Turnbull, Keating team up to rejuvenate the birthplace of Australia’s bureaucracy

By Harley Dennett

Tuesday November 27, 2018

The New South Wales government’s effort to rejuvenate the historic Macquarie Street East precinct, home to some of Australia’s earliest public buildings, was looking like it had become stuck — until yesterday that is, when it was announced that two big names had agreed to join the project.

Lucy Turnbull, former Sydney lord mayor, and Paul Keating, former prime minister, will now work together to develop a long-term vision for the precinct on the eastern fringe of the CBD.

The precinct includes The Mint, Hyde Park Barracks, State Library, Sydney Hospital and NSW Parliament on what the government’s draft strategic framework refers to as “Sydney’s Ceremonial Street” and a “great cultural walk”. Continue past the library and adjacent to the Botanic Gardens is the Chief Secretary’s building, originally the Colonial Secretary’s building, and the Old Treasury building (now the InterContinental Hotel), which since 1849 housed the NSW Treasury, Audit Office, Premier’s Department, Police Department, and Ministry of Transport.

The public servants have all left, of course, largely for new offices in Sydney’s west — which, by a curious twist of fate, is closer to Australia’s oldest public building, Old Government House on Parramatta Park.

Ironically, the earliest history of the New South Wales fledgling government is better documented than the beginnings of this rejuvenation project, which appears to have started and stopped for decades — much of it at the urging of Keating as then prime minister in the early 1990s — until a new burst of activity in 2015 led to the commissioning of architects McGregor Coxall to “unlock a hidden gem … tying the site into the wider ‘cultural ribbon’ that spans the Sydney CBD”.

Source: McGregor Coxall

Then, in 2016, the NSW Government Architect partnered with architects Hassell to produce a draft strategic framework for the precinct, and some public consultation was undertaken to identify if the framework’s criteria met approval, but it’s been fairly quiet ever since.

Earlier this year, Victor Dominello, Minister for Finance, Services and Property, confirmed the framework was still being considered, and will consider the heritage and history of the land’s traditional owners, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation.

“The Call for Ideas resulted in suggestions from the community that included better connections, creating new cultural activities and events, and preserving quieter spaces,” he said in July.

“The Macquarie Street East precinct is a living example of the state’s and nation’s colonial and civic history. All buildings in this precinct remain in active use and are maintained accordingly. Examples include restoration of the stonework at Sydney Hospital and the works underway to improve public access to and through the State Library’s historic Mitchell Wing.

“Buildings in the Macquarie Street East precinct are subject to varying levels of heritage protection, a number having the highest level of protection reflected by being listed on the state’s Heritage Register. Any projects to adaptively reuse or enhance government owned buildings in this precinct will be subject to the usual development and heritage approval processes.”

Yesterday, Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Treasurer Dominic Perrottet were quiet about whether Turnbull and Keating were joining to boost the project, or restart it. Both have extensive experience on projects of historical importance to Sydney.

“I am delighted two of the most passionate advocates for Sydney have agreed to work together on ways to enhance what is already one of the jewels in this city’s glittering crown,” Berejiklian said.

“Our aim is to make this area, with its historic buildings and beautiful gardens, an even more vibrant place for locals and tourists to enjoy.”

Turnbull said as Sydney continued to grow it was important to ensure the use of open space evolved and adapted.

“I feel very privileged to be given the opportunity to help create a long-term vision for a precinct that encapsulates so much history, beauty and cultural relevance dating back tens of thousands of years,” Turnbull said.

“It has long deserved better connections and access, so that more Sydneysiders and visitors can enjoy this precious precinct.”

The government is expecting an initial report by mid-2019.

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