You wouldn't mind losing a finger, would you?
by Peter Mac In a move strongly condemned by the National Trust, the NSW Government has entered into a secret agreement under which Sydney's Walsh Bay would lose one of its five historic finger wharves and half of its associated foreshores store buildings, as part of a redevelopment of the area. The wharves, nestled under the wing of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, have been a prominent foreshores landmark for more than 90 years. They symbolise the high point of the historic development of the Harbour in terms of its use for cargo handling purposes. The wharves and sheds form part of the turn-of-the-century reconstruction of Millers point and adjacent areas. The main road, which runs in a series of graceful curves around the small Bay, is fringed by grand sandstone retaining walls on one side, and on the other by the brick foreshores buildings, behind which lie the five wharves. A number of iron bridges span the road running from the streets above the retaining walls to the foreshores buildings. The wharves and foreshores buildings have been covered by a NSW Government Permanent Conservation Order since 1988 and are listed on the Federal Government's Register of the National Estate. The heritage report prepared for the prospective developer rated all the wharves as being of major significance. One of the five wharfs, and its associated foreshores building, now known as "Pier One" was adapted for use as a restaurant and offices several years ago. The present proposal would see one of the four other wharfs demolished and rebuilt as housing, and half of the remaining structures demolished and rebuilt for various purposes. As well as the loss of the original building fabric, the proposal would result in major intrusions in the harbour foreshores and a savage intervention in the historic Walsh Bay streetscape. The project as now proposed is the more radical of two schemes proposed by the developers, Walsh Bay Properties. The scheme as originally offered in the company's tender would have involved far less damage to the original construction, and would have seen all the wharves preserved. However, although the scheme was submitted as feasible, after winning the tender the company claimed that the deterioration of the structures was so severe that the wharves and foreshores could not be maintained. A similar claim was made several years ago in respect to the Woolloomooloo Finger wharf, but following widespread protest action the condition of the structure was reassessed and it was found that the structure could, in fact, be retained. The National Trust has claimed that the assessment of the condition of the structures is suspect, and that those scheduled for demolition have suffered no more deterioration than those to be retained. The publicity accompanying the Walsh Bay project claimed that 80 per cent of the existing fabric would be preserved. This figure conveniently includes the already adapted Pier One, which is not at issue as part of the proposed current development, and ignores the demolition of half the unoccupied foreshores buildings, which would savagely marr the early streetscape. The National Trust has pointed out that the building proposed to replace the foreshores buildings would be completely out of scale with the existing streetscape. They noted that: "the proposed residential flat building ... will be twice the height of the existing shoreshed, or equivalent to the adjoining wharves." The Walsh Bay site has magnificent views of the harbour and a most beautiful setting. It is a most favourable location for a commercial and residential development. Behind the development proposals is big money. There are many with a vested interest in this jewel of a site, including the prospective occupants of Wharf 8/9, Murdoch Magazines and Multiplex Constructions. In order to facilitate the project proceeding, the Carr Labor Government last Wednesday passed the Walsh Bay Development (Special Provisions) Bill. This effectively renders proposed court action by the National Trust against the development futile. However, the proposal still has to be approved by the Upper House, several of whose members have indicated that they would oppose the legislation. The Walsh Bay saga raises many issues, including the inadvisability of relegating full responsibility for matters of national heritage to State Governments, the duplicity and greed of property developers in dealing with national heritage, and the lack of accountability to the public inherent in secret "commercial in confidence" government tendering processes.