From quarry to model estate

For three decades since the closure, the quarry site has been the subject of a  community campaign aimed at securing an acceptable development, and stopping proposals for rubbish tips and landfill for toxic wastes. Not that residents were always happy when the quarry was active.

The quarry was established as Fowler?s Quarry in the late 1930s by Reid Brothers and Reid to extract basalt from the site, situated on the eastern edge of one of the largest lava plains in the world, stretching  west from Melbourne to SA. From the 1860s, the windswept and almost treeless site had been used for sheep and cattle grazing.

Rock from the quarry was crushed and used for road base, aggregates, rail ballast and paving. Blasting had to be undertaken to remove overburden, posing challenges from the 1960s due to the proximity of houses in Keilor East.

In 1939, the Essendon Gazette reported that the quarry was ?providing great service to Essendon, Keilor and Broadmeadows?, operating 16 trucks and employing many locals. The paper said Reid Brothers and Reid was a ?progressive organisation? and the biggest road and cartage contractor in Victoria.

However, Fowler?s Quarry was the site of at least one fatal accident: in 1950, when gelignite rammed into a blasting hole exploded prematurely. One worker was killed and three injured in the blast, the Essendon Gazette reported.

There were also instances of blasting damaging nearby houses, prompting one local MP to storm into State Parliament and slam down a piece of rock on the Speaker?s table, saying it had come through a constituent?s roof. Locals still remember 2.10pm as the daily blasting time.

The Reids sold the quarry in 1965 to Boral, who ran it for a further 10 years until accessible rock diminished and the quarry was closed. By this time, the western cliff face at the quarry was just a few metres from the backyards of houses in Rachelle Road.

Sam Grima, a former Boral quarryman, remembers that because Niddrie afforded an accessible 30m cliff face in the Melbourne suburbs, the quarry was attractive for geology students, and for army reservists practising abseiling. Over the years, the cliff face has also been a backdrop for TV productions, including an episode of Halifax FP.

One of the challenges for quarry managers was periodic flooding from the adjacent Steele Creek, which sometimes required the quarry to be pumped out, Mr Grima said.

The flooding propensity has now been turned to good use: Steele Creek has been diverted to form the literal and geographic centrepiece of Valley Lake Estate, declared open by Niddrie MP Rob Hulls in May 2006.

As the Member for Niddrie from the late 1990s, Mr Hulls was at the centre of the campaign to block plans for a hazardous waste dump at the site. Plans for some form of landfill at the site date almost from the closure of the quarry. Consultants Maunsell reported in 1976 that the site had potential for landfill, which Keilor City Council first rejected in 1981, with concerns about traffic volumes and water pollution.

Four years later, Whelan the Wrecker proposed establishment of a landfill at the site for non-putrescible wastes. Again, this time after an environmental effects statement under Victorian legislation, the proposal was rejected. The ruling from the Minister for Planning and Environment stated that alternative uses needed more investigation and recommended formation of a working group to consult the community.

The working group recommended establishment of a residential estate, reflected in Amendment L7 of the Keilor Planning Scheme, approved in 1990. But residential development at the site did not proceed and the landfill proposal was again rekindled.

The site-specific controls in the planning scheme that stopped landfill development were removed in 1996, allowing a private landfill for solid inert waste, fill material and low-level contaminants.

But by the time an application was lodged with the Environment Protection Authority on behalf of landfill operator Quadry Industries, a vigorous community campaign was under way to stop the landfill. A coalition of community groups fighting under the ?Save Niddrie Lake? and ?No Toxic Tip? banners included Friends of Steele Creek, the Quarry Action Group, and the Niddrie and West Essendon Community Group.

The fight continued through the late 1990s, with rallies, legal reviews through planning tribunals and courts, and media coverage. Moonee Valley City Council appealed to the Supreme Court against a government order to issue the permits for a landfill, but was unsuccessful.

Finally, with an election looming in 1999, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett announced he was reconsidering the landfill proposal for the site. He did not have to deal further with the issue after losing the state election in September.

The new Bracks Government moved to secure public ownership of the site through the Urban Land Corporation, now VicUrban, in 2000. The plan involved a residential development including the enhanced lake, cycling and footpaths and open space of 30 per cent of the site.

It was poetic justice that in May 2006, Rob Hulls, by that time Planning Minister and still Niddrie MP, opened Valley Lake for public inspection, with the first public auctions of house blocks soon after.

The site?s bitter history seemed to have done the auction results no harm when people camped out to secure the first sites on offer in September 2006. A top price of $349,000 was reached for a site in the second round of auctions.

With building under way in early 2007, the estate includes detached houses, townhouses and apartments, built to design standards set by VicUrban, including environmental specifications for rainwater reuse. The design standards give residents certainty about what their street will look like when development is completed.

The government developer took pains to promote the release of 21 Valley Lake allotments in Niddrie, as opposed to neighbouring Keilor East. ?This is a once-off opportunity for prospective Valley Lake homebuyers because there are no other allotments in Niddrie,? said Neil Morris, VicUrban project developer for Valley Lake.

Mr Morris said Valley Lake was unique because there were few new housing estates as close to the Melbourne CBD (17km by road), set among established suburbs, with nearby shopping  centres and schools. Other selling points include fibre optic cable to all Valley Lake homes, delivering cable TV and broadband speeds 40 times faster than ADSL.

Garnering further publicity for the site, a 23m high modern sculpture was built to rise out of the lake in late 2006, to the intrigue of locals who saw it take shape while walking around the site.

The Ornithologist consists of a ladder built of marine-grade steel set into the lake with a bird watcher perched atop and gazing through binoculars, ?perhaps looking for the peregrine falcons that nest in the Valley Lake cliff face?, according to one of the more lyrical press releases from Mr Hulls. The cost of the sculpture was not disclosed.

VicUrban confirms that Valley Lake is indeed home to a pair of peregrine falcons, among some 30 native bird species. To improve their environment, students from nearby Essendon Keilor Secondary College were undertaking tree-planting at Valley Lake in early 2007.

By May 2008, 115 lots at Valley Lake had been sold – most selling at around $370,000 – and building was under way at about a dozen. A VicUrban representative says the strict environmental guidelines governing house design have slowed development.

The author Max Berry records his gratitude to the Essendon Network for Employment and Training for their History Online Project, and the Essendon Historical Society.

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