North Sydney’s first high-rise, the MLC Building, has been saved from destruction after the New South Wales Land and Environment Court (NSWLEC) refused a developer’s bid to demolish the heritage building and replace it with a 27-storey office tower.
The National Trust (NSW) and many other community advocates have long fought for the protection of the MLC Building, which is of indisputable heritage significance.
Completed in 1957, it was the first high-rise to go up in North Sydney’s burgeoning business district and was notable for its early use of a glass-curtain wall. Despite this significance it has continued to face ongoing battles to ensure its protection.
First heritage listed in 1989 by North Sydney Council, it was later also listed by the National Trust, DOCOMOMO, the (Royal) Australian Institute of Architects and the NSW Heritage Council. In 2021, the MLC Building won the NSW Architects’ Enduring Architecture Prize as the first high rise in North Sydney, a “glassy beacon of modernity” and an example of innovative building techniques, including modular construction and glass walls.
Yet within two months of this award, the owner of the MLC Building lodged a Judicial Review in the NSWLEC challenging its listing on the NSW State Heritage Register, and lodged concurrent merit review in the same court challenging North Sydney Council’s refusal of their development application to demolish the landmark building.
The challenge to the state heritage register listing was, unfortunately, successful and in July 2022 the NSWLEC ordered the NSW Heritage Council to remove the listing of the MLC building from the State Heritage Register.
The Court found that “… the decision of the minister to direct the listing of the MLC Building on the State Heritage Register was invalidly made” and “the absence of any reference to the economic issues in the minister’s reasons leads to an inference that the minister did not think about them.” Although this disappointing outcome was due to an error of process, not a finding against the building’s significance, it was a shocking turn of the tide in the campaign to protect the building.
Meanwhile, the battle to protect the MLC Building from demolition continued, with the concurrent appeal moving forward. The National Trust, long an advocate for the appropriate recognition and protection of the MLC Building’s heritage significance, lodged a strong submission objecting to the proposed demolition and presented an Objector statement at the Hearing.
At the heart of the National Trust’s advocacy was not whether a new building was of a worthy design, but whether the demolition of one of the most significant buildings of its period is justified – and it was our view that this is not the case. Our three core objections were:
- The MLC is of indisputable local and state heritage significance, the demolition of which is contrary to the Objects of both the EP&A Act, and the NSW Heritage Act.
- The building is capable of, and immensely suitable for, ongoing adaptive reuse.
- The development proposal and its supporting documentation fails to adequately consider the significant, irreversible, detrimental impact on the building’s indisputable heritage significance.
Thankfully, the old saying to not fight a war on two fronts held true, and the National Trust, along with many other heritage organisations, individuals and objectors, celebrated when reading the Courts finding that ‘the complete demolition of the MLC will have significant, irreversible heritage impacts.’
Most heartening however, was the weight given to the power of heritage listing, with the Court recognising that “however, as is clear from the public’s response in this case, there is an expectation within the community and in accordance with the heritage principles that when heritage items are listed, every effort will be made to retain them.”
The National Trust, alongside many others, will continue to make every effort to retain and protect our state’s heritage.
The National Trust (NSW)’s mission is to advocate for the conservation of built, cultural and natural heritage. Find out more about our advocacy work.
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