City News

Saving Glebe Island Bridge

Deputy Lord Mayor, Jess Scully, speaks to heritage advocates in front of the Glebe Island Bridge. Photo: Allison Hore

By ALLISON HORE

Once a world-first feat of engineering and a testament to ingenuity of industrial Sydney, the Glebe Island Bridge has been allowed to fall into disrepair over the quarter century since it has been decommissioned.

Now, community groups and local politicians are amping up their efforts to save it.

The now-disused Allan truss road bridge connects Rozelle to Pyrmont and has a swing opening mechanism to allow vessels to pass through. It opened in 1903, making it among the first electrical powered opening bridges in the world. 

The bridge was decommissioned on the 3rd of December 1995 when its behemoth neighbour, the Anzac Bridge, opened. It stands as one of the last remaining swing bridges of its type in Australia, alongside its sister bridge the Pyrmont Bridge.

To mark 25 years since the bridge’s closure, supporters of the bridge gathered at its Pyrmont end on Thursday evening to share their visions for its future. The event was organised by The Glebe Society, a community group formed in 1969 who “ensure that heritage, environment and community of Glebe is conserved”. 

Weighing in on the bridge’s plight were Greens member for Balmain Jamie Parker, Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne and Deputy Lord Mayor for the City of Sydney Jess Scully. 

Ms. Scully said while a quarter century since the bridge’s closure is a “sad anniversary”, instead of seeing it as a day of remembrance for a community asset that once was the community should see it as “the first day of the rebirth of the bridge”.

“There’s a whole generation of people who’ve never seen this bridge swing into action. There’s a whole generation of people who don’t know anything but the perilous journey of crossing [the Anzac Bridge] to get from the Inner West to the city,” said Ms. Scully.

“We see the possibility of this bridge as something that will unlock potential for communities here for generations to come.”

“Demolition by neglect”

Despite its heritage significance, and official recognition, the bridge has been allowed to fall into disrepair. It has received little maintenance and has been left with the swing span in the open position for many years to allow for the mega yachts docked in Rozelle Bay to pass through.

City of Sydney councillor and passionate advocate for Sydney’s heritage, Philip Thalis, called the government’s treatment of the bridge “a policy of demolition by neglect” and said the government seems to have no interest in keeping the bridge.

A 2009 structural assessment found the bridge in “very poor condition” and a 2013 report commissioned by the NSW government showed further deterioration. It suggested the landmark poses a hazard for vessels passing by it and there were talks of knocking it down.

A cost-benefit analysis at the time by ACIL Allen Consulting showed it would cost $12 million to fix the bridge so it was no longer dangerous to maritime traffic, and more than triple that to demolish it.

In a move which saved the bridge from the wrecking ball, Glebe Island Bridge was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register in 2013. The listing came after the heritage minister for the Liberal government at the time, Robyn Parker, broke party ranks to back the protection of the bridge. She noted that the Glebe Island Bridge and the Pyrmont Bridge were the last remaining structures of their kind in the state and “were considered great feats of engineering for the period”.

Jamie Parker said he “doesn’t often give praise to Liberal party members” but says Ms. Parker’s commitment to saving the bridge is one of the key reasons it’s still around today.

“She took that courageous decision, which politicians don’t usually like to do, to go against many in her party and say ‘we’re going to heritage list this bridge’,” he said.

Connecting the city and Inner West

After being allowed to decay for decades, the Glebe Island bridge is in need of extensive maintenance and repairs before it can be used again. But the community groups and politicians advocating for the bridge to be saved can see its potential as a thoroughfare for cyclists and pedestrians.

Representatives from peak bodies Bicycle NSW and Walk Sydney say the bridge would be a more direct route across the bay and provide a key active transport link. Mr. Parker agrees, saying the government’s decision on what to do with the bridge is representative of the city’s transportation future.

“This bridge is all about the future of our city, are we going to have a city that focuses on pedestrians and cyclists, or are we going to have a city that focuses on the car,” he said.

“It’s so important that we fight hard for this bridge, not only for its 117 years of service to our community, but for what it holds for the future of our city.”

With major redevelopments in the works on both ends of the bridge, Mr. Parker says it will provide a “desperately important link” between the city and Inner West. He said the planned Metro station at White Bay and the Blackwattle Bay state significant precinct cannot reach their full potential without this link.

“Now it’s an opportunity for us to create a cycleway link- at least- from Rozelle to Pyrmont into the city, and its reverse. And we’re in a really fantastic moment in history for it,” he explained.

“That metro station at White Bay cannot be a success if it doesn’t link here to Pyrmont and into the city. Any redevelopment at Blackwattle Bay cannot serve the people of Sydney if it doesn’t connect to Rozelle and the metro station being proposed there.”

Dollars and development

Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne said the government’s dismissive attitude towards the bridge is emblematic of a dismissive attitude towards heritage in general. Only last month NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet made headlines for standing up in parliament and declaring the heritage listed White Bay power station was a “shocking building” that “should be knocked down like the Sirius Building”

Mr. Byrne was critical of those comments too, calling them an “obscene threat” which would “constitute a crime against the heritage of Sydney”. He said the lack of understanding of the value of the power station was the same attitude the government had taken to the Glebe Island Bridge.

“This government when they look at the inner city of Sydney and the Inner West, they only see one thing. They see dollar signs, and development opportunities,” he said.

The treasurer softened on the power station after taking a tour of the site with Mayor Byrne and planning Minister Rob Stokes to learn about its history. But he doubled down on his dismissiveness of Sydney’s heritage in a tongue-in-cheek op ed he penned for the Sydney Morning Herald titled “ten iconic buildings I’d bulldoze”.

Fortunately for the power station’s future, planning minister Stokes has a much more sympathetic view towards the building. He said the department is working on a strategy for the precinct due to be completed in early 2021 and he hopes the power station will be a “centrepiece” of those plans.

Speaking of his colleague, Mr. Perrottet, Dr. Stokes said he “makes an excellent Treasurer but would make an appalling heritage architect.”

The planning minister’s support of the power station gives community groups hope he will see the potential in Glebe Island Bridge as well. Mayor Byrne noted arguments for preserving and reopening the power station and the bridge are the same- their enormous heritage value and unlocking the economic potential of the Bays precinct. 

“The government’s looking to regenerate our economy after the economic crisis and there’s no better way to do that than to open up the bays precinct to the people of Sydney and the world,” he said.

A vision for the future

What could a future for this iconic piece of Sydney’s history look like? One young Balmain local has taken it into his own hands to show how an urban renewal project focusing on the bridge might look.

Christopher Kerr recently graduated from his Masters in architecture at UTS. During his studies undertook a project of advocacy in relation to architecture alongside fellow student Jordan Bamford. That, together with his work with a Balmain architect specialising in designing for Inner West heritage conservation areas, led to the birth of the Glebe Island Bridge Renewal (GIBR).

Inspired by the revitalisation of the New York High Line in the USA, his vision shows an “inclusive”, green, pedestrian and cycling bridge where “visitors experience nature, art and design”. 

Mr. Kerr created the project with the aim of building awareness about the bridge’s plight and to show how it could be revitalised “for the betterment of the community”. He said he was always interested in the bridge and, walking along the waterfront, he thought it was a shame it was in disrepair and not “incorporated into the public space of Sydney”.

“Having grown up in Balmain, I have developed an appreciation for heritage items and the charm that they bring to suburbs,” he told City Hub.

“Items that hold or contribute positively to the local context should not be demolished in favour of redevelopment in an attempt to achieve the highest profit margin.”

What’s next?

Moving forward in advocating for the bridge, Mr. Parker said “next year will be critical”. The Department of Planning is putting together a master plan looking at the bridge and how it can work with the redevelopment of Blackwattle Bay and the Metro Station. 

Mr. Parker said he would be working together with all stakeholders, including the planning minister, to advocate for the bridge.

“I’ll be inviting all of us to work together, councils, community organisations, citizens, to bring together the weight of our collective persuasive tools to tell this government that the bridge should stay,” he said.

Ms. Scully reiterated the City of Sydney’s support for the bridge’s survival. She said many people have worked tirelessly over the past two decades to ensure the bridge avoids demolition, and the key was ensuring the next generation were also involved in the process.

“We as the community can be stronger, we can come together and collectively imagine the possibility that this bridge can unlock,” she said.

“Our challenge is to activate and energise that next generation who’ve never experienced this bridge, a human scale crossing of our harbour, just a stone’s throw from the city to the Inner West.”

Mr. Kerr agreed that young people have a role to play in the protection of the city’s heritage and built environment. He said the “decisions, campaigns or unfortunate complacencies experienced today, greatly affect those that will be inheriting these spaces and environments that we presently create.”.

“For those wishing to contribute positively to the built environment and the public space of Sydney, it would be great to start conversations, share this campaign and attend future events to help renew this important historic bridge,” he said. 

To do this, Mr. Kerr thinks starting conversations, sharing the campaign and getting involved in future events is key. He has created a petition on change.org to help get the word out about the GIBR. When there are enough signatures the petition will be presented to local council members and Transport for NSW.

The future of the Glebe Island Bridge remains uncertain. While its heritage listing offers some protection, director of Conservation at the National Trust NSW, David Burdon, told ABC Radio Sydney it’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card from the wreckers.

“We like to think that when a building is on a heritage register, or on a list, that it is protected. But unfortunately it’s not the case, and there are a number of cases where heritage listed buildings have been knocked down,” he said.

But with so many people throwing their weight behind the campaigns to save it, the bridge is certainly not going down without a fight.

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