Saturday, April 19, 2008

The history of planning the destruction of heritage in Lawson in the Blue Mountains is a long and dirty one riddled with peculiarities and illogicalities, but the situation is reaching boiling point, and groundswell opposition is growing ever stronger. The community is fed up with furphies, sneaky methods, topsy-turvy administrative processes and blatant ignorance. Authorities like to claim that highway widening has given them no choice but to make hard decisions about local heritage, but this is far from the truth. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with widening a highway or redeveloping a shopping centre, and most locals are in favour of these coming changes. However when they are carried out with such recklessness and insensitivity to those living nearby, and there’s a curious whiff of developers and clandestine deals that mean the occasional community consultation amounts to nothing more than lip service, protest will inevitably occur, even from people who normally keep to themselves and would have trusted council to do the right thing.

A four-lane highway could have completely by-passed the historic strip of shops along the current highway in Lawson. At least some of these early 20th century buildings, including the oldest butcher shop in NSW, officially deemed via a Heritage Assessment to be in good condition despite their neglected appearance, could have been restored. But Council has never shown any interest in their heritage value and the decision to replace them with a narrow parking bay was made way back in 1999, when the Mayor was a local businessman who owns a number of these highway buildings, and who lost his seat shortly after. Only the pub, virtually in the same condition as the other buildings, is being afforded the luxury of renovation. Two other historic buildings outside the CBD were relocated and renovated by the RTA.

An LEP Heritage Amendment that recognises the village’s historic precincts and buildings has been at the Dept of Planning for over a year (and it had already taken Council ages to compile it) so it has not reached the Minister’s desk for approval for gazettal. The Heritage Amendment will importantly re-establish the local heritage listing for the Lawson Mechanics Institute (Lawson Hall), one of the few remaining buildings in NSW of this type. Built by the townsfolk in 1903 with massive blocks of locally-obtained sandstone for educational and social purposes it became a major focal point in the Mountains throughout the 20th century, and eventually became a Youth Centre.

As it happens, the proposed four-lane highway could also by-pass the Mechanics Institute, but as with the strip of highway shops, an agenda of wanton destruction is on the cards instead. The Blue Mountains City Council is in the habit of deciding the fate of historic buildings before historical assessments or listings get in the way. Recently they exhibited an Amended Plan of Management for the Lawson hall. They had already stopped PoPE (Place of Public Entertainment) inspections and arbitrarily closed the hall in 2004, despite having just spent thousands on renovations to floor and roof. Their first Plan of Management on the building had just failed abysmally and had to be aborted. Apparently they had thought of looking into reclassifying the land to operational (which of course would be illegal), but in 2007 exhibited an Amended Plan of Management, this time with a "preferred option" of demolition.

Whilst some locals are by now resigned to losing the historic shops to a similar "preferred option" (although one or two shops could be relocated), the opposition to the Council’s “preferred option” of demolishing Lawson Hall was massive – in the order of 90%. Not just locals, but key State organisations made submissions. This was supported by a petition – 2,000 strong and growing. An unequivocal rejection if there ever was one.

Members of the community group The Association of Concerned Mid-Mountains Residents even raised $600 to obtain a report from Mammoth Movers of South Australia, experts in moving historic stone buildings, on the feasibility of relocating it back on the block. The same company just moved an historic signal box for the State Government in Hornsby. Council had refused to add a relocation option to the Plan of Management but under pressure they did include it in their final report to councillors, along with hurriedly concocted, heavily-inflated cost figures. Ultimately a 6-6 vote by councillors needed Mayor Jim Angel’s casting vote to ratify the preferred option of demolition and a DA for demolition was compiled by Noel Bell, Ridley Smith & Partners P/L, a firm which has done a lot of work for council. Never mind the under-supply of hall space in the mountains, the tourist potential of the hall or the brilliance of the hall’s design. In their DA Bell and Smith mistakenly listed the site classification as operational, not community.

Following representations by the concerned local State MP Phil Koperberg and the community, the RTA was suddenly able, despite years of maintaining it was impossible, to come up with an economical new plan whereby the front portico, a later addition to the building, could be relocated at the side of the building, thereby making room for the wider highway and avoiding the need for demolition. As a bonus they would also give back the front portion of the block they resumed in 1991. Mr Koperberg had achieved something his predecessor Bob Debus may never have even contemplated. Pro-demolition councillors however still argued the overall expense would somehow be prohibitive, so a vote was carried to ask the State Government for no less than $575,000 to refurbish the building to palatial proportions. The pro-demolition half needed to look sympathetic, but were they just raising the bar to try to keep Mr Koperberg at a safe distance by asking the impossible?

Willing members of the community injected sense, goodwill and sound economic reason to the debate by initiating a business plan showing many groups were waiting to use the hall and tradesmen were willing to offer their services for free for repairs etc. Costs and income were carefully researched and end figures for enabling the hall’s PoPE licence to be renewed and the hall put to good use came in well under those provided by Council. A professional alternative building design was drawn up and costed - $150,000. Some work would be needed in the stage area, perhaps a disability ramp would be required, along with minor repairs caused by vandals. It was plainly obvious however that actually putting the hall to good use with the RTA plan and some community input was more economical than demolition.

The National Trust offered to set up a tax-deductible Appeals Fund and there were other possible avenues of external funding. But the Council wasn’t swayed. It ratified the DA for demolition in April and Labor Councillor and Mayor Jim Angel posed for a front page photo in the Blue Mountains Gazette alongside Liberal Councillor and Hazelbrook supermarket owner Chris Van Der Kley. Cllr Van Der Kley was quoted saying the council needed $1m to save the hall. The figure had become even larger! But that is his figure however spurious and he’s sticking to it.

The appearance of a number of DYI videos on the ABC’s Stateline by the Association of Concerned Mid-Mountains Residents and the Save Our Hall Group which holds a vigil outside the hall each Sunday has sparked a lot of interest outside the Blue Mountains. In fact following the most recent ABC video, passing motorists were clearly hugely sympathetic, and an almost non-stop honking could be heard in the town. Many stopped to sign the petition.

Mayor Jim Angel however continues to dig his heels in. He made a statement to Stateline regarding the “key factors” of the situation:

  • the success of an alternative Community Centre built in 1991

BUT the Mid-Mountains Community Centre was never intended as a replacement for the Lawson Hall and never can be. There is no performance space at the centre and it is usually fully booked for displays, meetings, rehearsals, school functions and the like. The RTA gave $200,000 to the council in 1991 to help fund the centre in compensation for resuming the front portion of the block where the hall stands. The RTA’s new plan that would avoid demolition involves giving back to the council that resumed part. There remains a severe lack of hall space in the mountains. Council’s planned Cultural Centre in Katoomba will have a large supermarket but no performance space.

  • cost of upkeep of the hall

BUT this ignores both the National Trust’s offer to set up a Donations Appeal and a Community Business Plan showing that numerous groups in the community want to hire the hall and tradesmen are offering their services for free. Council had also budgeted $129,000 for demolition that could go toward refurbishment and/or upkeep.

The Community Business Plan made a strong and logical economic argument that the $575,000 requested by the council from the State Government to bring the hall back to PoPE standard was massively overblown and that a figure between $100,000 and $150,000 was likely to be all that was needed. On enquiry by ACMMR, a council staff member who conducts PoPE inspections estimated that costs for just re-establishing the PoPE licence would cost no more than $50,000.

In essence, the RTA’s offer to re-locate the portico, re-route the highway and avoid demolition is obviously cheaper than demolition. However the council seems to have deliberately made this alternative seem out of reach by providing unrealistic refurbishment cost figures and claiming without clear evidence that the hall’s upkeep would somehow be prohibitive. But why would the upkeep of the Lawson Hall be any more draining or require any greater scrutiny than any of the other 18 halls in the mountains? Council let the Lawson Hall PoPE licence lapse and closed the hall in 2004, after renovating the roof and floor. Since then they have paid $300pw in rent (over $15,000pa) for alternative premises for the Youth Centre which was no longer able to use the hall.

  • dubious functionality of the hall if retained so close to a 4 lane highway

Two well used halls in the mountains, Wentworth Falls School of Arts and Warrimoo Community Hall, neither of them with two-foot thick masonry walls like the Lawson Hall, are right on the highway but still used - often. Furthermore the highway would come approximately three metres closer to the Lawson hall under the RTA plan, but the entrance would be at the side and the front sealed. Anyone who knows anything about acoustics would know that there would not be any noticeable increase in external sound penetrating the hall.

  • the idea of relocating the portico has cost implications for council and would diminish any heritage value

Minimal cost implications that is, since the RTA would both dismantle and rebuild it, a cheaper option than demolition according to Council's own Business Papers of 29 Jan 2008. The original hall did not have a portico (this was added some 30 years later) so clearly it has less importance than the original building. A pile of rubble however has NO heritage value at all! Any overlap between the Mayor and the community on the reality of heritage value is purely coincidental!

  • consulted community over a long period

BUT not listened to. Community consultation on the planning of the village centre’s redevelopment has been appalling. Community advice on the original 2004 Plan of Management for the hall was delivered amongst junk mail following complaints that only those with computer access could have any input. Still, the 2007 Amended Plan of Management on the Lawson Hall resulted in an overwhelming NO to Council’s preferred option of demolition. Mayor Angel is using a well-worn phrase, but clearly “community consultation” has no meaning here.

  • no funding source to retain the hall has been found

Nobody is even sure if funding was pursued by the council. The National Trust donations Appeal was certainly ignored in any case. Frank Sartor wrote to offer some funding possibilities but Council never entertained them as far as the community knows.

There’s been a lot of obfuscation like the above in this matter, and the community at large is at pains to understand why the council and half of the councillors are so determined to demolish this fine building when economically responsible alternatives exist and the need to keep the hall is so great. The Lawson hall has been treated differently from all other halls administered by Council and cost figures have seemingly been plucked out of the air to obtain a desired result.

None of six councillors who voted for demolition approval has publicly submitted a future plan for the community site where the hall stands, so as with the new village centre plan the community is not sure what it might end up with. It is only sure of losing a precious community asset.

Council has mentioned refurbishing the RFS building (arguably an illegal one for a community site) which is a featureless brick shed at the back of the block, as a future home for the Youth Centre, but there is no set plan. Perhaps a shed will be all that Council can contribute to the next generation (although portables have also been suggested)!

Rumours abound in the community (not without substance) that a land swap is on the cards. The original owner of historic Heatherbrae House, the proposed centrepiece of the new village centre, told ACMMR he was very keen for council to buy it but somehow Coles ended up buying it. It was some time before it was publicly made known that this had happened. Coles however is apparently more interested in the Dept of Housing block across the road and oddly the council has illogically proposed to close the adjacent part of the road (the shortest route for through traffic) as part of its redevelopment plan. No amount of argument from the community can deter them. The community is wondering if, via land swapping, a Coles supermarket will end up on the Dept of Housing site and a DoH block of flats will eventuate on the Mechanics Institute site (as once suggested by the Mayor of 1999 and published in a Council business paper), leaving Council with Heatherbrae House. In other words, will an historic community asset be a trading piece with a supermarket chain?

The community is so outraged by Council’s actions on the Lawson Hall that it is prepared to take the matter to court, as many of the actions are legally questionable.

If demolition of the building were to go ahead, social repercussions would be enormous. Many are questioning why the RTA would openly devise a plan to avoid demolition but not use it despite Council’s dogged drive towards demolition, even if it meant just dismantling the portico, a non-original feature, on the section it resumed. The community supports highway widening but considers that the demolition of such an important building would make the social cost too high.

The community’s sensible arguments have fallen on deaf ears in council, certainly those of councillors Angel, Van Der Kley, Hamilton, Myles, Frappell and Creed. Perhaps the Council elections in September will give any of these councillors standing for re-election a valuable lesson in listening to their constituents whom they have now completely lost touch with.