With light rail bringing a new focus to Northbourne Avenue, the City Renewal Authority has the heritage-listed but run-down Sydney and Melbourne buildings in its sights, waving the legislative stick to encourage some of the many individual owners to upgrade their premises.
It has written to city stakeholders and the owners proposing legislation that would enable the Sydney and Melbourne buildings to be declared Buildings of Significance, which would give the City Renewal Authority the power to detail the repairs required, do the work if owners don’t comply and bill them for it.
The legislation, which would overcome the challenges of the buildings’ unique and complex ownership structure, may also extend to other buildings in the City Renewal Precinct.
The letter says that under the proposed legislation the City Renewal Authority would be able to prepare a revitalisation plan for a Building of Significance. The plan would clearly state what external repairs or improvements need to be made by the building owner within a prescribed timeframe.
“If the buildings’ owner/s do not adhere to the plan within a prescribed timeframe the City Renewal Authority would be able to carry out the required repairs/improvements at the owner/s’ expense,” it says.
The Authority is asking stakeholders and building owners for input into how revitalisation plans could be prepared and implemented, and the criteria for selecting other Buildings of Significance.
Intimating that it’s now time for property owners to do their bit, the Authority says the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings have benefited from significant government investment around them, including new shared waste enclosures to open up the laneways as public spaces, significant improvements to the Northbourne Avenue verges and the placement of a light rail station on their doorstep.
An ACT Government spokesperson said the Sydney and Melbourne buildings had been singled out because they were important historical, architectural and cultural landmarks situated in a highly prominent position on Northbourne Avenue.
The Sydney and Melbourne buildings frame the gateway to Northbourne Avenue and City Hill, but have deteriorated in recent years, not helped by a major fire in the Sydney building in 2014.
From the 1920s, the buildings have had a multiple ownership system that has made it difficult to achieve a uniform approach to the maintenance and appearance of the buildings, with 102 separate titles (Crown Leases), three unit plans and no common areas.
“While the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings present as two buildings, they are rows of individual buildings with individual Crown leases and no common property management committee. As a result, the maintenance of the leased public areas of the buildings (façade, colonnades, verandas and shopfronts) is not centrally managed, resulting in inconsistent property management and presentation,” a government spokesperson said.
“This potential new legislation would seek to overcome the buildings’ complex ownership challenges, allowing the government, through the City Renewal Authority, to play an important co-ordination role in creating a consistent treatment across their exteriors.”
A lack of teeth in the Heritage Act and weak enforcement over the years have also led to the patchy nature of the buildings.
Now the ACT Government is exploring options, including legislation, so that the city’s ”most iconic and important buildings, including the Sydney and Melbourne buildings, are presented to a standard that met community expectations”.
“There are many building owners who are diligent and committed to maintaining their public areas. However, this is not the case for all owners, with some properties in very poor condition. This is a concern as this poor presentation has the potential to diminish the quality of Civic and Canberra’s reputation as the national capital,” the spokesperson said.
The ACT Government is also looking at beefing up the Heritage ACT.
While a range of enforcement actions are available to respond to offences against the Act, the government is pursuing stronger and more flexible penalties against people who damage heritage places and objects in Canberra, including orders to repair damage and fines of $1000 for an individual and $5000 for a corporation.
The Authority has held information sessions, is conducting workshops, talking one-on-one with affected owners and has issued a survey.
The government spokesperson said any legislation would be determined after consultation with stakeholders, but the message to owners appears to be clear: tidy up your premises, or the Government will do it for you and you’ll pay for it anyway.