Heritage … 78-78a Campbell Street, Surry Hills.SHORTLY after I was elected to council in 2008, I attended an exhibition opening in the Queen Victoria Building. During her speech, the lord mayor Clover Moore gestured to the magnificent surroundings and berated the Labor councillors of the 1960s who had voted to demolish the old beauty and replace it with some nice skyscrapers. I hid behind the ornamental wrought iron in embarrassment. But at least I felt my term on council would be spent saving lovely old buildings, not pulling them down.
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At the past two council meetings, we have voted to demolish two century-old terraces in Botany Road, Alexandria, a 100-year-old shop front in Chinatown, which had been the headquarters of the Chinese Republic Newspaper & Trading Company, and most shockingly, an 1850s hotel in Devonshire Street, formerly known as the Madeira Inn.

During debate about the Madeira Inn, I was told it was all OK because we were going to send in an archaeological team to see what could be saved from 150 years of our history. When I suggested that saving the actual building was a good start, I was stared at in amusement. “It was all right,” I was told, “the new building will mimic the form of the old building.”

This penchant for ripping down the genuinely old and replacing it with ”pretend old” has to be fought.

I often joke that the present Sydney council, made up of Liberal, Labor, Greens and Clover Moore parties will vote to pull down anything as long as it is replaced with a 5-star building with grass on the roof and bicycle racks out the front. It is certainly a green council but not one interested in preserving old buildings.

Sydneysiders believe old buildings are protected by heritage legislation. Certainly those buildings that achieve a heritage listing are safe, but heritage listing is hard to get.

One good example is Bathurst House in the city centre. It was considered a marvel of modern construction in 1910 when it was built, and was called a fine example of “Chicago-style” high rise. More importantly for me, it also had a rich history of feminist foment. The Women’s League of NSW had their headquarters there. But in March this year, our council voted for it to come down. These votes on heritage issues are mostly nine to one.

I am not unrealistic about the need for urban consolidation and renewal, and I know the excellent council planning staff fend off even more rapacious development applications than get through to us at the council table. But by protecting only our A-team buildings and offering up our B-team to the developers, we are ruining our city streetscape. The shop front on Campbell Street, Chinatown, was in a block of untouched century-old buildings. The new facade will stick out. However, there will be a plaque attached to the new building commemorating the vanished building’s connection with the Chinese Republic newspaper and Sun Yat-sen’s Reformist Movement. So sad.

Often we are presented with the view that a building is beyond saving. This was the argument for ripping down the old Mick Simmons building in George Street. I had seen photos of the building just decades earlier with fine ornamental windows and lovely curly bits on the roof. By the time I got to do a site inspection, even I could not argue for saving it.

But this leads to the next part of the problem. Many developers buy a property and deliberately allow deterioration to occur over a period of time. Sometimes felicitously opportune fires occur. By the time the application comes to council, there is no option but to support demolition. There needs to be legislation at state level that can stop this occurring.

The other change that needs to happen is that any intended demolition of a building older than 50 years needs to be brought to council at the first instance. Too often councillors are presented with the argument “we can’t tell the developer now that he can’t build his building … he’s been working on it for three years”.

Let’s tell developers straight off, Sydney’s history is not for sale.

Meredith Burgmann is a Labor councillor on the City of Sydney Council and wrote her PhD on the Green Bans and the 1970s struggle to save Sydney’s historical buildings.

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