Is this an ugly, unloved building? The SMH thinks so in its article of late last year after plans were outlined to redevelop the 1964 built Ryde Civic Centre with twin towers more than three times the height of the existing structure. I personally have driven past this building on many occasions, and always marveled through my foggy car window (foggy from the haze of constant traffic along Lane Cove Rd.) at its retro form, simple yet elegant lines and concave glass filled facade, reminiscent of the AMP Buildings at Circular Quay, the first skyscrapers of Sydney. Perhaps its the 1960s modernity of the design I admire, or the sheer smart municipal feel of it all. Perhaps part of what I find easy on the eye is the seemingly appropriate and sympathetic scale of the building to the surrounding streetscape, which is more than can be said for its planned replacements, two World Trade Centre-like monstrous tower blocks of 24 storeys each, accompanied by smaller podium buildings, for a total of 500 units, 600 car spaces, and a whole lot of extra congestion added to this already choking stretch of main arterial road.
What makes the plan even more shadowy is that motor transport will be the only mode of transport available to the inhabitants of these new skyscrapers, as there is no railway station nearby at all, a factor that would normally veto such a densely packed development in the first place. And as for open space, good luck trying to find that in the area. The road it fronts is the second busiest in the city of Sydney.
So who is the culprit, trying to rezone this parcel of public land and the raise the level of building heights up to the sky and pack in ever more rate-paying residents to this overcrowded precinct? It’s Ryde Council… Well, not all of Ryde Council to be fair, they have been deadlocked 6 votes to 6 in an intriguing and divisive battle between the anti-redevelopment faction, who seem to be representing the views of 99 percent of the constituents, and the pro-redevelopment, who are more interested in blocking the views. The Mayor, Artin Etmekdjian has used his casting vote on more than one occasion, quite controversially, to pass the motion of redevelopment, when he should in fact, in a matter of deadlock, use his casting vote to maintain the status quo.
From an outsider’s perspective, the deal is a crafty one. Ryde council hands over 60 percent of the land to Lend Lease at ‘market rate’ together with a loan of a reported 35 million dollars to help finance the development. In return, council changes the zoning of the land and throws the height controls out the window thereby increasing its assets from $18 million to $79 million. So, I guess the only real losers are the residents of Ryde and people of greater Sydney. Indeed, why wouldn’t any council go ahead and follow suite knocking down their own council chambers to build highly lucrative residential skyscrapers in their place?
And it gets uglier… The council appears to be on the verge of collapse, with members walking out of meetings, tensions boiling over, erupting in the extraordinary motion to sack the general manager of Ryde Council John Neish by the anti-redevelopment camp, in a move to hold over negotiations until after September’s local elections, when they feel they would have the numbers to scrap the land deal with Lend Lease, and pursue other more community-acceptable avenues. And so it should be; the elections are now so close and this is a very big issue for Ryde residents and anyone who uses Lane Cove Road/Devlin St. for commuting.
Residents are clearly not happy, as this can be seen to be a massive overdevelopment which lacks the rail transport infrastructure needed. More than 2000 letters of objection were written regarding the proposal. Labor Cr Jeff Salvestro-Martin said “The community is a very important stake holder in this whole process, and until now they’ve effectively being ignored. When you think that this is actually a civic centre… you would think the community is a very important stakeholder in that. We need strong leadership, someone to stand up and say, you know what, we actually haven’t got this right. We need to go back to the drawing board, re-examine this proposal right from the start.” Recently the anti-redevelopment faction have put forward a motion to establish a community advisory committee consisting of four sitting councilors and members of the public.
Hats off to the six councilors who haven’t bowed down. We can only hope that come election time things will change for the better in Ryde. People have had a gut full of this, seeing their suburbs turned into high density concrete blocks for the profits of multinational developers and self indulgent councilors. Developments like this change our city forever, and they are becoming far too commonplace in cities like Sydney in this day and age. This is one instance where acting with your vote may produce a more favorable outcome for the community. Unfortunately the fate of the wonderfully modernist Civic Centre is probably to become rubble no matter which way it goes at the election, as the anti-Lend Lease development camp haven’t pursued an Interim Heritage Order option even at this desperate stage. So Ryde will end up losing its landmark Civic Centre and gaining new towers either way, its just a question of size.
I for one don’t think its an ugly building at all, and would love to see the Ryde Civic Centre retained as a piece of 1960s urban engineering – from a time when our city was young, and what was important was how people lived, and how they interacted within their city, not how many you could fit into small concrete boxes rising unrealistically over the gentle surrounding suburban landscape. We need to conserve outstanding examples of this era of municipal building as much as any; together with other styles and genres of great architecture they knit together to form a rich tapestry of the building of our city over many generations, of the civic pride we once felt as a community, of what Australia really stands for. And that, stone by stone, is slowly being eroded from our common view.
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Main image , a beautiful shot of the Leslie J. Buckland and Druce designed Ryde Civic Centre by Peter Miller, onthewaterphotography.
This is the curious case of the mayor, the fire and the mosque that would be… Now listen carefully, it may seem like a fairytale, but no, this is true, this is what is happening in the inner western suburbs of Sydney, Australia in 2012.
Back in 2009, the mayor of Auburn Ronney Oueik bought himself a beautiful 1916 heritage-listed house known as Camden Lodge in the neighbouring suburb of Homebush from previous owners, family of the late Arthur Bush (of A.J.Bush and sons butchers). Being a self described heritage lover the home was seemingly going to good hands, but Mayor Oueik is also a property developer, and soon lodged a development application to demolish the federation mansion which strides two blocks and replace it with a new home with swimming pool, tennis court and cabana. However his application was unanimously refused on grounds that the house was in ”good condition with high intactness and integrity” and could easily be restored to protect its ”exceptional heritage, social and historical significance”.
In the heritage streetscape of Burlington Rd there was strong local opposition to the DA. A 306-signature petition was presented to the council, and resident Ms Doran said neighbours were dismayed by what they claimed was a lack of maintenance and “demolition by neglect” of the property by the new owners. “When you first saw the house it had a beautiful garden, it was a beautiful home,” she said. “They bulldozed the garden as soon as they bought the house.”
Mayor Oueik argued that the renovations to restore Camden Lodge to its former glory would be cost-prohibitive, despite the fact he found 2.5 million AUD to buy the property in the first instance. So we have a heritage-listed mansion, in a heritage street, held in high esteem by residents and council alike, and one angry Mayor. Now this is where our story gets a little skewed…
Neighbours started noticing things happening here. Trees were removed from the heritage gardens and not replaced, leadlight windows had gone missing. When questioned the Mayor said he had left the windows open to clear out the bad smell of the house and gone for the day, when he came back they had mysteriously disappeared. But then came the worst news. On the night of January 30 2012 a fire suddenly ripped through and gutted the 95 year old mansion, caving in the roof and leaving it in a state of disrepair. Fire crews and Police investigated and opened a crime scene on the site citing suspicious circumstances.
Since that time the house has stood, uninhabited and burnt out, but the debate continues. Mayor Oueik campaigned again to push ahead with demolition, but Strathfield Council rightfully believe the house can and should be saved, and that the damage is not beyond repair but rather that the home remains structurally sound. Cr Oueik was asked to restore the property in 60 days and additionally, place tarpaulins over the hole in the roof to stop weather affecting the building’s internal structure. But since then it was reported the tarps were still not erected.
“If it’s rejected I have a buyer to buy it and what they do with it is up to them,” Mr Oueik said. “I also said to council if you’re so concerned with heritage why don’t you buy it and give it back to the community, but they weren’t interested.” He said the house was not insured at the time of the fire and he couldn’t afford to restore it. He also claimed “I love heritage, that’s why I bought this house. But its not safe to live in.”
But there was to be one more twist in this story. Undeterred by being foiled twice on his demolition plans, Mayor Oueik issued an ultimatum to the council and the community, saying he would turn his house into a Muslim prayer hall if he wasn’t allowed to knock it down. And as if a threat to make good on this promise, he has been seen showing men in traditional Muslim robes around the property. “He’s told us he will be selling it to a Muslim community organisation which wants to use the site as a prayer hall. We don’t need that in the street” one neighbour said to the Daily Telegraph.
But others, like Marlene Doran, who has lived in Homebush for 60 years and is the archivist for the heritage society were less sympathetic, saying the threat to sell the house to turn it into a Muslim prayer hall was nothing short of disgraceful. “This is a threat to get the neighbours onside so he can demolish,” she said. “It’s disgusting. He’s done nothing whatsoever with the house. It’s demolition by neglect… It’s absolutely devastating that such a beautiful home has been destroyed. All the hard work and time we’ve put into saving and protecting this home, which is such a jewel in the precinct, has literally gone up in flames.”
So now the fate of this magnificent home, a landmark in the area, lies in the hands of engineering structural reports. What a shame it would be for this grubby Mayor to finally get his way. We believe that the house should be restored no matter what the reports bring up, and Cr Oueik should have to pay in full. Being a director of a construction company and having more than one house to his family name should help him find the required funds.
And what about poor Auburn, the council that he presides over as Mayor, what hope does heritage have there? Are these the heritage values instilled in that particular council? The Auburn City Council website reads “By preserving, displaying and restoring historic buildings, landscapes, artefacts and archaeological sites we are connecting ourselves to our past and leaving important legacies for future generations.”
Is that what you yourself are doing, Mayor Ronny Oueik, leaving important legacies for future generations? We sincerely doubt that.