Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Heritage: own it, love it, pay for it
E M Farrelly
THE affliction that has decimated Australia’s dwindling population of heritage buildings over recent decades might well be named George Patterson’s Curse – rampant, destructive, and tenacious as buggery. Nothing un-Australian about this one, though. The particular kind of anti-history and gold-fever that brought the George Patterson saga to its spectacular finale the other week has been with us since the white man.
The George Pats immolation – expertly sited, apparently, for maximum destruction and maximum fightability – was only the latest in a long series of heritage demolitions-by-neglect that now constitutes a tradition in its own right. The Regent, the Horderns’ building, the Paris Theatre, the Burley Griffin incinerator, the AML&F warehouse: the rollcall is dismally familiar and each of the dead lamented still. Which only shows that you can hand-wring and finger-point all you like, but nothing changes, if nothing changes.
At root, like so many things, it is a question of values and priorities – that is, of money. Less than 40 years ago, many of today’s best-known architects were coasting to fame on the back of schemes to raze The Rocks for a clump of skyscrapers, while the Lord Mayor, Harry Jensen, lobbied to demolish the Queen Victoria Building for an underground car park, with fountain. The Mayor was fond of fountains.
Nowadays, both The Rocks and the QVB are among Sydney’s sweetest tourist-spots. The Rocks was saved by cross-subsidy from two high-rise hotels and a luxury apartment building, disguised as part of the CBD. Only the QVB, lampooned as a white elephant even when new, a century ago, has achieved the unachievable; a heritage building that pays its own way. Location, location, location.
Normally, it ain’t so easy. Heritage buildings always cost twice as much to restore, refurbish or adapt as any quantity surveyor ever thinks possible, and then there’s the heart-sinking business of finding a self-sustaining use which neither guts the building nor leaves it looking like Pier One (Customs House being a case in point). But the biggest obstacle – and the most serious dollar territory – is the loss of development potential.
Lost development potential is the gap between the amount of floorspace you can stuff into a heritage building – Dymocks, say – and what you could get if the building was absent from the site. Obviously, the higher the development controls, the bigger the gap. Thus, from the moment any building appears on a heritage list, however toothless or doddery that list may seem, a huge column of pressure rises invisibly above said property. The weight of this column, measurable in dollars per square inch; this, purple flowers or no, is George Patterson’s Curse. What can be done?
The first decision is whether we, jointly, really care. If not, we can knock it all down, and then start faking it with gaslights, cobbles and “heritage” street furniture, on the very plausible assumption that the coach-loads won’t know the difference and are anyway too tired to care.
It only gets really hard if we decide it does matter, that there is something absolutely keepable about our brief, built history here and not just its public face, but the whole animal – the building.
The question then is not how can we tighten the law/give the listing process teeth? The central, unavoidable question is, who will pay?
Councils, both local and heritage, snared by this conundrum toy earnestly every now and then with ways of getting “the Government” to help foot the refurbishment bill – rate, land tax or income tax rebates. depending on which layer of government you’re dobbing in. The big costs, though, are not in the refurbishment, but in the forgone development rights.
As the Independent Panel reported to the Sydney City Council in 1992, “a heritage listing is one of the few actions pursuant to planning legislation which does not compensate the party which has had its rights substantially reduced for the benefit of
the community”. In other words, money and mouth must co-locate: the community wants heritage, the community, not the individual, should pay.
Wendy McCarthy, the Heritage Commission chair, who four years ago cajoled her National Trust staff and others into a black-clad candlelight vigil outside the George Patterson building, fervently agrees: “Heritage protection is up to the community. If the community doesn’t value it, it won’t matter what bloody commissions you set up.”
McCarthy is coruscating in her disdain for “the bastards who travel all over the world gawping at other peoples’ heritage, then sit and f—ing fiddle while Patterson’s burns”. Her job, as she sees it, is “to get Australians to own their heritage, to love it”. And pay for it.
Even McCarthy would admit, though, that when it comes time to shell out, that one’s uphill.
Two illus: George Patterson House, top, and Burley Griffin’s incinerator at Pyrmont.