The proposed construction of Parramatta Powerhouse and the associated desecration of Parramatta’s local heritage has been, along with the Sirius Building and the Windsor Bridge, one of the prominent heritage battles in NSW’s recent history.
The complex battle to save both the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo and protect the heritage items at the proposed new Powerhouse site in Parramatta has been running for six years and has seen more than 620 letters of concern and outrage published in letters to the Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald,1 generated more than 1300 submissions during the project approval phase, and a further 179 submissions into the Parliamentary Inquiry. This is an extraordinary testament to the depth of public concern around the project, but what can we learn from this campaign?
What was the issue with the proposal?
The first battle started in 2015, when the NSW Government announced plans to abandon the Powerhouse Museum at Ultimo and relocate it to a new site in Parramatta. There was wide outcry at the plans. The Powerhouse Museum was more than a world renowned museum; importantly, it was also a former industrial building that was eminently suited to house and display a collection of large significant moveable heritage items. The proposal to move its collection and sell the former powerhouse to developers as part of Sydney’s urban renewal horrified people, and was seen as yet another example of the sale of important public assets that would have no actual benefit to the public.
Wide scale campaigning during late 2015 and early 2016 by many individuals and organisations, including the Powerhouse Museum Alliance, generated over 12,000 signatures on a petition to keep the Powerhouse Museum at its Ultimo site, while also supporting a specific cultural facility in Parramatta.
The public outcry gained political attention and, in 2016, the NSW Legislative Council began an Inquiry into museums and galleries that focused heavily on the proposals for the Powerhouse Museum.
The Inquiry’s final report (February 2019) was damning, stating:
After much evidence, it seems that the decision to relocate the Powerhouse Museum has been based on poor planning and advice, a flawed business case and insufficient community consultation. Nothing so far has demonstrated the necessity or purpose for relocating this world renowned cultural institution, an institution that is much loved and internationally well regarded.
Given the significance of this project, the lack of detail, analysis and evidence regarding costs and logistics associated with the relocation has been staggering. Add to that a total disregard for Treasury guidelines regarding a cost benefit analysis for the project, and what remains is simply an expensive and unnecessary project built on poor foundations.
How did the battle play out?
Despite the Inquiry’s scathing review, it took another 16 months for the government to finally abandon its plans for the Ultimo site and commit to retaining a Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo. The Powerhouse building was, for now, saved as a public asset.
One year later, the government allocated $500 million to an overhaul of the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo, but there were caveats. Only the largest industrial moveable heritage items would be retained at Ultimo, the rest would be moved to either storage or to a new museum and the Ultimo museum would instead focus on fashion and STEM technologies. Suddenly the win of retaining the Ultimo Powerhouse as a Museum didn’t quite seem like the win the community was hoping for – this was a very narrow focus for a Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
Meanwhile, the NSW Government continued to press ahead with its plans for developing a new museum site in Parramatta and another battle started, this time to save Parramatta’s local heritage. The location of the proposed new Parramatta Powerhouse was in a flood-risk zone beside the Parramatta River, and its construction would involve the demolition of two historic properties, Willow Grove and St Georges Terraces.
The community, together with heritage organisations, did not oppose a world class museum in Parramatta; they simply did not believe it should come at the cost of losing other heritage items.
The National Trust repeatedly stated to government and media that we welcomed the decision to retain the Powerhouse at its Ultimo site and that we applauded the listing of the original Powerhouse Building on the State Heritage Register, but at the same time we held grave concerns over the proposed new Powerhouse Museum at Parramatta and the heritage impacts its construction would have on Parramatta’s local heritage. Our voice added to the myriad of other concerned voices across the state arguing the same thing, most notably the Powerhouse Museum Alliance, North Parramatta Residents Action Group (NPRAG) and Save Willow Grove.
In October 2020, the government announced that St Georges Terrace would be retained, but this came with the concurrent announcement that Willow Grove would be “dismantled” and moved to an undisclosed location in Parramatta where it would eventually be reconstructed.
The community and heritage advocates fought long and hard – galvanising immense public support, launching petitions and gaining regular media attention. The National Trust maintained that the retention of St George’s Terrace was not properly considered and that the “reconstruction” of Willow Grove was in fact its demolition –its fragile materials would simply crumble when dismantling commenced. A CFMEU Green Ban was placed on the site and an appeal against the approval of the project by NPRAG was launched in the Land and Environment Court.
With a backdrop of immense community pushback and the phenomenal cost of the project, with each iteration the proposed Parramatta Powerhouse became quite possibly the worst example of the deficiencies in the process, management and care of heritage in NSW – and all to facilitate a museum which should celebrate such things.
Undoubtedly, there have been some wins from six years of community and organisational campaigning. If the original proposals had proceeded the Ultimo Powerhouse building would have been sold for private development, there would be no Powerhouse Museum in central Sydney, and St Georges Terraces would have been completely demolished.
The advocacy of heritage organisations like the National Trust and the community resulted in keeping the Ultimo Powerhouse building in public hands, its retention as a museum, and the saving of Parramatta’s St Georges Terraces.
In August 2021, following the Land and Environment Court’s rejection of North Parramatta Resident’s Action Group’s appeal, the CFMEU lifted their Green Ban on Willow Grove and the final death knell for Willow Grove, and for the campaign, was sounded.
How do we keep the flame of advocacy burning?
There is a grave danger for those who dedicate their time to advocacy that they will burn out and become dispirited by the losses they encounter and the decisions their hard work failed to impact. It could be easy for the community, after the long and drawn out campaign for the protection of the Powerhouse at Ultimo, St George’s Terrace and Willow Grove, to become disheartened and overwhelmed by their losses. The National Trust has been advocating for the protection of NSW’s heritage for 75 years – the lessons learnt in that time have been hard, but they sustain the longevity of our advocacy.
Yes, there were losses, but advocacy proved it can influence change – our collective efforts stopped the Powerhouse at Ultimo being sold to developers, they kept a museum in the building and the saved St Georges Terraces will remain in Parramatta. More importantly, they proved that communities are not apathetic and that people are willing to stand up and fight, again and again, for the protection of our heritage. This is greatest win out of the campaign: the community activated and found its voice.
And we have to keep advocating – we have to keep fighting and keep making sure our message is heard. The only way to keep heritage protection on the radar, and to make sure that policy makers and the public understand what is needed and why, is to keep at our advocacy indefinitely. We have to see advocacy as something that never stops.
The campaign experience that many community groups gained over the last six years is an invaluable resource for the future. Win or lose, these battles have built a movement through their collective efforts — a community of supporters, advocates, experts, donors and volunteers who care deeply about our heritage. These supporters will continue to care if we give them a reason to and if we nurture those hard-won relationships, and they will join us for the next campaign. What comes next is up to us.
Perhaps, in fact, it was the battle that we lost, not the war.
The National Trust acknowledges and gives our full respect to every individual, member, group and organisation that preserved, activated and dedicated their time to this collective advocacy campaign.
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Keep fighting National Trust, the Community needs you!
I am 76 years of age and during my lifetime have seen numerous magnificent heritage items in the Sydney basin demolished to make way for progress. Can you advise me the grounds for the governments decision to remain so firm on this location for the new Parramatta Museum and simply not select another site with less controversy. The state government seem quite uninterested in listening to public concern and don’t appear to be accountable. We are fighting a losing battle with our heritage items disappearing to development through local government so maybe we should focus our effort more towards the Federal Government.
Thank you for your comment and thoughts. The joint National Trusts did release a Heritage Priorities for the last Federal election and will do the same for the upcoming federal elections.
Local heritage is a hard issue, because federal and state governments do not see it as their issue to deal with. We approach this by advocating for the federal government to show leadership with heritage and encourage a trickle down effect.
It can seem our advocacy falls on on deaf ears, however it is a long game and we will not rest.
Thank you Christine, we absolutely will! Jane Alexander
I have a concern about Parramatta Museum after the flooding, that the museum and its artifacts my be exposed to a serious and long term case of mould infestation??? Just a thought !
Many people (the Trust included) have noted the same observation and concern. It wasn’t considered an issue for the state government when they selected the site unfortunately.
What an excellent oversight of the whole situation, succinct, and to the point without mincing words. It is easy to feel disillusioned after the whole Willow Grove campaign, but Jane has summed it up well. What the State Government continues to ignore is the rising community anger at its treatment of heritage in NSW. Well written, Jane.
Thank you for your feedback and thoughts. It can be easy to feel disillusioned which is why sitting back and looking at the bigger picture can help to see that impact was being made.
Here in Bathurst NSW it feels like we are losing the heritage war in Australia’s oldest inland settlement. Locally plans for a 6 story medical centre and 5 storey carpark in the middle of the central heritage conservation area are being touted as a done deal. The conservation area is listed by the National Trust and has a 3 storey height limit. The medical centre is a big glass box which will change the face and feel of our heritage city forever. Undoubtedly it will be used as a precedent. Bathurst has 1,000 heritage buildings. So it feels like the beginning of the end after a 45 year battle. I know it might sound like it pales into insignificance against other battles, but it is a turning point for us. Much of the commentary is that we are against development and holding the town back, which is far from the reality when objectively looking at our track record. Personal attacks are frequently used to try and diminish our point of view and alternatives put forward by us. We have been very successful in promoting our heritage as an economic asset principally through tourism over the last 7 year, but this seems to be totally disregarded, as do all the rules in our LEP, DCP, 2040 Strategic Plan and Housing Policy etc whenever someone breezes in from out of town with a big shiny bauble and some glass beads to dazzle the decision makers and the general populace.
Thank you for your thoughts. We are working with the Trust’s Bathurst Branch to support their advocacy and assist with technical advice regarding the Bathurst Hospital. Developments that ignore existing height controls are a constant issue and I agree that it is very hard for local community’s to feel empowered in local decision making when existing controls are ignored. Keep up the good work!
Great article. The NSW govt sees heritage as an impediment to development and corporate interests. As for the rising anger- sadly only in a demographic that the government obviously feels they can safely ignore. Not sure of the answer but education of kids and newer migrants about the heritage of their country is important maybe. Maybe the National Trust can make information available in languages other than English.
Thank you for your kind feedback and I agree that it is hard to budge the perception of heritage being an impediment rather than an opportunity.
A very interesting suggestion too on providing information in other languages, certainly food for thought.
Thanks for that very well put.
I too have been part of this battle for the past 6+ years. Sadly we had to say goodbye to Willow Grove.
The question is who will oversea the demolish and the the alleged rebuild ?
Will the fox be in charge of the hen house ?
Deep concerns remain with Ultimo. Who knows how much of the promised $0.5 bil. will be spent on Ultimo. The Harwood building remains in limbo.
My saddest thoughts are with the Boulton & Watt (B&W) steam engine, LOCO 1 with its 3 heritage carriages and the Catalina flying boat hanging from the roof of Boiler Hall. There is a fair chance that these capital objects will become a “freak show” inside a Design & Fashion Museum.
B&W is a unique 230 year old engine, still working under steam engine. It was was the most valuable object on display in the Powerhouse Museum.
it should be returned to the UK where it will be treated with the respect it deserves.
Thanks you for your feedback and thoughts. Arts Minister Don Harwin has confirmed the iconic Powerhouse Museum pieces, including the Boulton and Watt Engine, Locomotive No.1, and the Catalina Flying Boat, will remain at Ultimo, but their context will be lost with most of the other industrial items being removed. Whilst the retention of the Powerhouse at Ultimo was a win, it was a sad loss to the collection.
What a great and thoughtful article, Jane. Willow Grove sets a dangerous precedent with its’ premise of ‘reconstruction’ and moving heritage. Willow Grove also represents a threat faced by Cumberland Hospital and reflects the precarious fate of old hospital sites (including Callan Park). These hospital sites often support valuable outpatient services for vulnerable members of the community – Gladesville Hospital being another example. It seems that more of these outpatient mental health services are getting pushed out because they are in the way of valuable real estate. Parks and gardens that supported shared services are turning into gated communities with mental health and public housing getting pushed further West. Creating Sydney’s future ghettos and poverty traps.
Again, great article. It’s a privilege working with you.
Thank you for your lovely feedback and comments. Another hospital example is Garrawarra in the Illawarra. Let’s hope that a benefit from the pandemic will be a greater appreciation of the vital need for authentic public open space.
It’s a privilege working with you and the Trust’s Conservation team too, and very exciting seeing what you’re achieving in our Archives department.
I find it difficult to comprehend that the construction of a museum was even contemplated for the former DJ’s site. Many of us will remember when DJ’s was about to open its doors that the basement level was completely flooded after heavy rain. And as for the museum’s precious heritage artifacts – surely they should remain in the city as all train lines, including the fast and regular inter-urban lines , terminate at Central as do many buses. From there visitors from the four corners of the city & beyond can easily and conveniently access the Ultimo site.
And as for demolishing heritage -listed buildings in the city of Parramatta – the mind boggles at the thought!!
The mind certainly does boggle at the many proposals for heritage places. It’s so important to get the balance right between re-use and authenticity.
Thank you for your comments.
The collective debacle of the recent heritage malpractice in Parramatta, when seen in light of the holistic wanton destruction of heritage buildings in Parramatta over past decades, we see a city which has demonstrated its March to obliterate the core of Sydney heritage for developer profit. Now even the government is contributing to the destruction in a heavy handed heritage ignorant manner.
Token residual heritage sites remain in Parramatta, sadly for all of us and our descendants.
Keep up the advocacy National Trust!
You’re heritage survival’s only hope.
Thank you for your comments and support – we will certainly keep up the good fight! The current Heritage Act Review is vital in raising attention on heritage issues and providing us with the opportunity to push for better protections.
Les Tod (29 Aug) is correct in worrying about flooding.. I remember on several occasions when the David Jones foodhall flooded.
A dumb site.
To Jane and all other respondents,
Collectively (as we do when we protest/advocate/have our say etc) good substance and thoughts as to how we value our heritage, our places and spaces and how we mourn the loss of our cultural and social history, our architecture and its significance in all localities that we love.
We mourn the lack of community consultation and the disregard of community expectations or wishes.
Developers are having too much say or input in planning matters. It is our community.
We are not against progress, but demolition of beautiful old and characterful buildings for the purpose of construction of glass and concrete limited lifespan buildings is unacceptable (and is not progress) to us and also to the others in the community that are busy raising families and meeting the demands of daily life in their homes or at work to be heard or be involved.
Overseas heritage buildings are treasured, celebrated and appreciated. Here (as in Parramatta) we destroy in the name of modernity, sophistication and revitalisation –
I know what I and many others prefer to look at.
Thank you for your feedback and thoughtful comment. I agree completely on the importance of our collective advocacy. No single voice or organisation can create the change we want to see; it’s so important for groups, individuals and organisations to lend weight to each other’s advocacy.
Surely with the changes in how we work and live as a consequence of COVID 19 it would be wise to retain and develop the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo. Its location is ideal for all visitors to access and may help bring back the vitality of the CBD.