08/08/2012 - 10:41

Token preservation leads to poor outcomes

08/08/2012 - 10:41


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The state needs a sensible, practicable approach to heritage issues.

The state needs a sensible, practicable approach to heritage issues.

THE former Swanbourne Hospital for the mentally ill in Mount Claremont is one of those heritage tragedies that underscores how poor we are at restoring, maintaining and reinvigorating remnants of our past.

I had cause to wander through this site recently and was dismayed at how the once-wonderful buildings have become dilapidated, including Montgomery Hall, which is an old theatre that still has some working function as a trampolining centre.

A few months ago, an article in WA Business News sought to celebrate the use of heritage buildings in Perth’s CBD to mark the opening of a number of old sites that had survived the wrecking balls of the 1960s, but had stood unloved in recent decades.

Newspaper House and WA Trustee Building on St Georges Terrace are great examples of making something old new again.

Alas, the good news was buried in a torrent of complaints. Despite our plan to write a positive story, the overall message from those involved in these developments was ‘never again’. Unfortunately, planning laws and heritage restrictions saddle developers with costs that make unviable the process of upgrading buildings for a modern function.

There is some irony in all of this. Part of the charm of old buildings is their historic nature – from a time when disabled access, fire regulations, and sustainability were not quite at the forefront of designers’ minds.

The requirement for old buildings to have modern facilities not only adds significantly to the cost, but can also remove some of that historic feel the developer is seeking. 

There has to be a compromise in seeking to take a museum piece and adapting it for modern use, otherwise developers might as well start afresh.

The big risk is that if buildings are too hard to redevelop then it likely condemns them. Owners who can’t afford to develop will let such structures fall into a state of disrepair, such that their heritage value is diminished. 

This happens all over the state. Sometimes that degree of disrepair results in a fire or some other calamity, which renders restoration near impossible. At times that appears terribly convenient for the owners, who are otherwise hamstrung by the restrictions of a heritage building on their otherwise-valuable piece of land.

While I don’t think the Swanbourne Hospital is yet a likely candidate for such an outcome, there is clearly some risk when you note the level of vandalism that has taken place inside and outside the boarded up windows and entries, not to mention the evidence of vermin habitation.

I am told one of the strengths of the structures, and a weakness for developers, is the thickness of the walls. 

Clearly in 1904, over-engineering did not add significantly to costs. 

Wandering around the site it is easy to dream about the opportunity, as so many developers do – a boutique hotel, a sports complex, home to not-for-profits, a magnificent microbrewery, a corporate headquarters for a sizeable but private company ... all of these spring to mind.

Of course, there are serious obstacles to such ideas. While the practical refurbishment of heritage buildings creates real constraints, there are other issues. Swanbourne Hospital was once a sprawling site but the land was carved up to create much of suburban Mount Claremont and John XXIII College.

Such communities, which tightly ring the remnant buildings, have a big say in what will take place within their midst. It is a pity that the suburban development of the 1980s and 1990s did not coincide with a known plan for the hospital site. A LandCorp-style development might have removed the voter element in the constraints limiting the site.

Failure to plan is not the only blame that can be attributed to the state; there is also the fact that heritage and planning laws impose public costs on private developers.

I am a strong believer in retaining heritage, but within the realms of what is sensible in terms of preservation and fair in terms of property owners’ rights.

As I look across from our offices in Northbridge there is a building site at 192 Newcastle Street where an old cottage, formerly a boarding house from the 1890s gold boom, is propped up by brick and earth ‘stilts’, while a major development goes around and under it.

In my view this is a bit of a joke. The developer is being asked to do something ridiculous to save something common. The house, surrounded by new structures, will look out of context. The cost must be outrageous. The result is most likely to be suboptimal for all.

After all, there were hundreds if not thousands of these structures; it is not as if Sir John Forrest was born in it.

If the government wants a gold boom boarding house museum from the 1890s, why doesn’t it buy one and preserve it? Even better, why not preserve a whole street to provide proper context? The state could compulsorily acquire the land or do a land swap or offer to add value to the owners who don’t want give up their assets. A rates holiday, tax breaks, amenity spending, special uses zoning – all of that could be attractive to the right people.

The state will need to be careful. Subiaco tried preservation a few years ago; all it did was create a voter mutiny, overturn the rules it had set in place, and accelerate demolition of any home that might one day be deemed of heritage value.

In my view, Subiaco would have been far smarter to have selected a street it felt was representative of what it was trying to preserve (and maybe even had a bit of history worth reliving) and negotiated with the homeowners in a way that made them better off. It is not to say that approach would be easy, but it would be fairer.

Even fairer would be to have asked property owners to nominate their home and their street as a heritage precinct. Voluntary preservation would make much more sense. 

Of course, part of that requires an understanding of what is valuable and worth preserving; not everything is. Just because something looks old doesn’t make it important. 

City of Perth has tried a fairer approach by offering development incentives to those who do preserve special parts of the city. The city has looked closely at ensuring heritage and planned usage match up, not just for the building but what is needed in the area. That means that neighbouring property owners can win too, not just the developer who gets a bigger building for retaining a façade.

Hopefully such efforts will stop token preservation. The Barracks Arch, at the end of St Georges Terrace, just reminds us all of what was knocked down in the first place, while the Loreto convent bell tower, which was moved from Claremont to Northbridge, is a ridiculous heritage orphan.

As Perth expands at a frenetic pace, we need a little more thought put into what we want to keep and what we can lose – otherwise we end up with situations like Swanbourne Hospital, a stalemate between prohibitive development cost and public nuisance.

• mark.pownall@wabn.com.au



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