently doing the last and most difficult parts of the Pentridge redevelopment where no one else would; the heritage restoration work, and the high-density aspect required to sustain the site for the future.”

MM is referring to Shayher Group’s ongoing restoration of the Guard Towers, A Division roof and H Division Rock Breaking Yards, and its plans to open up the Pentridge site as a mixed-use precinct containing a shopping complex, an Adina hotel, and a central piazza.

The plans have faced community opposition and setbacks from council despite meeting Heritage Victoria guidelines and receiving preliminary approvals.

THE PASSION OF PENTRIDGE

It’s a sore point that presents regularly on the tours. “Occasionally we’ll get disgruntled people who just want to have a go at us. We’ll often get people confronting us on the tours, saying ‘why are you putting a hotel here?’ And we’re left saying ‘would you prefer the place to crumble down and be gone forever? Do you want it to be kept locked up?’ We’re very passionate about the place, it’s why we’ve been here so long,” says MM.

“We’re doing something with the property that others haven’t,” he continues. “In my personal opinion, if people have an issue with Pentridge being developed, take it up with the government – they’re the ones who sold it. They should have made it into a museum, but they didn’t want to spend the millions and millions of dollars that would have cost.”

Not only that, but the site was dangerous. There were frequent break-ins by drunks, thieves and souvenir hunters, and property damage occurred on a regular basis among other things. To improve security of the site, MM elected to live there permanently.

“I was here three or four years wholly and solely by myself. I lived onsite in the old hospital – E Division. They were scary, lonely times. We used to average about 30 break-ins a year, nearly every second week. I’d walk around with a chain or a baseball bat, shifting spanners, anything for protection. A lot of strange people.”

GUARDING PENTRIDGE

MR nods at the memory of his dad manning the sight alone. “Half the reason MM moved onto the site was to provide 24hr a day security and keep an eye on the place. I came in to help, we put a lot of our work into securing the site. Constant security checks, checking each division every single day. Took maybe four or five years but the last few years it’s been pretty good. It’s nothing like the problem it was.”

In addition to the regular break-ins, there were other issues to be concerned about, with safety implications for the wider community.

“We used to have a bit of a drug problem around here some years back, before we installed the lights in Champ St,” says MR. “It was always pitch black at night and the people found it a perfect place to do their drug deals. And of course it would carry through into the day, you’d constantly be finding bags and needles. Then,” he continues, “at the other gates on the far side, we’d find junkies who had fallen asleep in their cars. We’d have to wake them up in the morning and move them along.”

When asked whether Shayher’s presence on the site has helped make the area as a whole safer, MR answers in the affirmative. ‘It was literally a dangerous place to walk around here about six years ago. It wasn’t nice at all. With the apartments, with what we’re doing, now you see more women walking around, it’s much safer now.”

MM feels that Shayher have been targeted due to the actions of previous owners and developers on the site.“The truth is, we’re very pedantic about the requirements of working on this site,” says MM. “We don’t tolerate any silliness at all here due to the strict heritage overlay of Heritage Victoria. One of the people we consult with regularly at Heritage Victoria, this is one of his babies. It took us a long time to get him onside because he was used to the previous developers doing things outside of the guidelines and permits,” recalls MM. “But we’ve earned his trust. He knows we have the very best interests of the site at heart.”

“Shayher has done the restoration works no one else would,” MM continues. “They’ve spent millions, millions. The intense work that JBM Group has done cost millions, and there’s more to do. There’s the pizza place (Zero 95), a microbrewery – we’ve almost got the tenants ready. Getting the site where it needs to be costs money. Luckily, Shayher are utterly committed to the long-term.”

MR concurs. “I’m always explaining to people why Shayher Group is the team you want on this site. We’ve worked with the others, and they haven’t done right by Pentridge. Shayher has the legs and the vision to get this going and keep this building together for the next couple of hundred years.”

As for MM, he no longer calls E Division home, but maintains a close eye on the site. “I live in the Horizon Apartments now, since June. I was starting to experience the effects of living in a prison. I’m still close of course, but a little distance has been good. ”

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