City News

The empire strikes back

Bourbon stands strong. Photo: Bob Huges

BY ANDREW WOODHOUSE

This week, the City of Sydney Council unanimously heritage-listed three individual major sites in Kings Cross.

The three sites are Kingsley Hall, 1A Elizabeth Bay Road, a ten-storey art deco block of apartments by famous architect Emil Sodersten, including its light well; the façade of the Bourbon Hotel with an eight-metre setback behind the famous white arches; and the “social significance” of the 1961 Empire Hotel at 32 Darlinghurst Road.

The heritage listings come after a massive whole block, 700-page DA was flung into the community’s face and lodged by developer, Sam Arnout’s Iris Capital, in December 2017, for 83 apartments and 101 car spaces with access from Barncleuth Lane, a narrow one-way street.

“The Bourbon is a pub that can be enjoyed by all,” he boasted.

Construction was slated to take three to four years.

Wall of blandness

Small businesses were aghast at the thought of going broke during the four-year construction period because of road closures and reduced pedestrian access.

But the community fired back with more than 650 objections and a 12,612-signature petition against this “wall of blandness”.

This wasn’t NIMBY-ism (not in my backyard). It was NIMBI-ism (not in my best interests).

Attended by councillors, large rallies with bands helped coalesce the community.

Dramatically, Iris Capital withdrew the DA. They’d wasted $1.5 million on their design.

“Our [planning] changes will make sure any new development in the area respects the edgy, historic and iconic characteristics of Kings Cross,” said Sydney Council Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, also opposing the developer’s scheme.

The DA was referred to the council’s high priests of planning, its Design Advisory Panel, which did not support the DA, instead recommending heritage-listing the sites.

Heritage experts agreed.

So council invoked a new Darlinghurst Road development control plan that limited rampant development, and then exhibited their three heritage-listings.

However, council’s decision this week says, “The Empire site can be demolished … and an interpretative design be approved … representing the curved facade”. This follows Sam Arnout’s 2 May 2019 submission asking that the heritage listing for the Empire be changed from “the Empire Hotel” to “The site of the Empire Hotel (not including built fabric),” because it was “too broad and open to interpretation”.

Council acquiesced “for greater clarity,” despite its previous September 2018 report by architect Neville Gruzman AM which noted the site’s “historical and social significance”. The site is the former Les Girls and Carousel nightclubs and lounge.

Councillor Philip Thalis, Clover Moore Team, expressed concern about heritage losses and the quality of constructions, asking, “Is this the best we can do?”

So council is giving a heritage listing for something it says is not worthy of retention apart from some nebulous “re-interpretation”.

What’s the point of this nihilism?

Heritage is what we want kept for its current and future significance.

And after last-minute submissions, Graham Jahn AM, council’s Planning Director, issued a memo: “The heritage inventory sheet for Kingsley Hall currently refers to the ‘tight but well-designed floor plan, giving natural light and ventilation to every room’ … This is considered sufficient recognition of the design of the floor plan, including the light well”.

It’s been suggested by local residents that this elastic approach to the Empire site is a bargaining chip in negotiations: it will satiate the developer’s money-motivated desires for high-rise apartments with harbour views. Will the Empire and Bourbon Hotel sites be a massive pub after all? We’ll see.

Pubs provide good cash flow

Sam Arnaout, aged 43, is no stranger to new pubs. He purchased the Steyne Hotel, Manly, for about $60 million. He owns 20 pubs across Sydney and major properties including his $22 million penthouse in the “Toaster”, Circular Quay. He purchased his Hunter Valley estate, Sweetwater, as a weekender, for about 12 million. Iris Capital is also part of Newcastle’s Hunter Street $700 million East End development.

All this despite starting Iris Capital only 14 years ago. IRIS stands for “Independently Rising in Strength,” he says.

“Pubs provide good cash flow …  owners are only custodians of the property.”

We’ll soon see if he’s a man of his words.

Local resident John Moyle says “Sam is being disingenuous claiming he has [already] ‘redeveloped’ the Bourbon and the Empire. He hasn’t. His claims to ‘know the locals’ are equally spurious. He doesn’t engage in the Cross at all.”

“The next DA for Darlinghurst Road will be met head-on by a fully engaged and informed local community. The operators have failed to understand the local environment,” Mr Moyle adds.

Amen to that.