Opinion by JOHN MOYLE
Property developers Abacus Group have thrown down the gauntlet to Potts Point and Kings Cross when last week they circularised the area with pamphlets outlining their intentions to begin community consultations with residents and business owners.
Writing to the residents under the cloak of the MetroProject, with no disclosure that they were in fact Abacus Group, the pamphlet directed the reader to a website of dazzling execution that was audacious in its doublespeak and negativity for the building’s future as a working theatre.
The only name attached to any email about the project was that of Julian Brophy, a self described “media influencer”.
On the other side of the debate is Metro-Minerva Theatre Action Group, formed a year ago to find a pathway to reinstall the 81 year old theatre as an active theatre.
The action group had managed just one meeting with Julian Brophy, which was described by a committee member in attendance as “hostile”.
Julian Brophy was emailed five questions from City Hub.
On the day of the deadline to the questions City Hub received a call from Cynthia Rouse, General Manager of Abacus Group, saying that there was already enough being done by Abacus to engage the community and that there would be no comment and that City Hub was not to report any of our conversation.
“Cynthia Rouse, by not wanting to talk, just shows how little community engagement they actually want and it all seems to be on their terms,” Brandon Martignago, President, Metro-Minerva Action Group said.
The MetroProject claims that it has letterboxed the entire 2011 postcode with pamphlets outlining their argument that the building is no longer fit for purpose as a theatre due to existing changes to accommodate office space for previous owner George Miller.
City Hub has spoken to two residents who live near the El Alamein Fountain in 2011 who never received the letter box drops.
Two committee members also living in the 2011 postcode have likewise received nothing from the organisation.
The pdf brochure and website are both exemplary examples of corporate razzle dazzle in that they only speak of any future of a functioning theatre in the negative and attempts to lead survey respondents into commenting on information that they could not possibly possess as the building has been quarantined from the public for almost 40 years.
The questionnaire that the community is being encouraged to engage with is very similar to the current Potts Point place score survey issued by the Committee for Sydney, except that both the MetroProject’s business and resident’s’ survey have a sting in the tail.
The residents’ survey is loaded from question 16 through to 19 and the business survey from question 12 to 16.
These questions are most likely to be answered only after reading the conservation plan report put forward by proposed architects TDK, who make the building’s current state seem like it is on life support.
Revival isn’t impossible
Any 81 year old building will have undergone many changes to its internal layout and use over its lifetime and there are many examples both locally and internationally where theatres have been brought back from near terminal conditions.
In the USA there are more than 25 theatres that have been rescued from the wrecking ball that now play vital roles in their community.
Playhouse Square in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, is now the largest performing arts centre outside of NYC’s Lincoln Centre.
The cluster of five theatres were saved through a grassroots effort and their reopening has seen a revitalisation of this part of Cleveland.
In Oakland, California, the 2,800 seat Fox Oakland was saved through the efforts of then mayor Jerry Brown and the Oakland Redevelopment Agency.
Besides running major shows in short runs, the Fox Oakland is also now home to the Oakland School for the Arts thanks to the efforts of the Friends of the Oakland Fox who helped raised $75 million for its restoration.
Examples in Sydney of theatres brought back from the brink include the Enmore and Capitol theatres.
Katherine Connor, Executive Director of Performing Arts Connections said “Performing arts facilities play a pivotal role in building cohesive, lively and prosperous communities”.
“A theatre is a flagship institution for a community and our research tells us that local governments in particular value their performing arts facilities, first and foremost as facilities that generate community welling.”
It appears that Abacus is hell bent on knocking this option out of the ring and will most likely go with what they know best, office space, for which a lot of the building has been readapted for.
“They are trying to shift the narrative from the reality and into a version where everyone in Sydney feels sorry for a developer, and they want us to vaguely believe that the developer has the best intentions, but in this case looking at the evidence it is hard to believe,” Brandon Martignago said.
Since their formation twelve months ago, the Metro-Minerva Theatre Action Group has been in conversations with the Ministry for the Arts, the City of Sydney and Create NSW to explore options for a state/private solution to the building’s future.
Its change/org petition currently has 3,500 supporters and growing.
Meanwhile the City of Sydney has voted to make a contribution to a Create NSW feasibility study on revitalising the theatre.
“The things Abacus are saying about engaging with Create NSW seem misleading after we have been talking to the Minister for the Arts for the past year and it is in no way in line with the two conversations,” Brandon Martignago said.
It appears that Abacus are following in the footsteps of the Bourbon development whereby the developer makes a token gesture to the community under the guise of community engagement which turns out to be as satisfying as spun sugar.
“If Abacus are serious about community consultation then why are they so reluctant to engage with us?” Brandon Martignago said.
As with anything to do with development in NSW any actions from the developer should carry the warning caveat emptor.
(Disclosure: The writer is a member of Metro-Minerva Theatre Action Group)