Ian Stephenson, Glebe Society Planning Convenor, Bulletin 5/2021  July 2021

Sitting down to write about the DA currently on exhibition, to build two eight-storey apartment buildings and five faux terrace houses in the St Phillips Heritage Conservation Area, the plaintive melancholy of the Bee Gees’ 1968 hit song Words came to mind.

Changing the pronoun from you to I, the song seems an accurate representation of the NSW planning system as it relates to the St Phillips Heritage Development Control Plan (DCP): I think that you don’t mean a single word you say, it’s only words.

Why so bleak? I have been researching the history of the area for a forthcoming Glebe Society video. In 1949 the land to the east of Cowper St was resumed by the Housing Commission and between 1953 and 1967 15 three-storey blocks of flats were built.

The 1962 textbook Local Geography in the secondary school has a picture of them. The same work refers to the monotony of Glebe’s terrace houses. To my eyes the flats look worse.

The Housing Commission Redevelopment Scheme, c.1962 (Source: Sydney Teacher’s College Faculty of Geography, Local Geography in the Secondary School, Sydney, 1962, between p. 38 and p. 39 [Max Solling Collection])

By the 1970s, taste had changed and it was the terrace houses which were cherished. By the 1980s Glebe was protected by heritage conservation zones. The boundary in this area for the St Phillips estate was, rather sensibly, Cowper St.

In 2008 the Department of Housing commissioned a study from John Oultram to provide guidelines for the use of the area. In Section 8.7, Oultram noted ‘there is considerable scope for new buildings on the site provided that they pay due regard to the scale of the surrounding areas’.

This also was very sensible – the 1950s flats could be demolished but make sure what you build in their place respects the scale of the conservation area across the road.

In 2011 the Glebe Affordable Housing Development Control Plan was passed to allow redevelopment of the land. It was also required to ‘protect, preserve and respond to the heritage significance of the surrounding heritage conservation area’.

As can be seen from the images below these controls were not very well implemented. 

The high rise outside the conservation area is now being used to undermine the conservation area itself.

Thus, Extent Heritage Pty Ltd in their Heritage Impact Statement [HIS] for the DA at 17-31 Cowper St note:

the proposal will allow for a structure that is substantially taller in height to the major significant character of the area. However, it should be noted that the dominant areas of low-scale residential terrace housing are located to the west and in the core of the heritage conservation area, while in immediate areas and the east we have many larger scale residential developments.

Efforts to mitigate this impact has been made through stepping the heights of development, with a lower three-storey development facing west towards the centre of the St Phillips Conservation Area. Here, the design has thoughtfully emulated the surrounding historic character with the three-storey terraces that front Mitchell Lane1, ensuring that area of the development does not overwhelm the opposite block of single-storey Victorian terraces.

The St Phillips Heritage Conservation Area is on the left side of Cowper St and the Glebe Affordable Housing Scheme on the right (source: Google street view)

Given that the site adjoins 42 terrace houses, the statement that ‘the dominant areas of low-scale residential terrace housing are located to the west and in the core of the heritage conservation area’ is disingenuous and the idea that five terrace houses can screen two eight-storey apartment buildings is ludicrous. Are these magic terrace houses which are being proposed?

Having argued on specious grounds that changing the scale of the western side of Cowper St from low rise to high rise at its northern end (the entire western side of the street, all half a kilometre of it, has no building higher than two storeys!) is acceptable, the Heritage Impact Statement then seeks to discredit the design of the infill which is to be demolished.

While the building is a representative example of the last major period of development in Glebe, there are other more interesting examples of this style of infill housing in the vicinity such as 2-18 Mount Vernon Street and 42-58 Catherine Street, Glebe [which is one apartment block].

This is a long-discredited idea of conservation based on a dubious notion of connoisseurship that you only need to keep the best example of a genre and everything else can go. How you identify what is the best is by no means straightforward and in any case there are so many other important things such as context, history and value to the community which determine heritage value.

The implications of this idea that you only need to keep the best example of an architect or building type are staggering. For example, Francis Greenway designed three churches in NSW: St Luke’s, Liverpool; St James’, Sydney and St Mathew’s, Windsor. Some argue St Mathew’s is the best, so if they are right that means other two can go.

St James’ can be replaced by a 20-storey building, because the NSW Supreme Court which is across the road in King St is 20 storeys high, but with the proviso that the new building has to have a low rise building at its east end to soften the interface between it and the Hyde Park Barracks. It will need to be one of these magic terraces the NSW LAHC are proposing for Glebe.

The Glebe Affordable Housing Project viewed from Cowper Lane (Source: Google street view)

The infill in Mount Vernon St and Catherine St – which Extent Heritage Pty Ltd like – was designed by John Gregory whilst that in Cowper St was by David Tory.

Mind you their report doesn’t tell us that, it’s strong on assertion and weak on evidence.

The eminent architectural historian Dr James Broadbent AM wrote of the Cowper St project:

the proposed development erodes the conservation area whose logical boundary is, and should remain, Cowper Street. This is not only a matter of maintaining the well and logically defined boundaries of the conservation area but also of respecting the planning ideas under-pinning the Glebe urban renewal scheme itself which can now be appreciated as a sophisticated and important piece of urban planning and heritage conservation planning of the late 20th century. That planning itself is of significant heritage value and should be respected, maintained and not amended piecemeal.

Just as the Glebe planning scheme as a whole is an important example of mid to late 20th century heritage conservation in urban areas, so the individual houses are fine and considered responses to the design and heritage significances of the 19th century houses. The respect and appreciation shown in the design of the infill houses to the scale, materials, colours, textures and forms of the old houses is masterful: sophisticated, romantic yet practical.

Extent have another argument in their armoury which is that ‘the buildings on the site, while marginally sympathetic infill styles, are not exemplary of their type and can potentially confuse interpretation of the mostly Victorian architectural values of the Conservation Area’.

The five new terraces and the two eight-storey apartment buildings from Paddy Doherty Reserve (Source: Johnson Pilton Walker, Design Report, Glebe Mid-Rise Project LAHC 2019/128 – BGW9F, 9 April 2021, p. 14)

They are saying that because 17-31 Cowper St echoes the form, scale and pattern of the neighbouring houses (as good infill in an historic townscape should) people might think it is a 19th-century building. What nonsense.

Curiously, they raise no such objection to the pair of eight storey apartments designed to look like woolstores, which are to replace the present building. Surely, if this logic applies to the building being demolished it must apply to the proposed buildings? In any case it is very confusing having the apartments based on an historic building type which does not occur in the St Phillips estate.

JPW, the architects for the development explain that

the Glebe Mid-Rise Project is a considered response to the site’s rich history and context. The urban form responds to the locality’s varied building typologies, old and new, and creates an effective and appropriate transition between adjoining blocks of different scales and uses. Using the precedents of Glebe woolstores and the Sydney terraces, we found an urban composition that fits comfortably with the surroundings, without compromising the amenity or liveability for residents and neighbours.

The woolstores that the proposed buildings are modelled on are in Ultimo not Glebe – a different suburb with a very different history. Preserving local identity is exactly what the Council’s City of Villages planning framework has been about, but it looks like that is now passé – so it is farewell to the St Phillip’s estate and welcome to little Ultimo. Confused and confusing is what this project is.

Another difficulty relates to amenity and liveability. The strength of the public housing in Glebe’s church estates has been the way it connects residents to the street and the community. This applies to both the old houses and the 1980s infill.

The urbanist Jan Gehl has written that

high rise separates people from the street, meaningful contact with ground level events is possible only from the first few floors in a multi-story building. Between the third and fourth floor, a marked decrease in the ability to have contact with the ground level can be observed. Another threshold exists between the fifth and sixth floors. Anything and anyone above the fifth floor is definitely out of touch with ground level events.

The public housing tenants in Glebe don’t need a Danish urbanist to tell them this, they know it from their lived experience. That is why they are fighting so hard to save the Franklyn St estate from being razed for high-rise.

The new apartment buildings are to have roof gardens. The architects say these ‘will provide a ‘backyard’ amenity to the apartment residents, and opportunities for social connection’. So, in the new St Phillips estate if you want to have an informal chat over the fence with your neighbours you will need to do it from an ultra-lite plane.

Glebe is a unique because of its proximity to the city, its coherence, its scale, its broad social demographic, the way the urban fabric integrates residents of public housing into the community in old houses, and well-designed low-rise infill. Now we are heading for a tale of two cities with the private owners in houses and the public housing tenants in high rise apartments.

Over the last five decades the policy of Commonwealth, State and Local government has been to conserve the heritage of Glebe. Substantial density has been added at the fringes, at Harold Park, for example but now it is eating its way into the conservation areas. In March Sydney City Council approved the removal of 17-31 Cowper St and 2A-D Wentworth Park Rd from the St Phillips Heritage Conservation Area but I understand this has not been enacted yet.

Many dubious arguments are being put to destroy the St Phillips conservation area such as if there is a low-rise Neutral2 building and it is close to a tall building, it can be demolished and replaced by a tall building. The most frustrating thing of all is that goal of creating additional public housing could be achieved by sensitive infill.

It is tempting when looking at the way Glebe’s highly evolved instruments for managing its conservation areas are being undermined, to give way to despair and think of the Bee Gees in respect of local and State Government, I think that you don’t mean a single word you say, It’s only words.

However, we do live in a democracy, local and State governments are elected and we have to keep the pressure up. When bad decisions are made such as spot rezoning in conservation zones, call it out. If bad developments proceed, call them out.

As Jack Mundey said at the 40th anniversary of the Glebe Society:

We have to redouble our efforts to make sure that whoever is in power in Macquarie St, we’ve got to tell them, that they can’t destroy all of Sydney and therefore we’ve got to fight for the heritage we own, for the heritage that we’ve built and the heritage we want to inherit.

The Glebe Society is lodging an objection to the Cowper St DA, you should too. The details of the DA can be found on the Council’s website. 

Anne Summers, The Little Green Book, the Facts on Green Bans, Tomato Press, Glebe, 1973, p. 19

Notes: 1. Actually, the backs and sides, not the fronts, of the terraces face Mitchell Lane and they are one and two storeys high not three. 2. Buildings in conservation areas are defined in the Development Control Plan as Listed, Contributory and Neutral.