You don't know what you've got till it's gone,
so look carefully; these are about to go!
Lands Department Building, Bridge Street Sydney
Department of Education building, Bridge Street Sydney.
top: Rear of buildings from Farrer Place
bottom : Lands Department building from Macquarie Place
View east up Bridge Street, Sydney.
Sydney sandstones for sale; read on ….
It's an unhealthy paradox, but more and more we need to be protected from the people elected to represent and serve all of us.
The Baird Liberal Government has gone on a rampage in NSW selling public land and heritage buildings to make up shortfalls in their budget. Like everything else in their world view, conservatives think that old heritage buildings only exist to make a financial profit.
Heritage buildings that have lost their original use need sympathetic alternative uses of course, not so much to justify their existence in a financial sense as to retain them as a living part of our urban environment. We need to keep heritage buildings in public ownership as an accessible part of our everyday city experience.
The biggest emotional flash point in this sell-a-thon is the proposal to lease two of the great sandstone buildings in Bridge Street (Lands Department and Department of Education) as a boutique hotel for 99 years, effectively passing them out of the public domain forever.
Market conservatives argue that the land is too valuable to house bureaucrats, that we need to make a profit from having tourists stay in the CBD. And it's also an opportunity for a friendly developer to make a lot of money!
Built in 1876-1892 by architect James Barnet, the Lands Department building with its clock tower, dome and six metre ceilings is the finer of the two buildings, but it's the joint impact of their many distinctive sandstone facades that makes them both so important.
The Education Department building by architect George McRae was built in stages and wasn't finally completed until 1915. Facing Macquarie Place, tall buildings surround both of them now, but when built they would have provided an imposing gateway to Circular Quay.
By creating a dignified public realm these buildings are evidence of our earlier colonial society advancing into Federation and independence with real confidence in the future. And well over a hundred years ago a much less wealthy society somehow managed to afford what must have been an enormous public investment at the time.
Each of these buildings occupies the whole block on which they stand and are adjacent to one another. It is proposed that the buildings would be joined together by an underground link under Loftus Street to become a single boutique tourist hotel. Additional bedroom floors are proposed on top of the Education Building, and the service areas like kitchens are to be squashed in under Farrer Place and Gresham Street. It just doesn't sound like a very sustainable or workable arrangement!
You can see that what's being proposed is much more destructive than simply altering a heritage building in the acceptable way the old Customs House facing Circular Quay was adapted to accommodate retail, restaurant and exhibition spaces without altering the external fabric.
I'm suspicious of the use of underground service spaces, when you take into account the access ramps and all the other shifts and changes such as railings, signs, vents and fire stairs that will be necessary to make it all work.
And I'm even more concerned about the aesthetics of any vertical addition to the Education building, not just to the building itself but also it's visual impact on the adjoining Lands Department building with it's fine clock tower. Extensive multiple changes like this usually have the effect of giving buildings an unreal Disneyland quality.
One would expect that the NSW Heritage Register would protect us against the unsympathetic adaptation that is proposed, but I understand the heritage rules have been so white anted by special exceptions that we can't absolutely rely on them any more.
A number of distinguished architects have combined with the Teachers Federation to oppose this unfortunate proposal. They need your support and can be contacted on: https://www.facebook.com/save.sydneys.sandstones/timeline.
These concerned citizens have asked why the Education building couldn't become a high school for the inner city and help make up the current shortage of school places for the increasing numbers living in inner city areas.
A Bridge Street High School would be much more economical in the long run than building a new high school with its land and construction costs and long delay. It wouldn't cost much to refit the Education building as a school and it could be in service by January 2017.
A high school would have the same economic impact that the RMIT campus has had in the Melbourne's CBD, not only making it more lively but also increasing the profitability of all the local shops and cafes.
A Herald editorial welcomed the idea of a city scho0l, they liked the idea of 'Teenage students adding youth's dynamism to the besuited monoculture of the CBD'!
And as the Art Gallery of NSW is already considering adding more space in the Domain, the Lands building could become part of this extension; an outpost of the gallery in the city! The Museum of Sydney is in the next block up Bridge Street so it's an appropriate location. Again it would save many millions on the construction costs of the new gallery extensions.
Needless to say the Baird government hasn't provided any business case for a hotel, much less had the courage to make a rigorous comparison with the school and gallery idea, or any other option for that matter. There are too many ramifications to both the above suggestions to argue out in detail here, each heritage building, its circumstances and urban environment is unique and need to be respected.
The simple fact is that these two buildings form a precinct that is so distinctly Sydney that they should remain as something more permanent and useful for all Sydneysiders rather than beds for transient visitors.
Before calling tenders to finance such a half baked idea, the State Government should have been required to lodge a formal Development Application with the City Council like everyone else so the scheme could be properly evaluated and the public could make concerned objections before it was approved. And they talk about transparent government!
Leaving this process to the chosen developer after an irreversible financial deal has been done is like shutting the hen house door after the fox has gone, and would make consideration of any other options impossible!
This government is behaving like a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and is totally ignoring the views of half the citizenry. Most people accept the idea of recycling heritage buildings but not selling the family silver for such short term monetary gains.
The NSW Liberal government was returned with a reduced majority in a recent election dominated by the sale of the State's electricity assets. Retention of these sandstone buildings in public ownership was crowded out as a public issue so the future of these great buildings is still uncertain!
The onus is firmly on the government to answer the eminently reasonable question: why not a school instead of a hotel? Although there would be little ongoing revenue from the school plus gallery, there would be enormous capital savings right now. It could well be a better deal financially, and would certainly be better for the community as a whole than a poncey boutique hotel.
You'd think that market driven conservatives would be anxious to find the best financial deal, but not apparently if it leaves ownership in government hands! What stops them analyzing alternative options in a critical way is the conviction that governments shouldn't own and run anything that might represent profitable opportunities for the private sector
People have short political memories of all those road and tunnel projects justified financially by optimistic traffic projections tied to guaranteed returns for the financiers. We the public are still paying for some of them ten years later because the inflated traffic figures used to justify them still haven't been realised.
The estimates for this hotel, and the assumptions on which they are based are probably as deliberately optimistic as the earlier road estimates clearly were, but we'll never know unless they are released into open debate. Despite this general lack of information and public discussion, the Baird Government will probably claim a mandate to dispose of these grand buildings without the matter being debated in Parliament.
Labor should be pressed to make a commitment to young Australians rather than tourists, and the support of the Greens and Independents should be sought to stop this utterly repugnant proposal in the Upper House. The prognosis doesn't look good however, as the Coalition only needs the support of one of the Shooters or Christian Party independents to also have the numbers in the Upper House.
It's probably too much to expect politicians to be moved by moral considerations as well as political ones, but here is also a clear moral imperative here. Author Phillip Drew should have the last, absolutely spot-on word;
'Have we not the wit, the intelligence and foresight, to preserve and enhance such irreplaceable heritage? Are we so focused on selling everything of value, we esteem nothing?'
Don Gazzard LFAIA
The Chief Secretary's Building in Macquarie Street on the corner of Bridge Street is the next one to go!