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Adelaide Station and Environs Redevelopment Project (ASER) The redevelopment of the railway yards between the northern side of North Terrace and the Torrens River, an eyesore in the inner city, had interested state governments since 1970. In 1983, the Bannon government secured a $158 million development comprising an international hotel, a convention centre and an office tower to be located immediately west of the heritage-listed railway station in North Terrace. The ASER project was the largest single project in Adelaide involving the most complex heritage and planning issues at the time. The partners in the project were the South Australian Superannuation Fund Investment Trust (SASFIT) and the Japanese consortium Kumagai Gumi, forming the ASER Property Trust with equal shares, and underwritten by the state government. Through special legislation, the project progressed under the direction of the state government, bypassing the planning processes of the City of Adelaide.
During the debates in Parliament on the ASER Bill in 1984, the Opposition supported the project but objected to the style of the Bannon government in negotiating the contract, particularly its secrecy and sweeping powers. There were accusations of secret deals, negotiations behind closed doors and failure to consult the public and relevant public agencies. The Opposition also objected to the generous concessions extended to the developers: no land tax for 10 years, no other state charges or taxes, such as water, power, access roads, gas and sewerage during construction, and no stamp duty on any transaction for a five-year period. Further, the ASER Property Trust would own the new buildings, not the state government, when they repaid the loans.
The release of the hotel design in 1984 met public outcry from architects, planners, politicians, city councillors, heritage activists and journalists. Among many others, David Saunders, Professor of Architecture at The University of Adelaide, objected to the height and scale of the 23-storey hotel and adjacent conference and office towers crammed up against the heritage railway station, creating ‘an environment of the hungry commercial kind, crowding for profit’. With the project occupying only 40 per cent of the site, he claimed, it could have been spread out with a height and density compatible with the railway station and Festival Centre environment, Case Studies in Heritage Politics: Major Projects and it could have allowed a good connection to the River Torrens bank.2 In other words, the height of buildings should have reinforced the scale and character of the railway station site, and the design of the adjacent hotel should have respected and complemented the built form character of the heritage-listed railway station, as provided in principles 14 and 20 of the City of Adelaide Plan.
Adelaide Railway Station. AHA collection
Adelaide’s two daily newspapers were divided on the ASER project. The Advertiser consistently opposed it, while The News editor condemned the ‘Luddites’, saying it would ‘give a new look to the Adelaide skyline’. The editor added, ‘this state needs the ASER project. It needs the investment. It needs the jobs. It needs the visitor capacity it will provide … The scheme will enhance the appearance of the parklands and access to them’.3 Conservationists objected to the construction of commercial buildings on the Adelaide parklands. Except for the educational and cultural precinct of North Terrace, Government Surveyor Colonel William Light laid out the green belt of David Saunders, ‘The Best Address in Adelaide’, Adelaide Review, October 1984, p.3.
News, 26 September 1984, p.6.
Heritage Politics in Adelaide parklands around Adelaide and along the River Torrens in 1837. Governor Gawler purchased the parklands in 1839 for the citizens of Adelaide. Their plan of open space around the city has been more or less maintained since, with some notable exceptions.4 The ASER buildings were a marked departure from this plan, as noted
by Professor Saunders’ colleague Judith Brine:
The bulk and height of its buildings constitute a direct assault on the form of the City of Adelaide … and on the visual character of the parklands. … The highly commercial nature of the ASER buildings cannot be seen to be compatible with other uses that have, in the past, been introduced into this zone of the parklands.
The buildings proposed are neither those of civic dignity of purpose, nor have they the cultural value, nor do they enhance the function of the parklands as parklands.5 The Government intended to grant use of public property to a private trust, alienating the public land. Although the area was Crown land, critics perceived it as parklands intended for the ‘healthful recreation of the inhabitants of the city’, as described in the City’s Parklands Strategy. Public access to the river bank would be cut off, a criticism denied by Premier Bannon, who noted that North Terrace was already cut off from the Torrens by ugly railway yards and had been for 100 years. He said the plaza in front of the Hyatt Hotel would increase public areas and access to the Torrens would be improved, a claim disproved by the completed project.
The 1974 and 1977 City Plans had specified that ‘no major commercial, administrative or residential development should be permitted on the north side of North Terrace’ where the ASER project was located, but this provision was omitted from the 1981–86 Plan. AHA claimed it was deleted due to pressure on ACC to clear the way for the ASER project. In any case, to allow fast-tracking of the project, s.5(2) of the Adelaide Station Development Act 1984 provided that ‘no consent, approval or other authorisation [was] required under the City of Adelaide Development Control Act, 1976, in respect of the proposed development’.
By 1983, exceptions were the Adelaide Oval, Adelaide Zoo, Victoria Park Racecourse, Adelaide High School, Hackney Bus Depot with an administration building and tram barns, the Festival Centre and restaurants. Sporting clubs have been permitted to erect small buildings at their venues.
Judith Brine, ‘The Plan of Adelaide and the ASER Scheme’, Australian Planner, 22, 4, December 1984, p.8.
Case Studies in Heritage Politics: Major Projects ACC strongly criticised the Bannon government for its failure to consult effectively with either ACC or the CAPC. In 1984, the criticisms met an Orwellian reply from the Premier: ‘while the Government welcomed constructive views by the Council on aspects of the project such as parking and street facilities it was “just not on” to suggest fundamental changes to the project such as the location of the proposed building … [T]he final decisions rested with the Government’.6 The CAPC could only write to the Minister for Environment and Planning objecting to the size and bulk of the hotel and office tower plus the inadequacy of pedestrian access, public space and parking. Judith Brine, the public representative on the CAPC, later said, ‘I clearly remember that letter [to the Minister] because it was a humiliating experience trying to get something out of an impossible situation.
I remember the government coming down heavily on us. The government wanted approval and support and I am greatly sorry it got it’.7 All of the planning interest groups objected to the project. AHA and the Adelaide Residents’ Society organised a public meeting, chaired by MLC Ian Gilfillan, in Edmund Wright House on 17 October 1984 to enlist public support for changes to the project. Among the 80 people who attended were architecture, planning and heritage experts — such as Architecture Professor David Saunders, the President of the Royal Australian Planning Institute SA Branch, the executive director of the National Trust — plus councillors and alderman of ACC, representatives of AHA and the Adelaide and North Adelaide residents’ societies. Graham Inns, Director of Tourism and chairman of the ASER co-ordinating committee, represented the government and was the only person to support the project. With only one dissent,
the meeting resolved to write to the Premier seeking amendments to the plan:
‘A small delay at this stage may save years of recrimination and regret later’, was the prescient theme of the letter. However, the plans for the project were contained in regulations to the ASER Bill, and it was unlikely the developer would incur the costs of changing them unless required to do so.
When the ASER Act passed in the Legislative Council soon after the public meeting, the only remaining avenue for NGO objections was the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation. Criticisms of the project plans contained in the regulations to the Bill were submitted by ACC, the CAPC, AHA, the National Trust, the SA Civic Trust, the Royal Australian Planning Institute, the Local Government Planners’ Association and several architecture academics.
Advertiser, 11 September 1984, p.14.
Judith Brine, personal interview, 18 June 1998.
Heritage Politics in Adelaide The committee appeared not to grasp the significance of objections to the height, scale and density and the commercial nature of the project in the parklands, and those who testified left the meetings in despair.8 The Joint Committee, dominated by government members, recommended that the regulations be allowed. The Premier did not address publicly the criticisms about the building designs, saying repeatedly in Parliament and to the media, ‘I am guided by the developers’.9 The recycling of the railway station for the purpose of a casino, with its Marble Hall as a grand foyer, began in 1985. After the criticism engendered by the other plans, response to the casino was more favourable, and the Premier’s tone was upbeat when he spoke in 1985 of ‘this extraordinary palace’. He went on to say: ‘This is the only casino in Australia to use a Heritage building,’ and added, ‘the Adelaide Railway Station building was a fine example of 1920s public architecture, decorated with a unique level of opulence — with its rich blackwood timber panelling, massive pillars and delicate chandeliers — by a railways commissioner who appreciated quality’.10 He did not acknowledge the irony of the statement alongside the criticisms of the ASER buildings.
When plans for the 10-storey office tower were unveiled, the new Lord Mayor of Adelaide, Jim Jarvis, reacted strongly to the Premier’s assertion that he was guided by the developers. Charging that the government had ‘cast aside its responsibilities’, Mr Jarvis said he believed such guidance should come from the CAPC, which was the official body overseeing the City of Adelaide Plan. The Advertiser affirmed Jarvis’s charge: ‘it is a disappointing and curious sort of leadership that is prepared to be guided by developers rather than by the City of Adelaide Plan, the Adelaide City Council, the City of Adelaide Planning Commission and other such bodies, by a body of distinguished architects, planners, aesthetes, conservationists and concerned citizens, and even by the spirit of Colonel Light’.11 The government responded by approving the developer’s plan for the office tower.
After construction work on the hotel began in January 1985, the developer proposed to connect the hotel to the casino by a glass-enclosed bridge. Rebuffed by the government when it recommended changes to plans for the three commercial buildings, ACC aggressively opposed the pedestrian walkway, and the CAPC refused to allow alteration of a state heritage item to accommodate an entrance from the Recollection of the author, who testified at a hearing.
Advertiser 7 June 1985, p.1, and Parliamentary Debates, Vol. 3, p.3237.
News, 21 June 1985, p.14.
Advertiser, editorial, 7 June 1985, p.7.
Case Studies in Heritage Politics: Major Projects bridge into the building. The ASER Trust appealed to the Planning Appeals Tribunal, but the Tribunal rejected this appeal in a minor victory for ACC in what was a long and otherwise losing battle.
The ASER project was an extreme example of the ways in which political power was used to circumvent heritage and planning legislation during the Bannon decade.
The government’s autocratic style and disdain for principles of the City of Adelaide Plan spurred a widespread protest that involved people who would not ordinarily criticise a government publicly, a protest so strong that the Bannon government did not use the device of special legislation for a major project in Adelaide again.
The working relationships of the state government with ACC and CAPC became antagonistic, and the effectiveness of the CAPC was weakened. The outcome of this public resistance to global modernism that was to replace so much of Australia’s heritage in the following decade added to the growing community cynicism about government leadership in planning matters.
State Bank Centre At the end of 1985, the directors of the reconstituted State Bank of South Australia approved plans for a head office building that would, as Greg McCarthy put it, ‘tower over the Adelaide skyline as a symbol of the new corporate and global image of the bank’.12 The site designated for the tower at King William and Currie Sts was behind a prominent group of commercial buildings that formed one of the most important streetscapes in the Adelaide CBD. All of the buildings affected were listed in the Register of State Heritage Items, except the Adelaide Steamship building, which was to be demolished. The main objections to the proposal were the height of the office tower and the destruction of all but the façade of the heritage-listed Commonwealth Bank building in Currie St. As Greg McCarthy wrote, ‘what was of concern to local planners and historians was that the bank was seeking a special privilege to override Adelaide planning regulations to build six (sic) storeys above the height restrictions. … [Managing Director Tim Marcus] Clark took it on himself to openly lambast the South Australian heritage lobby saying the choice was between their backwardness and modernisation’.13 While the heritage and planning issues surrounding the project were not as complex as those of the ASER project, the approval processes for the State Bank Centre similarly Greg McCarthy, Things Fall Apart (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2002), p.195.
ibid., p.196. The completed building was eleven storeys above the height limit for the precinct.
Heritage Politics in Adelaide involved pressure from the state government, secrecy and government willingness to disregard planning and heritage legislation.
The bank engaged the services of Melbourne heritage consultant Richard Falkinger, who assured the State Heritage Branch and ACC that the heritage streetscapes would be retained. Portions of the rear of the State Bank and National Mutual buildings and all but fifteen metres of frontage of the Commonwealth Bank building would be removed to make way for the office tower. Heritage lobbyists objected to the loss of the grand interior space of the Commonwealth Bank chamber. AHA spokesman and architect Hamish Ramsay suggested to ACC a reconfiguration of the project, relocating the proposed State Bank tower near the corner of King William and Currie Sts in order to retain the chamber. Another AHA architect, Gerry Patitsas, later sketched the tower at the rear of the State Bank building in King William St to avoid demolition of the heritage chamber. In early 1986, ACC requested that the applicant submit ‘clearly presented material to support the claim that it is necessary to remove the former banking chamber in order to achieve a viable development on the site’. The bank’s Administrative Services Manager, KP Rumbelow, asserted that the Commonwealth banking chamber had undergone considerable changes since it was first constructed and at present has little architectural merit other than scale. He further claimed that no alternative site for the office tower was possible.
None of the ACC members had architectural training, although many had planning experience through their membership of ACC, and they did not challenge claims made by the bank’s administrative services manager that no alternative to the site chosen for the tower would be viable. Meetings were held behind closed doors at which members and ACC staff saw slides and models of the proposal.