Ian Stephenson, Planning Convenor, Glebe Society Bulletin 4/2021 June 2021
On 19 May the Sydney City Council Local Planning Panel approved a development at 43 Avona Ave Glebe. There were 69 objections including one by the Society. Many concerns were raised but, in this article, I will focus on one aspect of the assessment process, the application of the design principles in the Development Control Plan (DCP) in relation to the new building.
Avona Ave was created by the subdivision of the Strathmore Estate in 1894 and 1899 and the Avona Estate in 1899. Avona Ave and 22 Federation period houses were built on their gardens. The large Victorian houses remained on the western side of the street until the 1960s when they were demolished and replaced by home unit blocks.
At this time residents, the Glebe Society and the National Trust worked to provide statutory protection for Glebe’s heritage. Three important landmarks were: rezoning by Leichardt Council to stop unit blocks from being built on the ridge lines (a direct result of the Glebe Society and Balmain Association putting forward candidates under the ticket Campaign for a Better Council at the 1971 elections); the passage of the NSW Heritage Act in 1977; and the inclusion of Glebe as an Urban Conservation Area in Leichardt Council’s 1984 Local Environment Plan (LEP).
Glebe’s conservation areas have existed for nearly 40 years. They are the product of a highly developed process of research and analysis. Their objectives are well formulated, the constituent elements logically categorised and the management principles clearly articulated.
Number 43 Avona Ave is a single storey Federation house built about 1914 on the Avona Estate. It is at the end of a line of 21 Federation houses built as part of the same subdivision. It is located at the termination of the cul-de-sac on a rock outcrop about 3 metres higher than street level and is oriented perpendicular to its neighbours.
Whilst the footprint and building envelope of 43 Avona Ave have survived intact its detailing has been changed including painting the external walls, altering the windows, enclosing the veranda and removing the chimneys. It is for this reason that it is classified as a Neutral building while the row of 21 more intact houses which adjoin it to the Northeast are Contributory.
The 1960s home unit blocks which adjoin it to the Southwest and Northwest are classified as Detracting.
The application (43 Avona Ave: D/2020/1453)
The application as approved is to build a house on four levels (a roof terrace, providing a fifth level, has been deleted). The front door, entrance hall, foyer, lift, passage and storage are on the street level of Avona Ave (a little under a metre above this is a large patio and pool). Above the Avona Ave level are three more storeys.
A number of residents queried the height of the building. Measured from Avona Ave it is 14.55 metres which does not comply with the height control as the LEP allows for a height of 12 metres.
Council’s report explains that ‘the Sydney LEP 2012 defines ‘building height’ as the vertical distance from ground level (existing) to the highest point of the building. In this instance, ground level relates to the site and not Avona Ave.’
This does seem an odd way of calculating height when the proposed house starts at the street level of Avona Ave and not where the old house starts, which is 2.7 metres higher.
The heritage provisions of the LEP are contained in Section 5.10. They include conserving the heritage significance
of heritage conservation areas, including associated fabric, settings and views and they mandate that the consent authority must, before granting consent consider the effect of the proposed development on the heritage significance of the item or area concerned.
The DCP provides detailed guidance as to how the statutory requirements of the LEP can be effected.
The critical question with this application is what does the DCP say about the design of a new building that involves demolishing a Neutral building which, on one side, adjoins a continuous row of 21 Contributory buildings (whose construction sequence it is part of) and on the other a group of Detracting buildings?
The DCP states that
the demolition of neutral buildings will only be considered where it can be demonstrated that:
(a) restoration of the building is not reasonable; and
(b) the replacement building will not compromise the heritage significance of the heritage conservation area.
If the demolition of the Neutral building is considered acceptable it says:
Development within a heritage conservation area is to … address the heritage conservation area statement of significance and respond sympathetically to the topography and landscape and the type, siting, form, height, bulk, roofscape, scale, materials and details of adjoining or nearby contributory buildings.
The DCP is also clear about not using Detracting buildings as a precedent for development in a conservation zone when it states that
detracting buildings are buildings that are intrusive to a heritage conservation area because of inappropriate scale, bulk, setbacks, setting, design or materials. They do not represent a key period of significance and detract from the character of a heritage conservation area.
This all seems very sensible. Under certain circumstances you can demolish a Neutral building in a conservation area but only if the replacement building responds sympathetically to the neighbouring Contributory buildings.
The pertinent management principles for the Glebe Point Heritage Conservation Area are that development is to:
(b) Respond to and complement contributory buildings within heritage conservation areas
(c) Maintain the prominence of the ridgeline as the highest point visible from public streets and open spaces to ensure the topography continues to be a major determinant of the local character
(h) Retain and enhance the heritage character of the area.
The management principles recommended in the Glebe Point Conservation Area study say, in respect of the Detracting buildings adjoining 43 Avona Ave, ‘post-war units have a major impact which needs to be minimised’.
Thus, the DCP and associated studies, provide very clear advice about the design of a new building at 43 Avona Ave. It says the new building must respond sympathetically (in this context, ‘sympathetically’ means sensitively and appropriately) to the roofscapes, window proportions, form, height, bulk scale and materials of its Contributory neighbours. It does not say that, because the development also adjoins Detracting buildings, it can be like them. This would be a very odd way to manage a heritage conservation area.
Heritage Impact Statements (HIS)
In order to help understand how a development will impact on a heritage conservation area the DCP requires a Heritage Impact Statement to be submitted.
The Heritage Impact Statement is to address:
(a) the contribution which the building makes to the heritage significance of the heritage conservation area;
(b) the options that were considered when arriving at a preferred development and the reasons for choosing the preferred option;
(c) the impact of the proposed development on the heritage conservation area; and the compatibility of the development with conservation policies contained within the Sydney Heritage Inventory Report.
This all seems very logical, there is a set of principles and clear criteria for the design of a new building in a conservation area and an HIS must be prepared which looks at options and impact.
The HIS for 43 Avona Avenue includes an excellent history of the site, and in many ways is ably done, but seems less rigorous when it comes to exploring the options that were considered when arriving at the preferred development, the reasons for choosing this option and the impact of the proposed development on the heritage conservation area. It seeks to turn off the clear directions of the DCP about development responding sympathetically to the type, siting, form, height, bulk, roofscape, scale, materials and details of adjoining contributory buildings by stating that
the single storey houses along Avona Avenue give few clues as to the treatment of a new dwelling and we do not consider it necessary to look to the Federation or Inter War style for the replacement house. This would likely end up a pastiche of the styles and there is no reason not to look to a contemporary form and style for an infill development in the conservation area.
The street of 21 houses built at the same time as 43 Avona Ave offers quite a lot of clues, particularly about roofscape, fenestration, scale and details.
There is a body of literature about how to design a new building in heritage conservation areas.
The publication, Design in context: guidelines for infill development in the historic environment by the NSW Heritage Office and the Royal Australian Institute of Architects NSW, provides excellent examples. It demonstrates that you can echo traditional forms in contemporary design without it being pastiche (i.e., something purely imitative of another period). One of its case studies is a house designed by Ellen Woolley and Peter Tonkin at the corner of Ryan St and Lilyfield Rd Lilyfield.
This house designed by Woolley and Tonkin in Lilyfield is at the end of a street of mixed character that slopes down the hill. The house utilises the sandstone rock outcrop as a feature. The roof form relates to its neighbours when viewed from the most commonly used vantage point, but from the front view it departs from traditional forms to admit northern light into the house.
The conclusion in the HIS that
the replacement house is a high quality piece of contemporary architecture that responds well to its context with well articulated and well detailed facades and sensible and well considered plan form to reduce its apparent bulk and scale. The design is a very good response to the site and the local context,
seems to miss the point that the form of the replacement house needs to be sympathetic to its Contributory, rather than its Detracting neighbours.
One of the problems with the process is that the HISs are commissioned by the applicant who may not be seeking a full assessment of the heritage impact of their development but rather a set of reasons as to why it complies with the DCP.
Another section of the LEP (Section 6.21) relates to design excellence. Its provisions require Council to have regard to any heritage issues and streetscape constraints, the bulk, massing and modulation of buildings and the impact on any special character area in determining whether a development exhibits design excellence.
The architect’s view
At the Local Planning Panel meeting Mathew Young, the project architect, was asked to explain how the design related to the local character statement – to explain the design of ‘this particular building and its character in this location’. He said,
we felt that we should take a horizontal approach where we have a contemporary in-situ concrete base that’s recessed, then we have a dominant brick volume on level 1 which comes up to the parapet level which was important to reference the surrounding brick architecture. The brick references the surrounding character quite a lot and we are expecting to detail that in a contemporary manner with different articulation around the entry sequence in the courtyard and then we use metal on the top and recessed it back to give it a recessive volume on the top. It also references, some of it obviously not in the immediate area, that kind of Deco brick architecture that you find around in the area with brick masonry volumes and metal detailing.
Heritage conservation areas are about conserving significant heritage. This is identified by studies and reflected in the character statements and principles in the DCP. In the case of 43 Avona Ave, the significant heritage is the 21 Contributory Federation houses it adjoins and the design should in some way echo elements of these. It does not. It has a flat roof not a pitched one, long horizontal windows, not vertical ones and large areas of glass and looks bulky. The middle storey is thrust forward and it alludes to Art Deco design, although no such buildings exist in the street, Art Deco is not part of Avona Ave’s heritage.
Council staff made the following recommendations to the panel:
(A) The proposal is generally consistent with the relevant objectives and controls of the Sydney Local Environmental Plan 2012 and Sydney Development Control Plan 2012.
(B) The proposal exhibits a suitable built form, design and materiality in the context of the heritage conservation area and is appropriate within the streetscape.
In their report they noted that:
The new development responds positively to the character of nearby dwellings and residential flat buildings, striking a balance of bulk and scale as the streetscape transitions from 4 storeys to single storey dwellings. The form of the infill development appropriately complies with the relevant LEP controls, including height of buildings and FSR.
The proposal relates appropriately to the existing apartment buildings to the north and west and provides a 3-storey presentation within the Avona Avenue streetscape, creating a transition to the low-scale terraces. The proposal will not detract from the heritage conservation area and satisfies the objectives and provisions of the DCP with regard to height, bulk and scale.
The proposed development satisfies the [good design] requirements of Clause 6.21(4) of the Sydney LEP 2012.
The proposal presents an acceptable built form that is not out of character with the existing streetscape in so far that it is consistent with the scale of adjoining flat buildings with the same height and FSR controls, and as it is elevated above lower level terrace housing.
The Local Planning Panel
The discussion by the Local Planning Panel (the webcast can be heard at City of Sydney Local Planning Panel – 19 May 2021) seemed to imply that because the height control was different for 43 Avona Ave (twelve metres) compared to Numbers 1 to 41 Avona Ave (nine metres) this turned off the DCP and therefore the requirement that the design of the new building echo the roofscapes, window proportions, form, scale and materials of its Contributory neighbours did not apply.
This is not logical, there is no reason why a 12-metre-high contemporary building cannot reflect traditional elements in its neighbours as Tonkin and Woolley’s Lilyfield house (Fig. 2) does.
Mr Steve Kennedy of the panel reflecting on the special design requirements for this site which is at the interface of the post-war units and the Contributory buildings said of the proposal:
It’s actually an ‘in your face’ building. It’s not a building which says I am at the interface and I will keep quiet about this out of respect … I’m not sure that was what was intended with all the controls about Glebe. I think if it was in the [Land and Environment] Court there would be whole lot of negotiations to reach an outcome.
Mr Kennedy voted against Council’s recommendation which was carried 3 to 1.
The result is unfortunate and the process frustrating. The Glebe Conservation Areas have well developed principles that where a Neutral building is replaced its successor must relate to its Contributory neighbours and the impact of Detracting buildings should be minimised.
The DCP provides some clear suggestions as to how a contemporary building can reflect traditional aspects of its Contributory neighbours and there is a body of literature about designing infill in historic environments.
The 12-metre height limit has been used to justify why the building does not need to be better mannered in terms of its Contributory neighbours but there is no reason why a 12-metre-high building cannot be designed in a more sympathetic, and to quote Mr Kennedy, less ‘in your face’ way.
What is going wrong? Are the requirements of the heritage conservation zones being properly explained to applicants at pre-DA meetings? Do we need a process of commissioning HISs which is at arms-length from the applicant? Do the HISs need to be more rigorously critiqued? Is there a lack of heritage expertise on Local Planning Panels? Do Local Planning Panels need to be more courageous?
I hope, as we head to the September Council elections, our elected representatives will give some thought to these important questions.
Glebe’s conservation zones were hard won – this remarkable place warrants them. Don’t let them be eroded away bit by bit.