Sydney Town Hall and the Woolworths building across the street with the light rail construction site across the road. Photo: Allison Hore

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by Allison Hore

Despite being in the works for over two decades, Sydney’s proposed Town Hall Square is still in limbo, with a spokesperson for Sydney Council unable to provide any information about the starting or completion dates of the project.

The Town Hall Square development is a key part of the City of Sydney’s Sustainable Sydney 2030 project, which aims to make Sydney a more “green, global and connected city”. The Square would open up the area opposite Sydney’s Town Hall and create a public gathering place similar to those in other cities.

The planned square would complement the George Street light rail and be part of a new CBD pedestrian boulevard which connects three city squares at Circular Quay, Central Station and Town Hall.

“Good planning and urban design is essential to ensure that as the city grows, its buildings, streets, squares and parks are beautiful and sustainable, supporting the wellbeing and resilience of residents, workers and visitors,” writes the City of Sydney Council in its Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategic plan.

Early plans for the Town Hall Square had the space as a 5,300 square metre area at street level, with an underground retail and supermarket precinct.

The Square would be used for both ceremonial and everyday purposes, and would be similar to public squares in Melbourne and Brisbane opposite their town halls.

“This is a long-term vision for the people of Sydney,” Lord Mayor Clover Moore told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2004. “It will provide a legacy for residents, workers and visitors.”

The timeframe for the project’s completion was unclear, but at that time, in 2004, the council suggested the project would take “10 years at most”.

When asked about current funding for the project, the spokesperson replied, “there are currently no funds set aside for the Square’s development”.

Despite the lack of a budget for the project, the spokesperson confirmed that buildings on the block had been already been purchased with the project in mind.

“The City has been acquiring properties for the future development of a Town Hall Square,” she said.

In 2004, the City of Sydney acquired the building on 207 Pitt Street for $19.9 million. At that time it already owned the Woolworths building directly opposite Town Hall, as well as the Hotel Coronation and the Lowes building on the corner of Pitt and Park streets.

In early comments on the development of the Square, Clover Moore said that the City of Sydney would consider compulsory acquisitions of the buildings they were unable to negotiate a purchase for.

“Acquisition of all of the properties will be by negotiation, where possible, or failing a satisfactory negotiation, by compulsory acquisition,” Moore told the Sydney Morning Herald.

One of the final pieces of the puzzle, the Pittsway Arcade, was purchased by the City of Sydney in 2016 for $43 million. No moves for compulsory acquisition of the remaining properties have yet been made.

Former NSW Minister for Transport, David Campbell, said in 2009 that the planned CBD Metro rail line would provide the opportunity for the Square to finally go ahead.

But construction of the Pitt Street Metro station, which was originally meant to be on the Town Hall Square site, has begun on a city block adjacent to the proposed Town Hall Square location.

Campbell told the ABC that negotiations had already begun with owners and leaseholders in the buildings on the site which were set to be demolished.

However, almost a decade later, demolition of the buildings doesn’t look like it is anywhere on the horizon. Businesses are still operating in all of the buildings and new leases were being offered even in October this year. The price of renting office space in Pittsway Arcade runs from $550 per square metre.

“Commercial revenue generated from the properties is used to fund city services,” the City of Sydney spokesperson said.

The idea of a Town Hall Square was first proposed in the 1980s and revived by former mayor Frank Sartor. He said that for the plan to go ahead they would need to wait for the Woolworths’ lease of the George Street building to expire in 2015.

A spokesperson for Woolworths said that they couldn’t provide any details of their lease at the Town Hall location because “the details of these leases are confidential”, but he confirmed that the lease had not run out in 2015.

With major anchor stores like Woolworths still trading business-as-usual, with new leases being offered and with a change of location for the Pitt Street Metro station, the future of Town Hall Square remains uncertain.