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Fifty shades of beige: The woeful state of the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings

By Maryann Mussared - 21 October 2016 49

Looking through the colonnades of the Melbourne Building towards the Sydney Building about 1930. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia from Mildenhall collection: A3560, 4317

Fast forward for a moment:  it is early 2019 and the first sleek and shiny new tram glides down Northbourne Avenue on its maiden voyage from Gungahlin into the Civic Terminus adjacent to the Sydney and Melbourne buildings.  Schoolchildren line the route waving commemorative flags at the first tram, full of dignitaries from all over the world.

These are people who could have power and influence over investment in the capital of Australia.  A perfect day in a perfect city.  What could possibly go wrong with this vision?

As the tram gently glides into the Civic Terminus, the VIPs are astonished at what they see.  What was once a pair of much loved inter-war Mediterranean-style building with gracious shady colonnades, are now in a state of advanced decay.  They have been allowed to degenerate into a series of individual leaseholdings that have not been required to follow even the most basic of heritage principles.  The exterior paint is fifty shades of beige, and the shabby colonnades shelter ugly mismatched shop fronts with poorly designed contemporary signage.

Sydney Building shopfront painted 'mission brown;

Sydney Building shopfront painted ‘mission brown’

We do need to understand how these much-loved buildings got into this state because this is also what they look like today.  They were the first to be built by private enterprise in Canberra commencing in 1926,  and were built in sections, like Paddington terrace houses.

Building in progress showing how both buildings were built in sections. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A3560, 2573

Building in progress showing how both buildings were built in sections. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia: A3560, 2573

They are actually divided into a number of individual leases, with a variety of leaseholders operating small businesses ranging from convenience stores to restaurants and hair salons.  The leaseholders are individually responsible for maintenance and we can assume are not restrained by specific heritage guidelines.  Although the buildings are  listed on the ACT Heritage Register, this only protects the heritage value of the place, but does also suggest a need to prepare a conservation management plan.

Sydney Building with peeling and mismatched paint.

Sydney Building with peeling and mismatched paint.

 

The fairly obvious conclusion is something needs to be done – and done now.  How do we move forward  to achieve an appropriate portal for Civic? At the worst, leaseholders will probably need assistance to repair and paint the exteriors a uniform heritage colour.  The immediate disadvantage is current leaseholders will resist such a move, as it will be at their own expense. So what is a possible alternative?  At the best, the new government could make a very brave decision, and as part of their already expensive City Metro pet project, take on board the need to do something radical.  They could buy back all the leases and clean up and repair both the exterior of the buildings and the shop fronts.  This would create the sort of united exterior imaged by the architect of these iconic buildings, Sir John Sulman.

The buildings could then be re-leased with a very specific purpose and shared vision for a new precinct worthy of a capital city:   galleries; cafes;  bistros with live music; flower stalls; and artist studios.  And outside across the tram tracks in the new central plaza public artworks that are currently neglected or vilified elsewhere in Canberra could be re-sited to a setting where they can be appreciated.  Imagine Bert Flugelman’s delightful Tumbling Cubes, poorly sited and prone to random damage in a quiet corner of the Belconnenn Town Centre, relocated to the new plaza and protected by a small moat of water.

Bert Flugelman's Tumbling Cubes, Belconnen Town Centre

Bert Flugelman’s Tumbling Cubes, Belconnen Town Centre

With no heritage management plan for these buildings, and if something doesn’t happen in the very near future, the shameful neglect and decay of these important portals, the Sydney and Melbourne buildings, will reach a stage where  it will be very expensive to ameliorate the entrenched decay.   The new ACT government needs to act decisively and act now.

Main picture: Looking through the colonnades of the Melbourne Building towards the Sydney Building about 1930. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia from Mildenhall collection: A3560, 4317.

What’s Your opinion?


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49 Responses to
Fifty shades of beige: The woeful state of the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings
1
wildturkeycanoe 7:55 am
21 Oct 16
#

So now the government needs to step in and spend money upkeeping privately owned buildings, just because they are in Civic? How about the rest of Gareema Place? What about the dilapidated state of Dickson shops, which are also on the tram journey?
Taxpayer dollars can’t even keep our roads in one piece or public housing maintained. Just because something looks old and run down, doesn’t mean we need to throw public money at it. Sure it is the first thing people will see after disembarking, but they remain in private ownership and not for us to fund the upkeep for.
Can you force people to renovate their properties just for aesthetics? If so and this sets a precedent for the rest of Canberra, where does it end? Do we get building inspectors issuing repair orders for poorly maintained homes?
What if the century old timber is rotten and needs replacing, the render crumbles upon touch and structural beams no longer provide support? If forced repair costs go into the hundreds of thousands and bankrupt the owner, what then?
As nice as it might sound to give the place a lick of paint, the costs would flow to the tenants and probably shut them down. They might look nice but become empty, useless relics.

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2
A_Cog 10:22 am
21 Oct 16
#

LOL post. The Greens made a heritage election commitment which included giving these private businesses $500,000 to paint their own Sydney/Melbourne building premises and make them look nice. What a joke.

But if the ACT Heritage Council wanted to, it can simply issue a remediation notice on the owners, and force them to do it out of their own pockets. No outrageous subsidy required.

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3
Charlotte Harper 11:57 am
21 Oct 16
#

What they need is a fairy godmother/godfather type person to come in and buy both buildings with a vision to turn them into the icons they the potential to be. This person or organisation would need to see it as a long term investment made partly for altruistic/historic/love for the city reasons. They would be someone who understands the potential for the arts to play a role, and who recognises the heritage value of the sites.
I can think of three such organisations in Canberra off the top of my head.
You know who you are, people! Here’s a challenge for you, and one with fantastic potential given the lift light rail will give to the area. I’m picturing Degraves St-style laneways in the courtyards, music streaming out of studios on the top floor, and cafe strips to rival Lonsdale St.
These buildings should be Canberra’s answer to the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, with somewhere – perhaps on the rooftop – to have High Tea and somewhere to learn about what Canberra was like in the 1920s featured. There is so much potential! I think perhaps I might have to write a follow up to Maryann’s piece.

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4
dungfungus 2:02 pm
21 Oct 16
#

Charlotte Harper said :

What they need is a fairy godmother/godfather type person to come in and buy both buildings with a vision to turn them into the icons they the potential to be. This person or organisation would need to see it as a long term investment made partly for altruistic/historic/love for the city reasons. They would be someone who understands the potential for the arts to play a role, and who recognises the heritage value of the sites.
I can think of three such organisations in Canberra off the top of my head.
You know who you are, people! Here’s a challenge for you, and one with fantastic potential given the lift light rail will give to the area. I’m picturing Degraves St-style laneways in the courtyards, music streaming out of studios on the top floor, and cafe strips to rival Lonsdale St.
These buildings should be Canberra’s answer to the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney, with somewhere – perhaps on the rooftop – to have High Tea and somewhere to learn about what Canberra was like in the 1920s featured. There is so much potential! I think perhaps I might have to write a follow up to Maryann’s piece.

The “fairy-godmother person” could also do what Adelaide is doing:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-21/pride-walk-adelaide-feast-festival-rainbow-pathway/7953524

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5
justin heywood 4:36 pm
21 Oct 16
#

wildturkeycanoe said :

So now the government needs to step in and spend money upkeeping privately owned buildings?… .

Yes, in this case I think they should. These buildings are the face of Canberra.

It’s surely the role of the government to keep the city looking attractive and well maintained. They’re attractive and iconic buildings – they COULD look great, but they are looking pretty sad at the moment.

With a myriad of small leaseholders, it is unlikely there will be any change unless there is an external incentive or requirement to do so.

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6
Lurker2913 5:53 pm
21 Oct 16
#

wildturkeycanoe said :

Can you force people to renovate their properties just for aesthetics?

If you read the legislation on land leases it stipulates you must maintain your building and if you do not the government can enter your property, make the repairs and recover costs.

Boo hoo to the owners. They should be forced to maintain the building to a heritage standard. If they can not afford it, they will have sell to the building.

The market value of commercial property is based on the investment return. If the owners did not factor in the maintenance costs and thus paid too much, that is their problem, and not the taxpayers.

The government should force a resolution. They should issue a repair order. If the order is not complied with make the repairs and seek costs. If the costs are not paid seek a court order to sell the building or cancel the land lease.

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7
HiddenDragon 5:58 pm
21 Oct 16
#

“Although the buildings are listed on the ACT Heritage Register, this only protects the heritage value of the place, but does also suggest a need to prepare a conservation management plan”

The most realistic longer-term option might be to do what has happened with older buildings in other cities – keep the facade at street level and a storey, or two, up from street level and build a modern, multi-storey building above that.

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8
creative_canberran 1:26 am
22 Oct 16
#

I know the thought of public money being used to bring the aesthetics of these buildings up to standard is unpalatable, but these are gateway buildings. We should take a bit of pride in this city.

But there’s also another factor. Compare the two buildings and you see the Melbourne Building is in far better condition. Good upkeep, unified branding, and a strong theme to the stores. The quiet side is the one that faces Northbourne which also had an adult shop formerly (what a planning stuff up that was).

The Melbourne Building helps to explain why the Sydney Building is in such trouble. It’s surrounded by heavy traffic on all sides, with the bus interchange destroying the character of two sides. Now that is the government’s fault. Plans were originally to put the City Bus Interchange across the road in a dedicated structure. Instead they got lazy, didn’t want to make the investment, plonked it where it is now.

Now I know you’re thinking, well the interchange brings in potential customers, it should be a plus. But the City Interchange is no Circular Quay, it’s not even like Southern Cross Station. People spend as little time there as possible. So in a way government splashing out for a splash of paint is making up for their own planning mistakes.

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9
creative_canberran 1:28 am
22 Oct 16
#

HiddenDragon said :

“Although the buildings are listed on the ACT Heritage Register, this only protects the heritage value of the place, but does also suggest a need to prepare a conservation management plan”

The most realistic longer-term option might be to do what has happened with older buildings in other cities – keep the facade at street level and a storey, or two, up from street level and build a modern, multi-storey building above that.

GPO and Treasury buildings in Sydney are wonderful examples of that. But those fit with the character of the city. You couldn’t really add height to these buildings. But I think something like the QVB could work. Gut the innards, maybe fill in the alley ways, make them a unified structure. And they’re actually planning something like that for the Sydney building, or at least were. Plans were announced, not sure where it’s at.

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10
wildturkeycanoe 7:34 am
22 Oct 16
#

From the OP – “The buildings could then be re-leased with a very specific purpose and shared vision for a new precinct worthy of a capital city: galleries; cafes; bistros with live music; flower stalls; and artist studios.”
In what world would a flower shop, gallery or art studio be able to make enough money to pay the rent, let alone fork out for expensive restoration of the facade? You need to have a business with a lot of turnover to pay premium rental in the central hub of the city. There is already a flower shop just a block away for competition anyway.
Another point not being made is that because of the heritage value of the building, there are limits and guidelines on what you can and can’t do to the place, restricting your freedom to design your premises the way you want. I’m also sure that on top of the high rental prices being asked, insurance will not be cheap because insurers know the huge costs of replacing or repairing such an old building should anything happen – remember the fire a few years ago in the Sydney Building?
That reminds me of another issue with the structures, asbestos. There is probably a tonne of it in there, which will also hamper any renovation work and make it more expensive to approach. There is simply nothing promising about setting up a business there except for location, but that alone may not be enough as evidenced by the empty shops for lease.

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11
aussielyn 10:19 am
22 Oct 16
#

I have given a lot of thought to the maintenance & conservation of heritage buildings it has been given publicity because of the demolition of the Corkman Irish Pub in Melbourne.
Landlords are notoriously reluctant to spend money on maintenance as they prefer to squeeze tenants as far as they can. The power of the Property Council over the ACT Govt is enormous; a rep is on the Heritage Council. They could slow investment in the ACT if the ACT Govt forced them to spend money.
I believe that owners of heritage buildings should be given an incentive to maintain & conserve them. They should be given a discount on their rates if they spend money, maintaining & conserving the heritage elements of buildings. The Planning Institute of Australia in a submission to a 2005 Productivity Commission review of heritage wrote “5. Various tax incentives should be put in place for the repair/maintenance of heritage places to encourage, and practically support, their conservation.”
Maintenance & conservation of heritage properties is very expensive, maybe double the cost. Finding tradesmen with artisan skills of the past is difficult.

ACT treasury will be horrified by this suggestion as it will mean less revenue. Heritage Ministers only turns up for the Heritage Week and awards.
I look forward to your future article Charlotte; your thoughts on adaptive re-use of the Melbourne & Sydney buildings were innovative.

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12
wildturkeycanoe 12:51 pm
22 Oct 16
#

aussielyn said :

I believe that owners of heritage buildings should be given an incentive to maintain & conserve them. They should be given a discount on their rates if they spend money, maintaining & conserving the heritage elements of buildings. The Planning Institute of Australia in a submission to a 2005 Productivity Commission review of heritage wrote “5. Various tax incentives should be put in place for the repair/maintenance of heritage places to encourage, and practically support, their conservation.”
Maintenance & conservation of heritage properties is very expensive, maybe double the cost. Finding tradesmen with artisan skills of the past is difficult.

ACT treasury will be horrified by this suggestion as it will mean less revenue. Heritage Ministers only turns up for the Heritage Week and awards.

So the tram adjacent these buildings is not going to reap the benefits of “land value capture”, but instead will create a black hole into which government funds will disappear, in the form of heritage funding, tax incentives, business startup grants and such? I though the tram was supposed to make the area improve it’s revenue stream, not destroy it.

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13
creative_canberran 5:08 pm
22 Oct 16
#

wildturkeycanoe said :

That reminds me of another issue with the structures, asbestos. There is probably a tonne of it in there, which will also hamper any renovation work and make it more expensive to approach.

May not as big of an issue as you might think. The building is so old that it would predate the very wide use of asbestos.

So the bones of the building in that respect are good. Don’t forget they’ve converted the upstairs of the Melbourne building into a hotel, so significant remediation clearly isn’t a big deal. And both buildings have been burnt a number of times, the bones withstood it and they’ve refitted them to correct the damage.

There would be a bit to do though. A lot of fitouts done over the decades would introduce asbestos, in kitchens and windows. Fire proofing would be a big thing if its been added, that limpet introduces a lot of brown asbestos. Age of the building means it’s certain there would be high level lead paint. Electrics would need to be replaced to get rid of PCbs.

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14
JC 6:28 pm
22 Oct 16
#

wildturkeycanoe said :

aussielyn said :

I believe that owners of heritage buildings should be given an incentive to maintain & conserve them. They should be given a discount on their rates if they spend money, maintaining & conserving the heritage elements of buildings. The Planning Institute of Australia in a submission to a 2005 Productivity Commission review of heritage wrote “5. Various tax incentives should be put in place for the repair/maintenance of heritage places to encourage, and practically support, their conservation.”
Maintenance & conservation of heritage properties is very expensive, maybe double the cost. Finding tradesmen with artisan skills of the past is difficult.

ACT treasury will be horrified by this suggestion as it will mean less revenue. Heritage Ministers only turns up for the Heritage Week and awards.

So the tram adjacent these buildings is not going to reap the benefits of “land value capture”, but instead will create a black hole into which government funds will disappear, in the form of heritage funding, tax incentives, business startup grants and such? I though the tram was supposed to make the area improve it’s revenue stream, not destroy it.

The light rail is stopping the next block down! So not adjacent.

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15
dungfungus 10:25 pm
22 Oct 16
#

JC said :

wildturkeycanoe said :

aussielyn said :

I believe that owners of heritage buildings should be given an incentive to maintain & conserve them. They should be given a discount on their rates if they spend money, maintaining & conserving the heritage elements of buildings. The Planning Institute of Australia in a submission to a 2005 Productivity Commission review of heritage wrote “5. Various tax incentives should be put in place for the repair/maintenance of heritage places to encourage, and practically support, their conservation.”
Maintenance & conservation of heritage properties is very expensive, maybe double the cost. Finding tradesmen with artisan skills of the past is difficult.

ACT treasury will be horrified by this suggestion as it will mean less revenue. Heritage Ministers only turns up for the Heritage Week and awards.

So the tram adjacent these buildings is not going to reap the benefits of “land value capture”, but instead will create a black hole into which government funds will disappear, in the form of heritage funding, tax incentives, business startup grants and such? I though the tram was supposed to make the area improve it’s revenue stream, not destroy it.

The light rail is stopping the next block down! So not adjacent.

…… unless the brakes fail.

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