Progress versus preservation as Parramatta transforms into Sydney’s ‘dual CBD’

What happens when you attempt to build Australia’s “next great city” on the site of its second oldest one? You get battlefields. Lots of them.

Parramatta is in the throes of a heritage war, the likes of which the country has rarely seen.
In colonial terms, the riverbank city is about as old as it gets. But Parramatta is now experiencing unprecedented growth and development, captured in the proud council tag-line: “We’re building Australia’s next great city.”

Dubbed “Sydney’s dual CBD” by the state government, there is $8 billion of development, a light rail network and the Parramatta Square urban renewal project in the pipeline.

But in a city as old as Parramatta – it was settled only a few months after Sydney – it is difficult to build much without disturbing the bones of the past.

The National Trust’s Parramatta branch president Brian Powyer​ said advocates were worn out trying to keep on top of the mounting development plans. There are nearly 500 heritage listings in Parramatta, he said.

“Parramatta is probably the most valuable heritage site in Australia,” Mr Powyer said.

Below are some of the major flashpoints as Parramatta’s past butts against its present and future.

The Cumberland Hospital Heritage precinct
Probably the most heated battle involves a collection of state-heritage listed buildings which form, according to advocates, “the most intact convict site in the world”.

The site houses a number of significant buildings – including the former Roman Catholic orphanage, Parramatta Asylum and Parramatta Girls Home – which reflect the formative years of the colony.

The jewel of the site is the 1818 Francis Greenway-designed Female Factory, which was the destination for all unassigned convict women sent to NSW.


The Female Factory, in about 1938. Photo: Fairfax Photo Library

As part of the government’s Parramatta North Urban Transformation Project, there are plans to build 3900 dwellings, with buildings up to 30 storeys tall, near the precinct.

The building are largely neglected and inaccessible and UrbanGrowth NSW says the development intends to “activate heritage, rather than ‘mothball’ it, through restoration and adaptive reuse of buildings”.

But Greater Western Sydney Heritage Action Group founder June Bullivant said it would prevent future protection of the site.

She compared the campaign to save the precinct with the battle to save The Rocks from being transformed into skyscrapers in the 1970s.

“Once they push even one building there, that disturbs what is there, that stops you from any chance of world heritage listing,” Ms Bullivant said.

The Director of Heritage Conservation at the University of Sydney, Cameron Logan, said there was a real risk in Parramatta that heritage items would be dwarfed by the construction of tall buildings.

“Dwarfing is when you essentially make a mockery of their context by allowing development of very tall buildings right in the vicinity,” Dr Logan said.

“If assessed properly that shouldn’t happen and the development framework shouldn’t enable that but it happens and we have seen it in Australian cities before.”

The Lennox Bridge
The heated debate over the Lennox Bridge, one of the country’s oldest bridges, encapsulates another aspect of the tension between preservation and progress in Parramatta.

The debate over the bridge, built by convicts between 1836 and 1839 and designed by the colony’s first superintendent of bridges David Lennox. revolved around its reappropriation.


Heritage campaigners fought for years to prevent two tunnels being drilled through the sides of the bridge to create a continous pedestrian and cycleway path along the Parramatta River.

They ultimately lost their fight, and the portals were opened for use for the city’s New Year’s Eve celebrations this year.

“There are a lot of sites in Parramatta that have been relatively under the radar for a long time and things are now starting to change,” said Associate Professor Michael Darcy, the director of the University of Western Sydney’s Urban Research Centre.

Parramatta Gaol
According to Associate Professor Darcy, the adaptive re-use of Parramatta’s heritage sites will be the key to their survival. He pointed to the GPO Building in Martin Place and Customs House in Circular Quay as successful examples of reuse.

“This is where sensitive development for some parts of the site can actually fund the preservation of other parts,” Associate Professor Darcy said.

“You use development on one part of the site and preserve public space and heritage on another. There are trade-offs to be made.”


The sprawling Parramatta Gaol, which was the country’s oldest serving prison and housed Arthur Stanley “Neddy” Smith, George Freeman and Darcy Dugan, clearly has the potential for such reuse.

But adaptive re-use is not cheap, especially when it comes to a building as big and old as the gaol.

The Deerubbin Aboriginal Land Council, which won the site from NSW government at the end of 2014, has not revealed any plans for the gaol. It is understood the NSW government has also gone cool on the idea of leasing it back from the land council and investing in it.

With maintenance costs estimated to be $500,000 a year, there are concerns the gaol will sit empty and neglected, in the heart of the city, for several years.

Old Government House
By far the most significant heritage item in Parramatta is the world heritage listed Old Government House.

It is Australia’s oldest surviving public building and was home to 12 governors of NSW from 1788 to 1856.


But heritage advocates say they are increasingly concerned about sight lines and views – in and out of the house and the surrounding parklands. The construction of tall buildings threaten, they argue, to disrupt the “spirit of the place” by blocking views between the house, the city and other heritage sights.

“The thing for Parramatta is not to treat the historical resources they have as a set of isolated, important individual buildings but to understand the whole pattern and in a holistic way,” said Dr Logan.

“That’s not to say they should all be protected in some rigid way but more to more to imagine new development in connection with a sort of whole of place attitude.”

No heritage masterplan currently exists that incorporates all the separate heritage sites near or in the Parramatta city.

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