By ALEC SMART
Bronte Surf Life Saving Club (SLSC) lays claim to be the world’s first surf lifesaving organisation and its beach the birthplace of surf lifesaving. Unfortunately, a proposed new clubhouse for this historically significant club is making waves among the Bronte community.
Until late 1903, the same year the first volunteers began patrolling Bronte Beach to help troubled swimmers caught in rough surf and rips, it was against the law in Australia to swim at ocean beaches during daylight hours. On 23 November 1903 Randwick Council became the first authority to allow daytime bathing at their beaches (which include Clovelly, Coogee and Maroubra).
This move followed the police apprehension of two men at Bondi Beach 10 days earlier for ‘bathing outside the permitted hours’. The Inspector General of Police dropped the charges, stating, “So long as bathers wear suitable costumes, and public decency is not outraged, I am unable to see that a practice permitted for so many years should be stopped..”
By Feb 1907, when Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club – which also lays claim to be the world’s first SLSC – was formed by volunteers at Bondi Beach north of Bronte, surf bathing was a popular recreation.
Clubhouse in dire state
Fast forward 110 years to 2017 and the weather-worn building that Bronte SLSC occupy, built in 1974, is in a dire state. However, a public quarrel over responsibility inhibits repair programs. Basil Scaffidi, president of the Bronte SLSC, told Sydney Morning Herald, “The current club house makes it very difficult for us to undertake the role we do and this is helping the lifeguards save lives.”
Estimating that Bronte SLSC needed around $5 million towards renovations, he said, “It’s abhorrent as you can imagine that we need to go and raise the money as we are simply the tenant… You would think it would be almost mandatory for governments to find some revenue to help them upgrade their surf clubs. Surely saving even one life, you can’t put a value on that.”
A NSW government spokeswoman explained in a statement that the surf life-saving clubs occupy buildings on Crown land for minimal rent, while responsibility for major repairs, including the roof and façade of club buildings, belongs with the ruling council and not the NSW Govt nor individual surf clubs.
The following year, in Oct 2018, the federal coalition government committed $2 million to secure the future of the Bronte Surf Life Saving Club after newly appointed Liberal candidate for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, advocated for the grant. Announced by Sharma at the Bronte Nippers just six days before the Wentworth by-election (which followed the parliamentary resignation of the former Prime Minister and incumbent MP, Malcolm Turnbull) there were dark murmurings of ‘pork barrelling’.
If so, it didn’t work, the Wentworth federal seat was won by independent Dr Kerryn Phelps with a 20 per cent swing away from Sharma’s Liberals.
Nevertheless, Bronte SLSC still needed an urgent upgrade and Waverley Council began working with them to “deliver a modern and sustainable new surf club and community facilities.” This led to a Sept 2019 announcement that they were “embarking on a proposed $9 million redevelopment of the surf club and community facilities building.”
In a statement Waverley Council declared: “The proposed redevelopment will see the existing structure demolished to make way for a new and sustainable building that will meet the needs of contemporary surf lifesaving and the wider community.
“The new building will provide fit-for-purpose lifeguard and first aid facilities, family and accessible public amenities, administrative offices, kiosk, gymnasium, function room and training and meeting rooms…”
In Oct 2019, CHROFI Architects were selected, in their words, “to provide Bronte Surf Lifesaving Club and Waverley Council with a world class, sustainable and practical Surf Club and Community Facilities for Bronte Beach with a design worthy of the Club’s status as being the world’s first Surf Life Saving Club.”
In March 2020 CHROFI submitted a design for the Bronte SLSC and adjacent public amenities, which Waverley Councillors endorsed. It consisted of a rectangular two-storey building with an upper-level balcony beneath an overhanging flat-roof. (A gaze through CHROFI’s online catalogue reveals they have a particular fondness for large overhanging flat rooves topping block-like, Constructivist-style buildings).
In April 2020, the aforementioned Basil Scaffidi, president of the Bronte SLSC, told The Beast journal, “If all goes well, a development application should be lodged in July and be on track for commencement of work in August 2021… We have the committed funds of $9 million through Waverley Council, state and federal government, and the surf club. Of course we will not know the full cost until the final design has been submitted and accepted.”
A public consultation on the proposed design, which ran from 6 May to 3 June 2020, has now ended. So far so good; so what has inspired a Change.org petition garnering thousands of signatures to “Stop the OVERDEVELOPMENT and PRIVATISATION of Bronte Beach and Park”?
A campaign group called Protect Bronte launched the petition, declaring: “Council proposes the development of a structure with a footprint that is simply TOO BIG – roughly twice the size of the existing club. This will lead to the destruction of public space and parkland in use by the broader Bronte community and beach users.
The structural overdevelopment will dominate the beachfront and significantly impact the natural aesthetic of Bronte Beach and Park…”
Rob Bruns, President of Bronte Board Riders, explained objections to CHROFI’s design in a campaign video.
“At first glance the plans look pretty cool. But due to the misleading nature of the drawings, most people don’t realise how big the surf club is actually going to be.”
Revealing that the new building will be 1.7 metres higher than the existing structure, Bruns explaied that the ‘footprint’ of the premises will also be considerably longer.
“That’s 481 square metres of new floor space over two levels. Currently, this building is home to the Surf Club, the professional life guards, the Parkies, the public toilets and the kiosk, which is run by the Surf Club. In this new plan, all this building will be just for the Surf Club and the kiosk…
“The area known as The Cube to the locals, has for generations been the spiritual home for Bronte surfers, a community area where people of all ages can meet and hang out. It’s also a heritage-nominated area, and in 1987 this became a recognised monument when a plaque was dedicated to rugby league immortal Dave Brown, whose achievements as a lifelong Waverley resident, local identity of Bronte, among the all-time greats of rugby league.
“Not only is the Surf Club gobbling up all this public space, but we’d have to find new areas for the other services and public amenities. Professional life guards are going to be moved to an inferior location underneath the stairs in the cliff. A big concrete platform and ramp will be built onto the sand.”
Bruns further revealed that the toilet block and the Parkies’ rooms will need to be relocated, so another new building will need to be constructed for them behind the new surf club building, necessitating the removal of two park huts, a community barbecue and three trees.
Bruns continued, “Most people agree that the Surf Club and surrounding amenities need an upgrade. What I don’t agree with is the idea that the Surf Club needs to be bigger. It’s empty most of the time. It doesn’t need more storage space. It doesn’t need a bigger function room. It doesn’t need additional meeting rooms acting as function rooms. It doesn’t need a bigger commercial kitchen. It just does not need to be bigger.”
Sandy, Bruns’ mother, explained to City Hub: “The thing is, the community weren’t really consulted prior to this concept plan.. One of the things I objected to is this lovely artist’s impression. It’s misleading and not clear that there is a second building behind. … It’s already a large building dominating a small beach…
“The second building, which is 265 square metres, takes away green space… They’re taking all the amenities out of the big building for the second building, so anyone using the beach who wants a shower or toilet will have to go into the park. At the moment you can access the toilet from either the park or the beach.
“Then they’re moving the barbecue and the two huts into the park, so that’s extra parkland lost. The total new site comes to about 500 square metres. For example, Wylie’s Baths [in Coogee] is about 50 square metres. So, ten times Wylie’s Baths is what they’re taking from public space to use for this.”
A pamphlet circulating around Bronte states: “Bronte Surf Life Saving Club and Waverley Council have plans to build two new buildings at Bronte Beach to replace the existing building leased by the surf club. Under their plans, the main surf club building will increase significantly in size, both in height (from 8.3m to at least 9.5m, possibly 10m) and floor space (from 1,730m2 to 2,238m2), and our beloved Cubes, as well as
other public land and amenities, will be demolished to make way for this behemoth.
“According to Council’s own figures, the space allocated exclusively for the surf club’s use will increase by 481m2 – which is just insane – and the community will have over 500m2 of public space taken away and effectively privatised.”
Ingrid Strewe, local resident and Bronte Surf Club stakeholder, wrote a letter of appeal to Waverley councillors in which she stated that aesthetic, heritage and environmental reasons are among the principle concerns of people objecting to the CHROFI plans, as well as financial – she estimates there may be a funding shortfall of up to $5 million.
“We want the toilets and change rooms to be accessible from the beach by beach users as well as from the park by park users – as they are currently,” she said. “As parents and users we know it is not a great imposition to walk from the playground to the toilets in their current position.
“This is a local surf club on a small beach in an amphitheatre. We want to see all existing public facilities retained in the one building. We do not concede the Surf Club need increased function room space to continue their service to the beach going public, their members and locals.
“It’s unfortunate that Council has ignored the limited public consultation undertaken where participants agreed that the natural environment was to take precedence.”