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Last October, the State Government admitted defeat in its attempt to hand over Callan Park to developers, and instead announced that control and management of 40 of the hospital site’s 50 hectares would be given over to Leichhardt Municipal Council (LMC) under a 99-year lease.

At the time, Mayor Jamie Parker said the community had achieved a significant milestone in the battle to save Callan Park, “by stopping the huge overdevelopment proposed by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and the University of Sydney.”

The rejected development consisted of multi-storey apartments with bay views and a significant increase in the use of the existing campus around the Kirkbride Buildings, currently home to the Sydney College of the Arts. It was the fourth time in the last fifteen years the state government had tried to push through the sale and development of the 150-year-old site.

In May of this year, the state’s Planning Minister, Kristina Keneally, announced a Heads of Agreement would be drawn up for the division of responsibilities regarding Callan Park, to be followed by a management plan drawn up by LMC in consultation with all stakeholders. In response to this, Cr Parker observed that Council would need financial help from the State Government. But a binding commitment has not been forthcoming. “Producing the Master Plan will cost more than $250,000, upgrading the unoccupied heritage buildings could be as much as $90 million, and the cost of general maintenance and security [is] about $1.2 million per year – and there is an unknown potential cost for remediation,” he said. To put these costs in perspective, Council’s total rate income is around $35 million a year.

Callan Park's future is still up in the air

Callan Park's future is still up in the air

Callan Park was first established by the NSW government as a lunatic asylum (later known as a ‘mental hospital’) in 1882. Substantial sections of the hospital had been closed by 1992 and the Health Department completed the shutdown in April 2008, leaving almost one hundred functional buildings behind. They range from the magnificent sandstone wards and the iconic belfry on and around the Kirkbride Precinct to the smaller buildings scattered over the park, the last construction taking place in the 1970s.

After strong public protest, the ‘Callan Park (Special Provisions Act)’ was passed by State Parliament in 2002. This Act effectively prevents any housing on the site and names LMC as the consent authority for any development. The Act specifically rules out Age Care facilities as a possible use.

Following the departure of the NSW Health Department, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA) took over maintenance and management. There are various tenants or lessees currently occupying parts of the site – the most notable being NSW Ambulance, the Sydney College of the Arts, the NSW Writers Centre and We Help Ourselves (WHOS).

A final decision on the fate of the park seems some way off. According to Hall Greenland, of the Friends of Callan Park (FOCP) community action group, Callan Park is still in limbo. “Although the SHFA are doing a good job, the fact that many of these buildings are vacant is leading to neglect and vandalism,” he said. “People have started pillaging copper flashings and downpipes, which will hasten deterioration. The two War Memorials are falling to bits.”

FOCP say that parts of the site should be recommissioned as a mental hospital and that the overwhelming majority of local residents support this idea. The Health Department says it has no plans to reoccupy the site, but Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell recently reconfirmed the Opposition’s promise to, “restore a world-class psychiatric hospital at Callan Park if elected to government in 2011.”

An article on the FOCP website sums up the worry. “Things have not got any better on the mental health front in NSW. Hundreds of people with a mental illness are still being sent to prison. Magistrates and judges don’t want to do this, it’s just they don’t have any alternatives. And yet perfectly modern buildings stand empty and ready for patients at Callan Park. Re-opening the psychiatric hospital or at least extensive mental health facilities at Callan Park is a pressing humanitarian need.”

Other potential uses for the park include sport and fitness clubs, community group headquarters, gardens, play areas and public open space. Mayor Parker said that over 200 local groups and organisations have registered their interest in the site, and that a “lively debate” on the master plan is expected after the Heads of Agreement is resolved. “Forty hectares of coastal park is a real win for the Leichhardt LGA and we intend to make the most of it.”

by Jeremy Brown