THE private-school owner of St Kilda’s historic Astor cinema has indicated for the first time that it may be willing to sell the heritage-listed art deco building rather than redevelop it.
Stung by what it has labelled ‘‘a concerted effort to discredit the school regarding its plans for the building’’, St Michael’s Grammar has announced the appointment of a consultant charged with attempting to ‘‘broker an outcome that meets the needs of all parties’’.
The school had proposed to redevelop the 1932 building, which it bought for $3.8 million in 2007, as a performing arts complex for students that was also available to the wider community when not being used by the school.
Head of School Simon Gipson told The Age last month that while no firm plan had yet been decided, it had always been the school’s intention to ‘‘protect the theatre’s historic use as a cinema’’.
But the lobby group Friends of the Astor feared the school’s plans would bring to an end the viability of the venue as one of the last single-screen repertory cinemas in the country.
Now a petition on change.org that has attracted more than 12,000 signatures and a social media campaign that has garnered the support of showbiz luminaries including Michael Caton, Tony Martin, Sophie Lee, Stephen Curry, Rove McManus, Tracy Bartram, Adam Hills and At The Movies host David Stratton has forced the school to rethink its position.
This week, St Michael’s issued a statement in which it said it ‘‘remains open to its original vision of a shared community arts facility’’, but added that it is ‘‘also receptive to other recommendations, including the sale of the building’’.
The news has been hailed by the Friends of the Astor as a breakthrough. ‘‘We are thrilled, as our aim is to secure The Astor’s future by establishing a trust to purchase the building,’’ a statement on the group’s Facebook page said. ‘‘It’s not over yet but the signs are good.’’
Vanda Hamilton, president of the Friends of the Astor Association, confirmed yesterday that she had met with the school’s consultant, Jan Cochrane-Harry — a past manager of the heritage-listed Princess, Comedy, Regent and Forum theatres — earlier this week.
‘‘It’s great that they came and asked for a discussion with us,’’ Ms Hamilton said. ‘‘The fact that they’re open to selling the building is the biggest news for us.’’
She added that the school appeared to ‘‘have just realised that they didn’t understand the depth of feeling for the Astor running as it is, not with some bland homage to cinema stuck down the back of a multi-use building’’.
The Age understands that St Michael’s had engaged award-winning architects Ashton Raggatt McDougall to oversee the redevelopment of the building, a project likely to cost in the ‘‘tens of millions of dollars’’, according to Mr Gipson.
Paul Orton, chairman of the school’s board of directors, said yesterday that St Michael’s had not yet given up all hope of being able to realise its ambitions for the site. ‘‘We remain focused on trying to establish the Astor building as a shared facility that will house a cinema and will be available to the St Kilda community and be available to St Michael’s,’’ he said.
But, he added: ‘‘We now need to realise that vision or to realise that asset.’’
A Protect the Astor campaign launch scheduled for this Saturday at the cinema will go ahead as planned.