Wednesday 18 October 2017

Brutalism four: Bidura Children’s Court

This is the fourth in a series of blogposts on Sydney brutalist buildings. This property in Glebe has been sold by the state government to a developer who wants to demolish it and build apartments and townhouses.

Sydney is growing and so the NSW government is in a rush to meet demand for housing. In a story in Domain recently:
“We cannot afford in Sydney to wait around to develop new housing,” [Planning and Housing Minister Anthony Roberts] said [on 15 September]. “The population of Sydney is increasing by about 100,000 people each year and to accommodate it we need to ensure we have a diverse range of housing stock, close to public transport."
Since his government came to power six years ago, over $9-billion-worth of government-owned property has been sold for development. While development applications (DAs) continue to be approved by local governments, there is also a state government instrument used for development, the Sydney Local Environmental Plan 2012, which sets out the kinds of development that can take place in given areas. In addition, the Draft Central District Plan (2016) of the Greater Sydney Commission, an independent organisation funded by the NSW Government, sets out housing targets.

In this plan, Sydney’s Central District – which includes the suburb of Glebe - has a five-year target of 18,300 dwellings. “The Department of Planning and Environment’s projections of population and household growth in Central District for the next five years translate to a dwelling need of 42,900 dwellings” says the draft plan, which adds however that the actual targets it has set in the plan go beyond those projections “owing to the current strong housing market”.

“It is important to address pent up demand that has resulted from past undersupply,” the document goes on. “It is also important to address housing choice and affordability and provide supply to the talented workforce that is needed to contribute to the Central District’s global city aspirations and needs.”

“The draft Central District Plan [seeks] to create great places through design-led planning that integrates urban land use and transport as key elements of a people-centred, sustainable and liveable environment,” the developer’s report says. “The application contributes to the creation of a great place in Glebe by enabling redevelopment of the site as a high quality mixed use development that conserves the existing heritage item, respects the heritage conservation area setting, integrates with the existing environment, has minimal impacts on surrounding development and public domain, and provides high amenity for future residents.”

The proposed development meets locality statement requirements in the NSW government’s Sydney Development Control Plan 2012, says the developer’s report, because the 19th century streetscape will be retained and reinforced. GBA Heritage (formerly Graham Brooks and Associates) says that the brutalist Bidura Children’s Court, also known as the Metropolitan Remand Centre (MRC), has little heritage significance.

A contextual response to an historic urban setting

Design for the MRC was undertaken by the Tertiary Education Buildings Section, Government Architects Branch (GAB), Department of Public Works, initially under Charles Weatherburn, government architect. A perspective sketch had been prepared by May 1977. Westherburn was succeeded by John Whyte (Ian) Thompson in February 1978.

Project architect for the department on the MRC project was Andrew Milcz. A report commissioned by the City of Sydney Council from Clive Lucas, Stapleton and Partners (CLSP) says about Milcz:
Andrew Milcz trained at the University of NSW graduating about 1972 joined the NSW Government Architects’ Branch in 1974 and worked with Colin Still, Brian MacDonald, Peter Moore in the public building section. He designed Bidura under the general supervision of the Principle Architect for the Tertiary Section, Les Reedman, who signed some of the drawings in addition to the NSW Government Architect. Following his work on Bidura he continued to work at the Government Architects’ Branch in many of its design sections including Corrective Services and Psychiatric Hospitals.
The office worked with architects Behne, Ritchie and Hart, consulting architect Philip Diment, structural engineer Lehmann and Taty Pty Ltd, and consulting structural engineer John Harrison Engineering Consultancy Pty Ltd.

The new building would replace the Metropolitan Girls’ Shelter (which had a capacity of 25) located at the far end of the block, as well as the Metropolitan Boys’ Shelter in Albion Street, Surry Hills (which had a capacity of 35). The girls accommodated would be in the 12-18 years age category, and the boys would be in the 16-18 years age category. The CLSP report continues:
The building of the MRC was one outcome of changes to the child welfare system initiated in the mid to late 1970s under the reformist platform of the first Wran Labor government with the infamous Rex Jackson (1928-2011) as Minister for Youth and Community Services between 1976 and 1981. These changes included: in 1977 an amendment provided additional protection to child offenders while being interviewed in police stations; 1979 being the International Year of the Child heightened public awareness of children’s issues generally and the Australian Law Reform Commission issued a report in 1981 on “Child Welfare”. 
A Green Paper issued in 1978 (the “Jackson” report) opened with this comment – “It has been recognised for a number of years by all political parties that State laws relating to child and community welfare are in need of thorough revision.” A review of the proposals in the green paper and further submissions led to a failed Community Welfare Bill 1981. The Community Welfare Act 1982 was passed but only minimal provisions were proclaimed to commence. Already substantial amendments were proposed to that largely unproclaimed Act and by mid l986 the project had stalled. The experience of these earlier apparently cumbersome proposals led to reforms being introduced in a package of Bills in 1987. The enactments included the Children’s Court Act l987, the Children (Criminal Proceedings) Act 1987, the Children (Community Service Orders) Act l987 and the Children (Detention Centres) Act 1987.
The original budget was $4,771,600 for construction work, which was further broken down to structural and civil work, hydraulic services, and mechanical services, but this increased to just over $5 million. Demolition commenced on the site in February 1978. Rex Jackson appeared on Channel Ten in March for an onsite interview.

In June 1978 a DA was submitted to Leichhardt Municipal Council. It was presented personally to the mayor and town clerk by officers of the Department of Public Works in company with the assistant director, Department of Youth and Community Services. The council granted consent to the development in October 1978. A document from the department in the NSW records, which I consulted for the purposes of writing this blogpost, says:
Every effort has been made in the design of this complex structure, to achieve a quiet and low-profile integration with the building’s surroundings. The domestic scale of the buildings in adjacent Avon Street and Ferry Lane has been very sensitively appreciated, and the profile of the Centre has been arranged to preserve this scale by stepping the building back and limiting its height much lower than the adjoining tower buildings. In fact, the earliest scheme … was reduced in height and form, in response to general criticism and in particular informal reaction from the Glebe Society.
Minister for Planning and Environment Paul Landa wrote a letter to Jackson asking him to make sure that Bidura House, which had been listed by the National Trust, was retained. The DA was approved on 5 October. A story in the Sydney Morning Herald appeared the next day in which residents were quoted not only objecting to the development, but claiming that they hadn’t been consulted about it. A spokesman for the Department of Public Works denied there had been any secrecy.

The new building would provide short-term remand accommodation for 50 male and female young offenders and facilities including “a clinic and assessment unit, kitchen and dining room, educational recreation areas, general office [space] and basement parking. Accommodation [was] also provided for two children’s courts with legal aid, police prosecution and Department of Youth and Community Services court offices [and] a multi-purpose [recreational] hall with stage and gymnasium adjoining and external courtyard pool,” according to the developer’s conservation management plan and heritage impact statement.

The building would also include a medical treatment room, a laundry, kitchens, a dental clinic, remedial teaching facilities, a tea room for police and also for departmental staff, a matron’s quarters, the superintendent’s quarters, the deputy superintendent’s office with a clerical office attached, two offices for psychologists, a cleaner’s store, and interview room/alcove for the clerk of the court, a legal profession room, and interview rooms for solicitors.

A letter from the Department of Youth and Community Services to the Department of Public Works dated 12 November 1978, says:
The question of the provision of an auditorium in the abovementioned complex has been further examined by Senior Departmental Officers following discussion with your Mr. A. Milcz on Tuesday, 8 November 77 and it is considered the development of a multi-purpose building at the Girls’ Shelter site would have greater advantage in the long term. Because of the restricted nature of the site, areas for both internal and external recreational activities are extremely limited and it is proposed that you include, in the overall plan, a building which would serve the dual purpose of providing accommodation for approximately 300 people and also provide an activity area for both wet weather and evening activities. It would be desirable that the ground floor of this building would be sufficiently large to enable indoor basketball to be played.
The excavation contract was let on 9 October 1978, envisaging 10 weeks’ duration. The Department of Public Works let the tender for construction in March 1979.

The MRC started operations in May 1983 and “within a month or so, however, there were 42 escapes” according to the developer’s LEC submission. “This was ascribed to the difficulty of securing such a large building; the Bidura House group was also used for ‘open remand,’ and experienced fewer absconding.” Further, in 1984 the Department of Youth and Community Services “developed alternative programs for young offenders, emphasising community integration and decentralised, small-scale facilities”. The MRC ceased operation as a young offender unit in February 1985.

Above: Scale drawing of the site prior to the MRC being built, showing ownership by the Child Welfare Department for use as the Home for State Wards. The Girl’s Hostel building is visible at the back of the block, on Avon Street. It is clear that most of the block was kept as open space at this time.

The Bidura Children’s Court closed permanently in July. Operations moved to Parramatta while waiting for the newly-rebuilt Albion Street, Surry Hills, courtrooms to be opened.

Despite the fact that the MRC was listed this year on the Institute of Australian Institute of Architects’ (AIA) Register of Significant Buildings, GBA Heritage recommends in Vision Land’s LEC report that the Sydney City Council approve the application. The MRC has also been listed by the National Trust.

The AIA listing document says the MRC was designed in consideration of its historic urban setting. “Particular care was taken to ensure that the scale and nature of the existing Victorian streetscape of terrace houses was respected in the articulation of this building.”

The MRC is also the only in-situ cast concrete Brutalist courthouse in NSW, the listing document goes on. “As a unique Brutalist period building, undertaken by the NSW Government Architect’s Office during the height of its creative output, reveals how the [tenets] of Brutalism, that recognised important social and public uses built with an attention to detail, was applied in the design of a contextual response to its historic urban setting. This is a rare and relatively intact late modern architectural building that meets the criteria of state heritage listing.”

The document says that the MRC has important heritage value in exhibiting particular aesthetic characteristics. “It has aesthetic significance as being a rare, representative and fine example of the late Brutalist architectural style, especially in its application to the court house building type and in its use of off-form concrete and its picturesque massing of stepped forms, terraces and cylindrical elements intended to minimize its impact on the neighbouring historic precinct.”

The MRC’s AIA heritage listing also hinges on its:
  • demonstrating the principal characteristics of a particular class or period of design, 
  • establishing a high degree of creative achievement, having important monumental and symbolic heritage value to the development of architecture and the history of architecture, 
  • having a special association with the life or works of an architect of importance in our history or other person of importance to the architectural history of NSW
  • demonstrating a high degree of technical achievement of a particular period.
Conservation and refurbishment work was also done on the 19th century era Bidura House Group of buildings by the Department of Public Works in 1989. The works, which were estimated to cost $40,000 at the time the DA was submitted to Leichhardt Municipal Council, involved making a total of 330 square metres of office space, hearing, interview, and conciliation rooms. The buildings (including the Blackett ballroom) would house 14 fulltime employees hearing 4 to 5 cases per day. The works went ahead in the face of objections from local residents. The buildings were already classified by the council at the time as an Item of Environmental Heritage.

The city council has reservations about the DA

NSW’s Coalition government put the site up for sale in 2014 and it was sold for $33 million. In a December 2014 media release, Minister for Finance and Services Dominic Perrottet said the sale was “a significant win for government and for taxpayers”, remarking that “up to 100 units” could be built there.

Glebe residents were vocal in rejecting the developer’s DA, however. At a meeting held on 24 November 2015, Greens MLA for Balmain Jamie Parker said that the planned development was “a direct result of the privatisation agenda of the NSW government that puts one of our area’s most important heritage buildings under the hammer”.

“Bidura was the largest disposal of residential property in 2014 by the state government and sold for more than $33 million to two property developers, Lina Jin and Yuelai Zhou, who own ACC Development,” he went on.

“There were a lot of people there,” Jenna Reed Burns, a local resident, told me in September. “And after that we tried to keep local people informed and we all sent in submissions to the first DA. I think we received roughly about 120 submissions, all objecting to the development. We then followed that up early in 2016 with a petition we put together and we got 1521 signatures which is one of the largest petitions Sydney City have ever received.

“Around 800 or 900 of those signatures were local residents, and then people who visit Glebe on the weekends, mostly from nearby suburbs. We would stand outside Bidura on the weekend and collect the signatures. To try and get council behind us, and particularly Clover Moore, I made up a very big map of Glebe by cutting and pasting and stitching together smaller maps, so it shows every house in Glebe, every property. And I coloured it all in according to who had signed the petition. That was also tabled at one of the council's meetings. And that really got her looking, because elections were last year and she realised that there was a lot of community anger about this development, and concern.”

Reed Burns wrote a heritage assessment report about the brutalist building when she saw that the DA said it wasn’t worth saving.

“I’ve lived behind the building for ages but not really looked closely at it, so I had a walk around and I started to think, ‘There’s something really quite wonderful about this building.’ And I tracked down the original architect, who’s still alive, and interviewed him. He came and met with me, showed me some wonderful photos of it when it was first completed. So, then I wrote an alternative heritage assessment that said it was significant and worth saving, and I sent that to council. And I also got in touch with the then-president of the [AIA], he also rang council and said, ‘I think you need to take this seriously and get an independent heritage assessment done’.”

Sydney City Council then commissioned Clive Lucas, Stapleton and Partners to do an independent heritage assessment. They also found that the building was significant.

The council had a lot of reservations about the DA and asked for a number of things to be changed. Areas of contention were numerous. The list included the impact of the development on Bidura House; impact on a heritage conservation area; floor-space ratio; height, bulk and location of towers; height of terraces; building separation; overshadowing of Ferry Lane properties; amenity of proposed residential units based on the reference scheme; footway to Ferry Lane and addressing the public domain; private open space; removal of trees; traffic; impacts on groundwater; and that the approval would not be in the public interest.

The LEC refused the application in September 2016 but developer Vision Land made a new DA.

“And again, council then advertised it and sent letters out to everybody,” Reed Burns told me. “Because it’s such a big development they again gave us a month to respond. Normally, with a DA you only get two weeks. We were given a month. The day after submissions closed was 41 days after Vision Land had lodged the second DA, and the developer went straight back to the LEC without hearing a thing from council. Went straight back to the LEC and said, ‘I’ve heard nothing, my statutory 40 days is up, it’s another deemed refusal.’ Because this was the second time round, council are now - not forced, but more or less obliged – to have to attend this first hearing, which is a one-day conciliation hearing.”

The one-day hearing will take place in November.

“But in the meantime, the developer has already gone back to court and applied for a full three-day hearing as well. She wants to get in the queue rather than waiting for the conciliation hearing to happen - and finding that there again is no conciliation, which she knows there won’t be, and council knows there won’t be - so she has also lodged a request for a full three-day hearing.”

That three-day hearing will take place in February.

Responding “intelligently and sensitively” to the urban context

The new DA specifies 9 x 2-storey plus attic terrace dwellings (3 bedrooms each) and a 7-storey apartment building containing 73 apartments (20 x 1-bedroom, 50 x 2-bedroom, 3 x 3-bedroom) with a 2-level basement, and associated site works. As well as 94 off-street parking spaces. In total the design specifies 82 dwellings. Proposed cost of development is $29,060,507.

The design document by architects DKO of Redfern talks about responding “intelligently and sensitively” to the location and urban context. “As Glebe evolves further to meet changing conditions, it is vital that its architecture and built fabric changes too; preserving those qualities that give identity to place, while responding to the needs of a new generation.” It notes that this development will be “urban infill”, and responds to the challenges of this strategy “with a design that mediates between the scale of the large housing blocks and the fine grained historic terraces in the area”. The document notes that the site is within a couple of hundred metres of a light rail station.

The site has variable maximum permissible building height, following the Sydney Local Environmental Plan (LEP) 2012. “The 27 metre maximum permissible building height is to be setback 15 metres from the site boundary adjacent to Glebe Point Road and 50 metres from the site boundary adjacent to Avon Street (at the rear of the site).”

“To ensure the new development does not visually overpower the heritage items located on site, the building envelope will not be visible over the ridge line of Bidura House from across Glebe Point Road.”

The document says that the response to solar “will only improve or meet the minimum solar access requirements for neighbouring private open spaces”. The architectural drawings show that the planned terraces would go down Ferry Lane and on Avon Street, at the rear of the site. The long section in the plans shows that the structures come in under the maximum building height for the site according to council guidelines.

“Right next to the site, unfortunately, are two very unattractive white seven- and eight-storey tower blocks that were built during the very shonky Askin era, that should never have been allowed to be built,” Reed Burns told me. “And according to council’s heritage and height maps, that site, where these two tower blocks are – if they fell down, let’s say – they would only be allowed to be rebuilt to three storeys. But unfortunately, because of these two very tall towers the developer of the Bidura site thinks that she therefore should be able to build something as tall.”

Reed Burns thinks that the NSW government raised the allowable height for the site before selling it in order to get a better purchase price.

“The Bidura Children’s Court is part of the Glebe Point Road Conservation Area,” she told me. “The Glebe Point Conservation Area, which is a separate one, wraps right around the site. [The developer has] got to abide by those sorts of controls, which they’re not doing.

“And that’s why council objected when the state government said right at the start, apparently, that they were going to change the LEP height and density limits for the site. The height in the [Development Control Plan], as I said before, is limited to five storeys or eighteen metres, and the density is limited to 1:1, the [floor space ratio]. And they said to council, ‘No, we want to change that to an FSR of 1.5:1, and a height of 27 metres.’ Council objected strenuously about that and yet they went ahead and did it.”

Possibly to allay community concerns, the NSW government in August added the Bidura House Group to the State Heritage Register. Residents appreciate this action but are concerned that the MRC was removed from the curtilage of the heritage item. And they remain worried about the impact of a large new development on the local area.

"The impact of demolition and construction on the local area will be enormous," Reed Burns wrote to me in an email in October.

“At the back of the site where the brutalist building is, is only accessed by a lane, called Ferry Lane, which is an L-shaped lane,” she told me. “It runs off Ferry Road at one end and Avon Street at the other. And then Avon Street is a little one-way street that runs from Ferry Road down to Forsyth Street. So, there’s not easy access to this site.”

She wrote that retaining and adapting the MRC would be a much better outcome, as it would save what is a significant and rare example of a Brutalist building built in a suburban area.

Above: Southwest elevation as seen from beside Bidura House, February 1983. Government Printing Office collection, State Library of NSW.

Above: Northeast elevation as seen from Avon Street, 1983. Photographer: Andrew Milcz.

Above: View of upper staircase, February 1983. Government Printing Office collection, State Library of NSW.

Above: Loading dock and driveway entry from Ferry Lane, February 1983. Government Printing Office collection, State Library of NSW.

Above: The auditorium, 2014. Photographer: Sarah Rowland.

View along Ferry Lane, 2014. Photographer: Sarah Rowland.

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