By Lorraine Beach, Marrickville Heritage Society, Bulletin 10/2023, December
The following article is reproduced with the permission of the Marrickville Heritage Society. It appeared in their Sept-Oct 2023 bulletin. Clearly, examples noted in the article do not refer to Glebe/Forest Lodge, but members of both the Glebe Society’s Heritage and Planning Subcommittees believe the issues raised are equally relevant to us.
The housing situation in Australia is currently foremost in the media and in politics and is an everyday crisis for many. The waiting list for social housing in NSW was in excess of 57,000 applicants in June 2022. The terms NIMBY (not in my back yard) and now YIMBY (yes in my back yard) have become part of our vocabulary. YIMBYs are vocal in targeting the inner west and its heritage protections, with media articles in particular highlighting heritage protection in Marrickville and Dulwich Hill as a roadblock to their vision of high-density development. The camps are polarised, but there is some common ground.
The YIMBYs website says this:
‘Do you want more affordable housing? Do you support cycleways and an active walking and cycling network? Are you up for living in a buzzy city with nightlife and outdoor dining? Do you welcome new business and new residents in your neighbourhood? Do you back funding and spaces for arts and culture? Do you say yes to tangible action on climate change, like rain gardens and trees rather than car parks?’ And: ‘The things that make city living attractive – convenient access to jobs, amenities, goods and services – is [sic] made possible by density.’
High property values
It wasn’t always so, but this century the inner west, particularly the Marrickville area and surrounding suburbs, has become a highly desirable location to live in. It is a classic example of a historic urban landscape. There are walkable streets, plenty of green space, cycle pathways, walking pathways, a multicultural population, loads of history to be appreciated by those interested, quirky lanes and many odd and old buildings given new life to support a vibrant mix of businesses – pubs, clubs, restaurants, galleries, artisan workshops, cafes, boutique breweries, to mention just some. You name it, you can probably find it in Marrickville. Add its proximity to the city, good transport connections and its rating as ‘the tenth coolest neighbourhood in the world’ in 2020 because it already offers all the benefits cited in the YIMBY mantra above, it should be no surprise that it’s a target for demanding increased living options. Another YIMBY quote: ‘I want to be able to live near where I want to spend my time’.
Gentrification has occurred gradually as people gravitated to this area for all the reasons already described. Most people criticised as ‘NIMBY elitists intent on protecting their property values’ did nothing to cause the escalation of values except buy their homes when the area was undesirable (cheap) and then continue to live in, appreciate, embrace and encourage a growing, changing and multicultural neighbourhood.
The area is the product of successive councils who have striven to retain and celebrate its special character, listened to some heritage concerns and implemented protections, while still accommodating numerous residential developments towards achieving targets of increased density.
No density without amenity
Marrickville Heritage Society (MHS) President Scott MacArthur, an accomplished architect who works in urban design, is a committed heritage advocate. In response to media approaches, Scott has provided lengthy explanations about the Society’s position on the present thrust for higher density and removal of heritage protections. He notes we are losing our dwindling stock of important heritage properties: Otaki (a prominent Federation villa on Marrickville Road), the three Victorian villas on the old Marrickville Hospital site, much of Illawarra Road, and the Church of Christ to name the more prominent sacrifices to development.
Scott says that media comment and subsequent debate over the ‘heritage vs affordable housing’ duality was the very premise that made Inner West Council refuse to heritage-list and protect the Church of Christ on Illawarra Road at Marrickville contrary to the recommendations of the heritage study the Council had commissioned. It was a particularly bruising debate.
The loss of the Church of Christ building was keenly felt by our Society and the wider community that values heritage and the amenity of our built environment. We are not elitist NIMBYs trying to lock down our suburbs and turn them into museums, but concerned residents and business people who do not want to sacrifice the already pressured amenity of our area for illusory cheap housing solutions. We support measures that will retain the social and cultural heterogeneity of our suburbs, but heritage and new residential opportunities are not mutually exclusive.
Scott explained that his comment in relation to illusory cheap housing relates to how vague this term is and how ill-defined is the desired outcome of the YIMBY movement. By cheap housing, are the pro-developers looking for ‘build to rent’, social housing, affordable housing, boarding houses, or just an apartment in Marrickville they can afford? How cheap is cheap? And can anyone say how many new buildings that would be? Are we supposed to support building enough new houses, apartments or granny flats to roll back 20 years of real estate price escalation?
The role of heritage protection
Scott said that MHS is very supportive of Inner West Council’s proposal to consult the community about expanding protection of our environmental heritage with new and enlarged Heritage Conservation Areas. Heritage protection does not seek to stop change, or to turn our suburbs into museums – it rather aims to manage change. Heritage listing can help prevent the worst excesses of over-development, while the essential fabric and character of the environment are retained.
The process to establish heritage protections is exhaustive – years of research and community consultation are undertaken, and all levels of local and State government are required to agree on the extent and type of protections that are involved.
A critical part of protection is providing a framework that allows the heritage environment to be conserved, adapted and modified to ensure that it retains its heritage values and vitality. Heritage places need viable and sympathetic uses for their preservation – whether this is their original and ongoing use, or a compatible new use. Established buildings that have outlasted their original uses have been adapted and repurposed for new uses for millennia. Specifically, in our locality, over the last century, old Federation mansions and Victorian villas have been converted to flats and boarding houses, contributing to our LGA already having the second highest proportion of ‘affordable housing’ in the State. Competent architects working with experienced heritage professionals and enterprising developers have demonstrated that heritage does not stop affordable housing – it enriches it.
Supporting Scott’s comments, there are numerous examples in our immediate vicinity of higher density housing and heritage working well – for one, the outcomes achieved by the Marrickville Library project that harmoniously included the former hospital’s heritage buildings and 250 apartments, 9 of them affordable housing.
Over-development is not a solution
It is naive to imagine that if developers are allowed to produce enough apartments to saturate the place it will counteract high property prices. Real estate values don’t work that way, and it is not the role of developers to solve the problem of a shortage of housing.
The YIMBYs want to stop all heritage listings so that they can seemingly build ‘enough’ new housing to solve the housing crisis. As hundreds of new dwellings and apartments built in Marrickville over the last decade attest, more dwellings do not mean cheaper housing! The Victoria Road Precinct, for instance, covers 18 hectares and will provide up to 1,100 apartments. The first buildings, containing 272 apartments, are nearing completion. The 1-bedroom units start at $745,000, 2-bedroom at $1.06 million and 3-bedroom units are sold out. As for affordable housing, we understand the proposed contribution is 3% of the stock to be built.
The housing crisis is full of complexities. It is far more than being able to afford to rent or buy in the desirable area you want to live in. The difference between ‘cheap housing’ and affordable housing or social housing is vast and it is apparently easy to lose sight of the real crisis – to provide enough housing for the 57,000 who are looking at a possible 10-year wait on a list that gets longer rather than shorter.
Heritage is a soft target, but not the culprit
As for the debate over ‘get rid of heritage protections and build more high rise’, ‘heritage’ is a soft target and easy to blame. The reality, though, is that a battle between heritage and YIMBYs makes no progress in addressing the real issues that have created a housing crisis and neither will it help to solve it.
Our Society has the view that change is inevitable, and we are not opposed to change or development. There is, however, a critical need for balance so that development is guided by planning professionals and sensitive designers, producing good long term solutions. If we make mistakes now and destroy what everyone values and enjoys in our historic urban neighbourhoods, they will lose their people, their quirkiness, the businesses that thrive here and, ultimately, their appeal and liveability.
For more understanding of boarding houses in Marrickville, Society member Gabby Richards has done a deep analysis of low-cost housing, and where it is most prevalent, on her website Marrickville Unearthed. The story about 387 Illawarra Road is highly recommended. Alarmingly, Gabby’s analysis reveals the reality of new boarding houses: they are not delivering the diversity of accommodation needs that the Department of Planning intended. ‘Ten-year population projections show limited growth in the Inner West with an average household size that can’t be homed in boarding house style accommodation. As far as social housing is concerned, the Inner West provides 194 boarding houses, a ratio of one boarding house per less than 1,000 people in the LGA. This is second to only the City of Sydney. Marrickville is contributing well above what could be expected from an LGA with a population of 182,000. All 23 boarding houses in the suburb of Marrickville are traditional style boarding houses that better meet the needs of the marginalised and dispossessed.’
For more examples of the architectural design of social housing in a heritage context, the Australian Institute of Architects has excellent articles on its website.
For more background on the loss of Otaki and the Church of Christ, visit Heritage Watch on the Marrickville Heritage Society website.