By Erika Echternach
For as deep and rich as Parramatta’s history is, it has an equally long history of seeing its heritage sites demolished to for the sake of development.
Most recently, freshly released State Government documents regarding the Powerhouse Museum move revealed that Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s wrecking ball is poised to strike again – this time aimed at Parramatta’s Willow Grove and St George’s Terrace heritage sites.
The new information sparked a petition dedicated to saving the sites, which received over 10,000 signatures within one week.
The petition was organised by the North Parramatta Residents’ Action Group, a community group founded to promote the preservation and activation of Parramatta’s publicly owned parklands and public landscapes.
The group’s president, Aidan Anderson, said the petition demonstrates the locals’ opposition to losing their heritage sites.
“This has created a lot of community angst, a lot of community resentment,” Mr Anderson said. “People in Parramatta are really attached to the Willow Grove building, and what they see around them is basically State Government knocking everything down and replacing it with deals for developments.”
The locals’ strong attachment to the heritage sites was made evident when one resident, upon noticing Willow Grove being photographed for this article, paused to express her gratitude that someone was appreciating the site. The woman then proudly shared the history of the building and lamented its pending destruction.
Donna Davis, a member of the City of Parramatta Council, explained that both the at-risk sites hold significant meaning for many members of the community, especially Willow Grove which used to serve as a maternity hospital.
“The wonderful thing is that there were so many people who were born in that building that still live in and around Sydney, and so it has another layer of that history and story and links to so many people, which makes it so much more important that we save it,” Cr Davis said.
Mr Anderson added that Willow Grove’s extensive history makes the building worth protecting.
“It’s a beautiful building. It’s been in Parramatta for 150 years now and I think there’s an obligation for governments to preserve heritage and to preserve history, rather than demolish it,” Mr Anderson said.
Cr Davis agreed that those in authority maintain a responsibility to safeguard the city’s heritage.
“We just can’t let these buildings on our watch, as the custodians of this city, be taken away from future generations,” Cr Davis said. “It’s just not the right thing to do.”
But Cr Davis said that since colonial settlement days Parramatta has had its future decided by others, such as the state and federal governments.
“And we continue to be dictated to by others,” Cr Davis said. “We’re given what they believe we should have and what is good for us.”
Cr Davis said Parramatta is of the age to stand up for itself and advocate for what’s important to the community.
However, when questioned about the Powerhouse move, a City of Parramatta Council spokesperson responded, “The Sate Government will be responsible for developing and approving the project, including any matters in relation to the heritage items.”
Now, Cr Davis initiated a motion recommending the Council advises the NSW State Government on considering local heritage items within the design brief, hoping to preserve St George’s Terrace and Willow Grove and incorporate them into the design of any development on the Powerhouse Site.
Cr Davis said she is not against development, but it’s important that the city’s heritage be preserved in the process.
“I’m very disappointed that the state government is considering putting apartment blocks and business buildings on what should be our cultural site,” Cr Davis said. “If that was not part of their plan, there would be more scope and more opportunity to save those buildings.”
Although the historical buildings still have a chance of being saved depending on which design is chosen for the new museum, Cr Davis said the Council is concerned the sites will be demolished because it has yet to see any evidence in the business papers indicating that preserving the heritage sites is a priority.
“The priority seems to be making money,” Cr Davis said. “And that is going to take precedence over the heritage.”
Patricia Johnson, a member of the Ultimo Save the Powerhouse group, said everyone would win if the government did what the people wanted and kept the museum in Ultimo, but with the current plan to demolish historical sites everyone loses.
“The move of the Powerhouse obviously involves destroying heritage,” Ms Johnson said.
Mr Anderson remarked, “The irony is that you’re knocking down eight heritage listed buildings in order to put a museum of heritage in Parramatta.”
Mr Anderson suggested that rather than demolishing heritage sites to move a second rate, hatchet job version of the Powerhouse to a floodplain at the bottom of two 250 metre skyscraper towers, an arts and cultural precinct could be built at the 26-hectare Fleet Street Heritage Precinct in North Parramatta.
But based on the government’s past decisions, Mr Anderson doubts it will alter any plans.