Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Give the Bathers a break
The nine-year battle over the future of this Balmoral Beach landmark looks like being settled once and for all by Mosman Council tonight.
BLAME the sodden summer. Pollen count’s down, but misinformation levels are well into the red sector and rising. First the East Circular Quay mud-wrestle, 99 per cent fact-free. Now this.
Micro-democratic principles such as consultation are designed to bring a fair go for the little guy. The latest chapter in the Balmoral Bathers Pavilion story – nine years long already – is a classic example of the way in which sustained factual distortion can turn such fine principles against both the greatest good and the greatest number.
Architecturally, you’d have to say that the building itself isn’t all that shattering. A competent work by a career municipal architect, one Mr Hale, in 1928. The elevations are prettily symmetrical, charming if you squint, in a Brighton Pavilion sort of way. The third dimension lets it down, but its place in both beachscape and beach history is unassailable for all that. The permanent conservation order (PCO) that protects the Balmoral Pav recognises its cultural, as much as architectural, value.
Whichever way you squint, though, the story makes no sense. Take one publicly owned heritage building which is much loved but leaks dramatically and is fast nearing dereliction. A private lessee proposes substantial investment in conserving and adapting the building to stylish vitality. There is otherwise no public funding in sight. The proposal neither breaches the existing building envelope nor encroaches on public space, even for a footpath cafe (barring the requisite service entrance). From the outside, you wouldn’t know the difference.
They orta be pleased. Thrilled, even. Definitely relieved, along with pressure on the public purse.
But no. Objectors have cried private profit from public space, contravention of heritage principles, architectural insensitivity, parking problems, noise problems, traffic problems and technical problems with the plan of management.
When Victoria Alexander, former art director and Vogue fashion editor, bought the remaining 11 years of the Bathers Pavilion lease at public auction in 1988, after the failure of the famous Misha’s restaurant, she expected, not unreasonably, to make some commercial use of the building.
Alexander’s lease covered the entire pavilion, including the public change rooms at its northern end. To this day, however, she may not use, but must maintain, this public space which now shelters many more health-threatening activities than figured in its design intent.
The Pavilion, further, having been drastically undermaintained throughout its 60-year life, required a sizable dose of TLC to render it fully useable. The following March, in 1989, with architect Alex Popov, Alexander lodged a development application to re novate the building, proposing a same-size restaurant downstairs and an 18-room hotel above.
Then it started. There were objectors. Not a lot, but enough. The proposal breached zoning regulations and the council, as well as some of the locals, baulked at a beachfront hotel, however boutique. The council prepared a local environmental plan for the area (1990), followed by a plan of management for the entire beachfront reserve and, after the PCO was applied in 1993, a conservation plan for the building, by architect Robert Moore.
The hotel was never going to get up. It would quite likely have been neatly self-policing in noise terms. But there were one or two technical matters, including a car park (albeit nicely planted) on public land, too many new openings in the upper storey of the sainted fabric and, well, the zoning thing.
Alexander and Popov amended the application to comply with official requirements converting the entire facility to foodie heaven. The new proposal was even more strictly respectful of both public space and aged fabric with a bar, cafe, restaurant and oyster bar downstairs and a function room and interactive local history exhibition area above in an area now devoted to the local
pigeonry, complete with beachside roof terrace. Very Noel Coward.
The council approved the development application in December 1995. A resident appealed. The Land and Environment Court upheld the approval, but in October 1996 the Appeal Court annulled it, ruling the park-wide plan of management invalid on a technicality. Nothing to do with Bathers but enough to toss the application back into the sea.
Meanwhile, another brasserie/ restaurant has materialised further down the beach: conceived, proposed, designed, built on public land at a peppercorn rental, 18 months all up, with not an objector in coo-ee.
Tonight, though, the Pav’s woes may finally be over. On advice from silk, Mosman Council has since prepared a second plan of management particular to the building. This second plan is due to come before council this very evening and, when it is approved, the development application and lease renewal will again be considered by council.
If you were the Pavilion’s mother you’d have your fingers crossed. Awful shame for a building so loved and fought over to die of neglect during the squabble but, eight years on, it’s a definite possibility. Already cracks are appearing, cheap 1920s concrete is spalling and the quasi-Moorish concrete ventilator doilies are starting to crumble.
The Popov proposal begins with a $2 million rescue package. This is council’s part of the deal, rendering the premises whole and watertight for the first time in a decade, and amortising its investment within the first half of the new 21-year lease.
Alexander’s contribution is the second $2 million for the fit-out, followed by 21 years at full market rent, including the construction period. For the public, it has to be a pretty good deal.
Architecturally, the intervention is strictly minimal. The pivoted-glass-door-and-louvre treatment which now graces the bar/restaurant will extend along the entire beachfront facade. New casements will help convert the pigeons’ room upstairs into a new local history gallery and the decorative ventilators, which are blocked, will be individually measured and reinstated.
There are no new storeys (watch my lips), no extensions, no air-conditioning, except in the kitchen. The proposal, already supported by the council, the court, the Heritage Council and the National Trust, could hardly be gentler.
Popov’s inclination has always been towards a strong traditional modernism, drizzled with Greek-island eclectic. In combination with Alexander’s evident genius for creating “feel” from artfully combined evocative flotsam and her determination to retain the barefoot beach-house quality which has distinguished the Pavilion’s last eight years, the result is very much to be anticipated.
The building itself has been leased for profit from day one when a tram to the beach, a hired cossie and a lunchtime dip was all the go. Even ignoring historical precedent, though, if the choice for the Bal Pav’s future is between deluxe refurb followed by stylish eating house (which happens to make a profit) and leaky community hall, guano-garnished, followed by rapid decline, you’d have to say this is the rescue package of a lifetime. Too good by far to fall foul of mere minority misinformation.
Our correction of January 21 was partly obscured by a fish. The Fisher Library at Sydney University was in fact designed jointly by the Government Architect E.H. Farmer (Ken Woolley) and T.E. (Tom) O’Mahoney.
Two Illus: Architect Alex Popov’s plans … the pivoted-glass-door-and-louvre treatment of the Pavilion’s bar/restaurant will extend along the facade.
Future prospects … a choice between a deluxe refurbishment or a leaky community hall.
Photograph by WILLEM RETHMEIER