Wilkinson House cornered and vulnerable. Photo: Lawrence Gibbons

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BY ALANA LEVENE

Darlinghurst residents are launching objections to a local school’s multimillion-dollar redevelopment plan, claiming that the upgraded facilities would overshadow their neighbourhood and undermine the community’s Victorian heritage.

SCEGGS Darlinghurst, a K-12 elite girls’ school, is seeking approval from the state Department of Planning and Environment for its $45 million 2040 Masterplan. The project will be funded entirely by the school and will be completed over the next couple of decades, said Jenny Allum, head of the school.

SCEGGS submitted its development application for the first stage, which includes demolishing the heritage-listed Wilkinson House and replacing it with a four-storey modern education space, according to Allum. Stage one would start in late 2020.

Wilkinson House was constructed in 1926, and its original form is still intact, according to a Heritage Considerations report on the Masterplan. The National Trust is preparing to submit an objection to Wilkinson’s demolition, said spokesperson Lyndal Stuart.

Since it was originally an apartment building, Wilkinson’s floor plan and traditional construction can’t serve the school’s needs, Allum said.

Divide and conquer

Residents have expressed concerns about the development.

Rodney Hanratty, who lives on Forbes Street, said the proposed multi-purpose six-storey education and childcare building would block his and his neighbours’ view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

SCEGGS sent representatives and a surveyor into his home, Hanratty said. They took photos to ascertain the view corridor.

“They have proceeded with the development in any case,” Hanratty said. “We have highlighted the damage they’re going to do to us, and they’ve ignored it.”

Richard Lyle moved to Thomson Street in 1981. He lives next to SCEGGS in a home that once housed school staffers.

“When I moved in, we had very amicable relationships with them,” Lyle said. “They were much more connected with the community, but that’s washed away over the years.”

If the Masterplan is approved, those on Thomson Street, like Lyle, could lose their overhead sunlight and much of their view of the city.

“They want to build a six-storey building that’ll come up right beside my house and completely overshadow me,” Lyle said. “All the lights and fresh air that I’m used to getting will be gone.”

Allum acknowledged these concerns and said they will be addressed.

“We want to make sure that we understand everyone’s perceptions and issues, and we will respond in a consolidated and coherent fashion,” Allum said.

In the process of soliciting community feedback, SCEGGS organized meetings with small groups of neighbours that met one at a time.

Hanratty thinks that the consultation was deliberately “divisive” in order to prevent residents from uniting in opposition to the plan.

“Instead of holding one big consultation, they’re being very clever and manipulating the process to break it up to look like they’re consulting,” Hanratty said. “But they’re actually dividing the community to make sure there’s not a consensus view formed.”

“They cleverly put us into smaller groups so that we wouldn’t all say, ‘now, wait a minute, whose goofy idea was this?’,” Lyle said.

Allum said there was no intention on the school’s part to divide residents. Rather, they were trying to explore residents’ concerns as they varied according to where they live.

“We know that the residents around Thomson Lane have very different concerns and perceptions than might affect the people who live on Bourke Street or in the Horizon building,” Allum said.

“Maybe the neighbours would have preferred to have a six-hour meeting,” she said. “We thought we were trying to be understanding of their busy lives.”

Now, Hanratty and Lyle say they’re scrambling to unite various neighbors and historical groups and get the City of Sydney Council to lobby in their favor.

Future plans

SCEGGS is also seeking concept approval for later stages of the Masterplan. It wants to demolish the library and science building on Bourke Street and the old gym building on Thomson Street, and refurbish the heritage-listed Barham building on Forbes Street.

After knocking the old buildings down, SCEGGS plans to build a six-storey multi-purpose building on Bourke Street and a three-storey administration building on Forbes Street.

The second and third parts of the plan are still in their concept stage, according to Allum. They’d need to get their own detailed development applications approved before moving forward, which wouldn’t start for another 10 or 15 years.

The multi-purpose building could include a 25-metre swimming pool or a childcare facility. School officials say they’re unsure what the building would be used for, since the future of education is uncertain.

Hanratty called it ”aggressive over-development.”

“I’m not saying private schools can’t have pools and all that stuff,” Hanratty said. “But if you want to do that, you need to move somewhere where you’ve got clean green fields and that sort of stuff. That’s not what SCEGGS is known for.”