Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Pay to play is the name of this game
Out west they’ve peppered each other’s houses with shot and driven on. But gang warfare eastern suburbs-style is more sophisticated, if no less tribal and barely less deadly. Its latest focus, proving that salvation by silvertails equals death by another name, is White City. A tennis club.
But not just any tennis club. White City is the spiritual home of Australian tennis. Only now, with Tennis NSW gone to Homebush, it has a problem. A money problem, quickly becoming political.
Until recently, Tennis NSW owned this 4.5 hectares of prime Paddington valley. White City Tennis Club was its tenant. So when Tennis NSW left, the club was bound to find the going stony, if not broke. Many followed its stumbling progress, including Sydney Grammar, on greener pastures surveillance.
So, in 2003, Woollahra Council drafted a pre-emptive plan. A classic curate’s egg of a thing, it allowed three pockets of peripheral residential development – most controversially around the historic centre court – but demanded a 1.4-hectare public park at the centre.
All hell broke loose. Everyone, from the Greens to Clover Moore to Geoff Rundle’s Residents First opposed it, mainly for open-space reasons, and the 2004 council elections were swept by a tsunami of Save White City sentiment. Still, the club struggled to make rent. Enter tennis legend John Alexander, proffering a mega-sports complex that would, he said, save the club’s bacon. And his own.
By mid-2005 the land was sold: half to Sydney Grammar and half jointly to Grammar (77 per cent) and Maccabi, the Jewish sporting organisation (23 per cent). The northern, Grammar-owned half is now approved for school fields; bulldozers expected momentarily. The hoo-ha relates to the southern half, including the old clubhouse, stands and centre court, the car park, Alma Street access and space for 20-odd courts.
Here the plot thickens to coagulation. Accompanying the sale was a four-way agreement, dated June 29, 2005, between Grammar, Maccabi, the tennis club and Alexander. It gave Maccabi eight courts along Glenmore Road and a clubhouse funded by White City Tennis Club. For the remnant 2.5 hectares it established two options to buy; one to Alexander, exercisable by June 30 this year; the other to the tennis club, by September 30 this year.
That gave Alexander two years to find the roughly $30 million required. It seems no one expected him to succeed. While Alexander hunted, the tennis club found itself a fall-back deal, throwing in its option with the Jewish Communal Appeal, a powerful, Westpac-sponsored umbrella organisation whose many well-heeled constituent bodies include Moriah, Masada and Mount Sinai colleges, the Shalom Institute, the Wolper Hospital, Sydney Jewish Museum and Jewish Care.
The appeal’s proposal was presented to club members as their chance at buy-back. But the deal, agreed on April Fool’s Day this year, is complex.
The club may stay, sharing facilities with Maccabi for a hefty rent. But the appeal can build a function centre on the centre court, surrounded by a 30-metre curtilage and perimeter security. There’s no public access and no guaranteed club courts. As the appeal concedes “it may be necessary to reduce the number of tennis courts”.
If the tennis club defaults, which looks likely, whammo. If it suddenly comes good and wants to buy the land, it must forfeit the appeal’s building, plus curtilage, plus anything built by “any other Jewish Communal organisation” – and still pay the full purchase price, with 12 per cent interest.
At which point, re-enter Alexander, with surprise backing from Walker Corporation. Only by now the old love quadrilateral has soured. Alexander refuses to guarantee the club’s presence at White City, despite a memorandum of understanding to the contrary.
The club’s president, Geoff Simpson, having brokered the deal, begs members for help to fend Alexander off, in court if needed. Understandably, the tennis club fears Walker Corp’s motives. What they should fear more is the pincer movement into which Woollahra Council, Residents First and the Save White City mob have driven them.
It works, as strategy does, on links and exclusions; holding hands to keep us in and them out. Jewish Communal Appeal seeks charitable status for its White City operation, but is explicitly focused only on “Jewish continuity”. Maccabi, whose members must prove their Jewish faith, has developer Allen Linz working up controversial redevelopment plans for its courts at Bondi.
Linz, of Currawong fame, sits on the board of the appeal’s Jewish Care with Colin Resnick, who is also a director of White City Tennis Club. Maccabi gives thanks for its “amazing” White City acquisition to its “good friends” David Gonksi, whose bank, Investec, is Maccabi Rugby’s major sponsor and who chairs Grammar’s board; Louise Heron, who negotiated the deal, now also a Grammar trustee; and “our very own Frank Lowy”.
Alexander, criticising the deal, is strenuously accused of anti-semitism, but who’s ghetto-ing whom, here?
Sure, exclusion is what clubs do. But if you’re White City Tennis Club, wanting a hit of tennis, or Woollahra Council, wanting public access, well, April Fool you.