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Green ban might save Willow Grove

A Green Ban was served on the heritage-listed Willow Grove and 1881-built St George’s Terrace in Parramatta by CFMEU construction union to prevent contractors demolishing the premises for NSW Govt’s controversial relocation of the Powerhouse Museum. Photo: Alec Smart

by ALEC SMART

A Green Ban has been served on the heritage-listed Willow Grove villa and 1881-built St George’s Terrace cottages in Phillip St, Parramatta, by the CFMEU construction union.

The historic buildings were facing demolition for the NSW Govt’s proposed new Powerhouse Museum building. The state government’s project also involves razing the historic tram powerhouse in Ultimo, where the museum is currently sited, to construct high-rise apartments.

Most of its 500,000 exhibits would be put into storage during the estimated 5-year transition, with some ‘farmed out’ to smaller museums.

The Green Ban effectively discourages the NSW Govt from rushing ahead with their destruction scheme – like they did recently on 19 May when the iconic 1813-established Royal Oak pub in Parramatta was torn down at night, under cover of the Covid-19 lockdown, to make way for a new light rail project.

CFMEU, one of Australia’s most powerful construction unions, held a press conference at 1pm on 30 June outside Willow Grove to make their announcement, joined by representatives of the North Parramatta Residents Action Group and National Trust of Australia (NSW).

Darren Greenfield, CFMEU NSW Secretary, said: “These Green Bans mean no work can be done to destroy these historically significant sites. If the Berejiklian government wants work on the museum to proceed they need to sit down with the local community, listen to what they say and come up with a plan that preserves these buildings.

“The local community, through the North Parramatta Residents Action Group, has campaigned for years to save these two heritage buildings and they are supported by the National Trust of Australia (NSW) and the Historic Houses Association. The CFMEU is proud to stand with the community in support of this important campaign…”

Willow Grove
Willow Grove House, a 150-year-old Victorian Italianate two-storey villa with wrought-iron balconies, was originally a private villa, and later served as a maternity hospital called Estella between 1919 and 1953. It was purchased by Parramatta Council in 2015 as part of their plans for an open foreshore reserve and entertainment precinct, a proposal now suspended.

It was only in June 2018, thanks to an executive order from the NSW Parliament Upper House insisting the NSW Govt release their business plan for the Powerhouse Museum relocation, that the public were made aware (via heavily redacted documents) that the heritage-listed Willow Grove was earmarked for demolition.

In February 2020 Ms Berejiklian told NSW Parliament that “…we asked every single person who bid for the project to put forward a proposal that protected that heritage house. Unfortunately, that was not able to occur.”

The NSW Govt’s business plan costings also revealed the adjacent St George’s Terrace, a row of seven two-storey Victorian terrace houses built in 1881, were also earmarked for demolition.

Until then the riverside carpark at the core of the new site was the central focus for replacement by the new museum building, the design of which, when revealed in Dec 2019, was derided by critics as resembling a pair of white milk crates.

The Green Ban was issued on the day that the NSW Govt was scheduled to close the main display halls of the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, in preparation for its ‘relocation’ to the as yet unbuilt smaller building in Parramatta.

Due to close on 30 June, public demand for last-minute tickets was so high that the two primary exhibition halls in the heritage core – Transport and Steam Revolution – will now remain open until the end of 2020.

Campaigners against the museum’s move hope the extended opening will provide enough time for the cross-party Select Committee of Upper House MPs investigating the financial justification for the museum’s relocation to present their findings.

Documents obtained at the start of June 2020 under Parliamentary Order by the Select Committee revealed a feasibility study commissioned by the NSW Govt in March found at least 15 of the Powerhouse Museum’s largest objects were incapable of fitting into the new Parramatta building.

Some of the objects, including a 26-tonne, 170-year-old locomotive engine made of very brittle ironwork, would have to be lifted by cranes into the upper floors of the new premises. This is necessary in order for artefacts to be above surging floodwaters because the new building will be built on a recurring floodplain beside the Parramatta River.

The power station and tram depot in Ultimo due to be razed originally operated from 1899 until the closure of the Sydney tram network in 1961, and were eventually decommissioned in 1963.

Museum expert and founding director of the Powerhouse Museum, Dr. Lindsay Sharp, oversaw its original relocation to the Ultimo site in 1988 when then-derelict tram electricity generator station was skilfully adapted to a multi-level collection of exhibition halls and smaller galleries under an award-winning design.

He told City Hub in Sept 2017, “If they do get the old steam engines out, they have to be set 20-30 metres above the current river level to take into account potential flooding. How do you put a locomotive 30 metres up a building? That engineering would be heroic and very costly.”

The delay caused by the Green Ban in Parramatta might allow time for NSW Dept Planning, Industry and Environment’s appeal for the Ultimo site be listed and preserved under the State Heritage Inventory instead of torn down to make space for high-rise apartments.

Grab for real estate
Capitalising on city real estate is what most opponents of the Powerhouse closure suspect is driving the NSW Govt’s enthusiasm to destroy the Ultimo site and risk damaging priceless artefacts in the move to a much smaller building in Parramatta.

Greens MP David Shoebridge MLC said, “The closer you look at this the more you realise it’s far more about getting development on prime land at Ultimo, rather than building a world class museum at Parramatta.”

Shooters and Fishers MP Robert Borsak MLC, chair of the Select Committee investigating the costings of the move, said “There is no doubt that this is about a government grab for inner city real estate.”

Suzette Meade from North Parramatta Resident’s Action Group said residents and campaigners strongly supported the union’s imposition of the Green Ban. “For four years the community has tried to reason with Premier Berejiklian. Over this time we’ve offered solutions but they have been ignored. We will not stand by and watch as more local heritage is destroyed.

“The Premier should be under no illusion that if a finger is laid on any of these buildings, the community of Parramatta and heritage lovers from all over New South Wales, will put themselves in front of machinery to save them.

“The Berejiklian government bulldozed Parramatta’s war memorial pool, then it was the historic Royal Oak Hotel – a hotel older than Perth. This hotel was knocked down in the dead of night. Premier Berejiklian should be under no illusion; if the destruction of Willow Grove or St Georges Terraces commences people will be prepared to put their bodies in front of machinery.”

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