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Issue #1635      April 16, 2014

Sydney’s Domain and Botanic Gardens threatened

Obsessed with converting public assets into profit-laden private sector ventures, the NSW government is arguing all such assets should generate revenue to pay for the future development of new infrastructure.

Sydney’s Botanic Gardens.

It now intends to allow major new developments within Sydney’s iconic Botanical Gardens and the Public Domain, which abut the northeastern corner of the central business district. A tourism lobbyist recently described them enthusiastically as playing “a critical role in the visitor economy”.

A newly-commissioned Master Plan proposes a new 5-star 180-room hotel rising over the existing Domain car park and overlooking the Domain, where a permanent performance shell and new railway station would be constructed.

Within the Gardens a new visitor centre, restaurant and retail space would be constructed next to the entrance from the Opera House, as well as a new restaurant, function centre and covered terrace alongside Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, which overlooks the harbour at the tip of the eastern promontory of Farm Cove.

An open-air restaurant would be constructed on a wide concrete bridge over the expressway that currently separates the Domain and the Gardens.

The area of the Gardens would be reduced to accommodate a major new building for the Gallery, and a new ferry jetty would be provided on the eastern shore of Farm Cove.

The Plan has been subject to biting criticism from former Prime Minister Paul Keating. That’s pretty ironic. Keating has doggedly defended the appallingly overcrowded Barangaroo scheme, and in particular that monstrous monument to insatiable greed, James Packer’s proposed hotel/casino building.

But is he right about the Domain and Botanical Gardens Master Plan?

History counts

The Botanic Gardens occupy the site of the first European farm in Australia, established soon after the First Fleet arrived in 1788.

In 1926 the farm was converted to public use for the cultivation and study of local and introduced species. Its current emphasis is on plant ecology, conservation and management.

The Domain originally formed the southern and easternmost portions of the grounds of Government House, which today overlooks Circular Quay. In 1830 the Domain was set aside for public use as an open area.

It became a “speakers’ corner” and many political figures addressed the public there. The great communist public speaker Stan Moran, a regular performer at the Domain, nicknamed former Prime Minister Robert Menzies “Pig-iron Bob” for selling Japan cast iron that was used for armaments production. (Menzies hated him, and referred to him rather less poetically as “that little bastard Moran”).

In the 1960s, construction of an expressway separated the Domain from the Gardens. The Domain is a big, friendly, open green field bordered with mature trees. It is used for touch football matches, lunches, occasional open-air opera performances, or just for a very pleasant stroll.

The Botanic Gardens, which featured in the recent TV series “Around the World in 80 Gardens”, are stunningly beautiful, mature and dignified.

The picturesque architecture of its service and administration buildings dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with some stunning additional structures added within the last 30 years.

The vast array of plants, both native and imported, forms the basis of the ongoing scientific research that has been conducted ever since the Gardens were established.

So how good is the Plan?

The proposed visitor centre could assist in interpretation of the significance of the area. The present Gardens restaurant is frequently crowded and could do with some extra space, and extra toilet facilities throughout the Gardens and the Domain are certainly needed.

The proposed children’s play facilities have the potential to enrich the visitor experience, provided they are unobtrusive and genuinely contribute to the children’s interpretation of the Gardens.

But these are minor innovations. In contrast, the hugely expensive expressway bridge is only aimed at providing a profitable restaurant business venue. The plan’s recommendation for cutting a slice out of the Gardens for the benefit of the Gallery is indefensible, and exhibits a high degree of contempt for the Garden’s scientific and cultural role.

As Keating has argued, extra accommodation for the Gallery should be built over the Domain car park, rather than a hotel.

The Plan’s proponents have argued that the sort of events it advocates are already occurring, with open-air opera being staged in the open Domain and films shown on a massive screen at the water’s edge in Farm Cove.

However, these events are held for only a brief period each year, after which the facilities are removed, and peace and tranquillity, the most appealing attributes of the Gardens and the Domain return again.

That attribute is inconsistent with the Plan’s aim for year-round events in the Domain, night time events in the gardens, and a major boost in the number of visitors. And those are clearly the primary objectives of the Plan.

The enormous expenditure involved in building a new station for the Domain could only be logically justified if it was to serve a major new intensively-used entertainment venue.

The proposed new restaurants would be highly intrusive. If implemented, construction of a café, retail and function space, and a glazed-roof terrace would rob Mrs Macquarie’s Chair of its unspoiled landscape and historical character of quiet contemplation. Regardless of its architectural qualities it would inevitably be a blot on the landscape.

Professor David Mabberley, former executive director of the Gardens, appears to have disagreed vigorously with the Plan’s commercial orientation, and has now been sidelined.

With its major emphasis on new transport, entertainment and accommodation facilities, the Plan is clearly intended to make the Gardens and the Domain a rip-roaring commercial success.

That approach has not been taken in New York’s Central Park, London’s Hyde Park or the Kew Gardens, but apparently if it means Sydney’s Domain and Botanic Gardens lose their beauty, charming character or peace and tranquillity, that’s just too bad.

Former state Premier Bob Carr has appealed to trade unions to place green bans on commercial development of the sites, and Unions NSW has agreed to do so. Other organisations such as the National Trust and Sydneysiders in general are sure to rally in defence of these wonderful city landmarks.

So if the government still decides to implement the Plan’s recommendations, then bring it on.

Next article – Accusations fly as trio dump NT CLP

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