Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
The games people play with history
Cries of “heritage” could be hiding the self-interest of the already well-off, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
White City. The name conjures that muted thwock-on-thwock frisson of courts, pleated whites, white shoes.
Even now, in deserted grandstands, the air around centre court resounds with the old decades of champagne and megaphone. But the name doesn’t belong in tennis at all. Sydney’s original White City wasn’t even a sporting institution but a World War I confection in chicken-wire and plaster-of-paris, named for a London original; a fair-weather amusement park that brought three summers of fantasy rides, highwire artists and brass bands to Sydney’s eastern suburbs before burning to the ground after being hit by lightning in 1917.
It wasn’t tennis, it wasn’t permanent, and it definitely wasn’t serious. Now, though, a very serious debate has arisen over keeping White City permanent and keeping it, as it were, white.
Blame Homebush. From 1921 White City was home to the NSW Lawn Tennis Association (now Tennis NSW), as owner, and from 1948 to White City Tennis Club (WCTC), as lessee.
Then came the Olympics, and everything changed. Tennis NSW committed some $18 million to the International Tennis Centre on Rod Laver Drive, Homebush, moving in when Olympia moved out. Which left the WCTC with three grandstands, a clubhouse, ample parking, three or four dozen private courts, a long lease (with cancellation clause) and a nasty insecure feeling about the future.
The nasty insecurity intensified when, in September 2001, Tennis NSW snuggled up with the developer Manboom and lodged with Woollahra Council a proposal to redevelop parts of the site for residential and commercial purposes, and a request to rezone accordingly. That really made the locals see white.
Since then the argy-bargy has been pretty relentless. Tennis NSW wanted almost 14,000 square metres of new development; council staff thought 10,200 sq m made a better contextual fit.
The council, acutely aware of public sentiment, sent the staff back to extract some “meaningful public benefit” from the developer, in accordance with council policy; the developer said “no way” it they provide public open space for so little benefit. A compromise was reached and a new proposal, allowing 12,400 sq m of development in exchange for 1.45 hectares of public open space, exhibited. But the public was insatiable, and after 178 written submissions, the council has again quailed at the net, opting instead for a public hearing. That’ll buy a couple months’ breather. Maybe three.
It’s become a classic Sydney stoush, with the haves’ self-interest variously and vociferously disguised as concern for urban design, traffic, open space, heritage, interests of the sport and universal eco-altruism. Any port in a hard match. But do they have a point, match or otherwise?
Well ye-e-e … no. Not really. The site is a picturesque part of the old Lecrosier Valley, falling through Trumper Park, White City and Rushcutters Bay to the sea, a former swamp transected by an overhead railway and an open stormwater channel. Despite spanning from Glenmore Road to New South Head Road, it is largely landlocked by lower-Paddington terracelands and surprisingly easy to miss.
The proposal as it stands allows five buildings, dubbed A through E, tucked around the edges of the site. The biggest, building A, rises six to seven storeys on New South Head Road taller than the existing petrol station (across less than half the frontage) but little more than half the height of the adjacent Bayside apartments.
Building B is a smallish three-storey block at the end of Walker Avenue, carefully moulded around a stand of brushbox and designed to suit the terraced street. C, D and E sit around the old centre court, as retained, on the existing grandstand footprints. E is a new, two-storey WCTC clubhouse, while C and D each present three above-ground storeys (car parking under) to the Glenmore Road and Grammar Prep School frontages, respectively.
The public open space, in quid pro quo, is all that land almost a third of the site north of the stormwater channel and south of the railway. It’s a decent-sized bit of dirt, very pretty, and comes equipped with enough public rights-of-way to provide the first real pedestrian links from Trumper Park to Rushcutters. The cost of landscaping, moreover, sits with the developer while ownership, use and management rest with the public authority.
Doesn’t sound like such a bad deal, considering that it’s private property, and all. So what of the contra-arguments?
Well, the traffic thing’s a beat-up, for one, since residential development falls in the lowest-possible traffic-generation category. Way lower than sports facilities, and less volatile.
Urban design? I reckon it’s hard to get shocked by three to seven storeys in inner-Sydney these days, even in Paddo. Open space, then? Surely Paddington could do with public open space? Who couldn’t? But need?
Officially, Woollahra municipality weighs in at a mere 1.4 hectares per 1000 persons (not counting the harbour or Centennial Park, of course), compared with Leichhardt’s 1.7 and Mosman’s 2.9. It’s even conceivable Woollahra may be under the metropolitan average. But then it isn’t exactly a sink of underprivilege. You live in the inner city, you get a whole swag of goodies you don’t get in Penrith or Sutherland. Physical access, plus the other sort.
Which leaves the really murky issue: heritage. Not that there’s any doubting the history of the place. Part of an original 40-acre (16.2 hectares) grant to William Thomas in 1817, the lower Lecrosier Valley was occupied by the Thomas dynasty, Chinese market gardens, the Sydney Stadium, the Aerated Bread Company, Sydney Croquet and Recreation Lawns Ltd
and White City amusement park, in that order, before tennis took over.
Since then it has hosted Australia’s first women’s championship singles (1922), first electric scoreboard (1952) and first televised competition (1957). Not to mention Fred Perry, Ellsworth Vines, Rod Laver, John Newcombe, Evonne Goolagong, Pat Cash, Patrick Rafter, Pete Sampras, Monica Seles and the rest; the list is long and impressive. But is history the same as heritage? Should we preserve a place simply for hosting history? Does it really make sense to embalm every spot where Napoleon or Bennelong or Bob Hawke slept, ate, peed? Or should we focus rather on a site’s intrinsic value as place, be it spatial, aesthetic, or ecological? Of course, the modern heritage industry shrouds such questions in mission statements, numbered objectives and the micro-criteria of quasi-rational evaluation. So micro, indeed, so reluctant to discriminate that in the end just about anything qualifies.
At which point one becomes almost thankful for plain old pragmatism. For while the locals may be much taken with the 4.5 hectares of essentially empty space in their midst making no noise, producing no traffic, blocking no views it’s not actually public space. Small point. Easily overlooked. White City is private property; property is a commercial entity.
Recognising this, the NSW Planning Act gives its very second objective as the “promotion and co-ordination of the orderly and economic use and development of land”, making the economic development of land every bit as valid a planning principle as
the protection of public benefit. (Ideally, the first can even be persuaded to pay for the second since keeping an iconic tennis site isn’t exactly revenue neutral.) This is excruciatingly obvious to you and me, and would be to the good burghers of Woollahra, too, from the other side of the net.
The late philosopher John Rawls advised us to adopt, for decision-making purposes, a “veil of ignorance” ignorance, that is, of one’s own self-interest. Nice thought. Of course, if your regulation burgher were up to such altruism, we wouldn’t need government, local or otherwise. And in any case government, in my view, is performing a very plausible highwire act over there at White City. But skill and judgment provide only bread: the public must have its circus.
White City’s Amusement Park may have burned to a cinder almost a century ago but the one thing we now know for sure is that its ghost is with us yet.
FOUR ILLUS: Court in the act …
the glory days of White City tennis centre, in 1954, left, and in 1999.
Not yet set and match …
neighbouring Paddington protesters Penelope Roberts and Bruce Dynan and an early entrance to the complex.
Photo left: Jon Lister