Memories of machinations

MSB project manager John Sturday reviews plans near Pier 6/7, 2003 (RMS).

During the last few decades of the 20th century, Walsh Bay’s State-owned wharves were rotting and risked collapse. JOHN STURDAY, managing these properties for the Maritime Services Board, recalls the conflicts which threatened rejuvenation.

All the Walsh Bay piers had been abandoned for shipping since the advent of container ships and were used mainly for short-term storage. Two exceptions in the early 1980s were that the MSB leased out Pier One for a marketplace and restaurant, and Neville Wran’s government refurbished Wharf 4/5 as new venue for theatre and performing arts groups.

These new cultural uses stopped the MSB’s plans to extend the Darling Harbour wharves into Walsh Bay. So government agencies began to reconsider what to do with the Walsh Bay wharves.

There was a push from the heritage community to preserve all the old structures. We engaged architects Travis Partners to produce a heritage study of the area. This was in late 1984 or early 1985—just when the government, under Public Works Minister Laurie Brereton, began to redevelop Darling Harbour and the Circular Quay wharves in time for the 1988 Bicentennial celebrations.

In August 1985, the MSB’s new Minister, Laurie Brereton, announced that we would call for proposals to redevelop the precinct. The Expression of Interest (EoI) opportunity was advertised in March 1986.

We culled the submissions down to four parties that were considered worthy of tendering for the project. Tenders were called in August 1987 and closed on 20 November. The tender document included the Travis guidelines on which heritage elements needed to be preserved.

On 29 November, nine days after tenders closed, Premier Barrie Unsworth placed a permanent conservation order (PCO) over the Walsh Bay precinct. This required the MSB to give more time to the four development groups to revise their proposals. The Heritage Council of NSW adopted the Travis guidelines and these were appended to the PCO.

In March 1988, the State Government changed. The Labor Party lost the election and Nick Greiner became the Liberal Premier and soon after created a new Department of State and Regional Development (DSRD) under Deputy Premier Wal Murray. Its role was to look after State-significant projects.

Meanwhile the MSB and its advisors analysed the tenders and selected Ipoh Garden (Australia) as the preferred bidder. The most ambitious proposal in its scheme was a new Venice-inspired canal to be carved along the south side of Hickson Road.

The Government decided that DSRD should run the Walsh Bay project. They reviewed the tender process and decided that there were two bids—CRI and Ipoh—that were comparable. DSRD suggested there should be a ‘Dutch auction’ to see if they could raise their monetary offers.

Ultimately CRI won the bid with an upfront payment of approximately $73 million. A three-month negotiation period began with CRI, towards a deadline of 26 December 1988. The MSB pulled back from the project during the negotiations because there were some disagreements between the agencies and it was agreed that DSRD would take charge.

On Christmas Eve 1988 it became obvious that CRI would not meet the deadline. Minister Wal Murray, agreed to extend the negotiation and a development agreement was signed on 12 January 1989, after a marathon meeting ended around 3am.

During this time the Department of Planning (DoP) prepared the Sydney Regional Environmental Plan No 16 (Walsh Bay). This created a new urban conservation zone, where the DoP would be the development consent authority. Previously the MSB was the approval authority below the mean high water mark (MHWM—including the wharves) and the City of Sydney council was the approval authority above MHWM (covering the Shore buildings and the Bond Stores on Hickson Road). SREP 16 was gazetted in late 1989.

SREP 16 conservation zone plan, showing the wharves as extensions of the land area.

In February 1990, Leader of the Opposition Bob Carr accused Wal Murray of corruption over the Walsh Bay project. He said that there had been leaks of information during the tender process, that the development had grown and extra money wasn’t being paid for the development rights.

In response to these allegations, Wal Murray referred the matter to the newly formed Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), which held 40 days of hearings. Its report, published in October 1990, did not identify corruption. The ICAC report is here.

CRI withdrew from the project in mid-1990.

After the ICAC inquiry, the MSB went back to Ipoh to see if they were willing to recommence negotiations, but they declined.

Plans for Walsh Bay were delayed for about five years, until the mid-1990s.

During the early to mid-1990s, there was a general lull in government development. But Walsh Bay was becoming an exciting node of new arts and cultural activity. The Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Dance Company and other small companies were performing regularly. The Belgiorno-Nettis family (which owned Transfield, a major construction company, and the Biennale of Sydney)arranged to use Bond Store 3 on Windmill Street and Pier 2/3 as their non-gallery event venues for the 1992 Biennale of Sydney. The MSB was being approached regularly to help facilitate various arts exhibitions and one-off events. 

The wharves and bond stores were also popular as film sets and photography locations. Brooke Shields filmed a movie in one of the bond stores. Oscar and Lucinda was filmed on Pier 8/9 and the Sydney Writers Festival began to use the wharves as a venue. Pier One was redeveloped from the marketplace to a boutique hotel.

During the early 1990s, Premier John Fahey’s Liberal government worked with Lord Mayor Frank Sartor’s city council to win the 2000 Olympics—which catalysed an upturn in government development later in the decade. Pier 8/9 was given a coat of paint to impress Olympic delegates embarking on trips around the Harbour, leaving from Moore’s Wharf.

In 1995, the government switched again to Labor and Bob Carr became Premier. Among changes around the Department of Public Works, Chris Johnson was appointed as the new Government Architect.

The MSB Property Branch was busy redeveloping the Woolloomooloo Finger Wharf, (which opened 9 November 2000) and King Street Wharf at East Darling Harbour for restaurants and charter boats facilities (which were needed to cater for the anticipated influx of Olympic visitors).

The Olympics also refreshed interest in what could happen at Walsh Bay and the government decided to call for new proposals.

Another tendering process in the late 1990s was won by a joint venture of Transfield and Mirvac. This tender was run jointly by the MSB and the Department of Public Works—and an agreement was signed in 1997.

However, after Transfield and Mirvac inspected the site in more detail, they realised that the structures were in far worse condition than they had thought. After further negotiations with the government, they resigned from the Development Agreement in 1998.

Meanwhile the Heritage Council, influenced by the National Trust, was becoming concerned about the proposed new building works. The trust organised rallies at Walsh Bay, with some demonstrators arriving by boat. The MSB was pressured to undertake basic maintenance, rather than let the wharves fall into the Harbour. However the MSB had moved out most of the temporary tenants some time earlier, so there was no revenue to fund much maintenance.

Premier Carr and Government Architect Chris Johnson discussed some successful new overseas cases of ‘adaptive reuse’ of obsolete industrial complexes and a French expert, architect Philippe Robert, was appointed to advise on the project. He suggested separating the wharves from the shore sheds on Piers 6/7 and 8/9, to create a waterfront promenade with ample northerly sunshine.

Philippe Robert also reviewed the original two-storey plans for Pier 6/7 (which had been truncated to only one storey because of shortages during World War I). He suggested rebuilding Pier 6/7 as two storeys, similar in structural silhouette to the building originally planned, but now to include modern apartments and ample underwater car parking. To enable his proposals, the government passed a new Walsh Bay Act in 1999.

Construction of the Walsh Bay scheme began in 1999 and was mostly completed by 2002, with the last building works finished in 2010 and the last 99-year lease signed in 2011—some 25 years after the precinct’s redevelopment was first discussed.

John Sturday (left) with Walsh Bay precinct manager Luke Meads on Pier 2/3, 2007 (RMS).

Note During this redevelopment, the Maritime Services Board was the main NSW government agency that managed the State’s waterways. Later it was reorganised several times. Its current incarnation is Roads and Maritime Services (RMS).