Macquarie Street revamp plan to unlock Sydney’s oldest public buildings

The proposal would see the court building behind the Mint demolished. Photo: Peter Rae The court building facing Hospital Road and the Domain is earmarked for demolition. Photo: Peter Rae
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The Land and Property Information building could become a hotel under the plan. Photo: Peter Rae

The Hyde Park Barracks on Macquarie Street, with buildings to be demolished at rear. Photo: Peter Rae

Australia’s oldest public buildings will come under the spotlight in a multi-million dollar Baird government plan to transform Macquarie Street into a tourist-friendly cultural and heritage precinct, The Sun-Herald has learnt.

Despite boasting Governor Macquarie’s Rum Hospital, Australia’s first library and the UNESCO-listed convict site of Hyde Park Barracks, Macquarie Street is better known today for its doctors and politicians.

But a push by Sydney Living Museums (formerly the Historic Houses Trust) to boost the profile of the Museum of Sydney, and to better tell the story of colonial Sydney has prompted a rethink.

Public comment will be sought next month on a Macquarie Street precinct plan. It will canvas proposals to unlock access to the historic buildings and monuments stretching from the Mitchell Library to Queens Square, and encourage visitors to explore laneway links to the Domain.

Sydney Living Museums has submitted a business case to the government to move the Museum of Sydney to Macquarie Street, clearing space for a new cultural centre by demolishing two 1960s Supreme Court and State Records buildings behind the Mint and Hyde Park Barracks.

Two new buildings, connected by a glass structure and ground level cultural space, designed by architects FJMT, would replace them and house the new museum.

The project, called The Story of Sydney, would act as a pedestrian link between Macquarie Street and the Domain, and boost visitors to Hyde Park Barracks.

But Sydney Living Museums has also asked the government to sell the neighbouring sandstone Lands and Property Information building, potentially as a hotel, to fund the project.

According to consultants Corview, who developed the business case, “The project includes options which investigate a mixed-use precinct including cultural uses and commercial uses such as retail and food and beverage.”

Sydney Living Museums executive director Mark Goggin, the former marketing chief of the Powerhouse Museum, presented the plan to the NSW Heritage Council in May. Minutes of the meeting show the Heritage Council raised concerns about commercialisation and the “bulk and scale of new buildings”, but supported the activation of Hospital Road for pedestrians along the Domain.

The council agreed “the current MoS site is not working”.

The Minister for Finance, Services and Property, Dominic Perrottet, has provided two briefings on the government’s proposal for a cultural and heritage precinct to former prime minister Paul Keating, and sought his input.

Mr Keating in recent years has publicly condemned the commercialisation of the Domain, which he claimed resembled a “sad, deserted fairground”, and criticised a planned expansion of the Art Gallery of NSW as a “land grab”.

The public consultation will determine which parts of the museum’s proposal are accepted by the government, and which are amended to fit the new precinct plan.

Mr Perrottet is co-ordinating the Macquarie Street overhaul because of the large number of government buildings involved.

“Macquarie Street houses some of Sydney’s most important heritage and historical treasures, and I am always looking at ways to enhance that heritage and make precincts like this one more accessible for locals and tourists to enjoy,” he said.

A steering committee, involving all government agencies with heritage properties on Macquarie Street, and Sydney Living Museums, has met eight times since November.

It is understood the departments of health, heritage, justice and finance will need to agree to funding compromises that will see some agencies relinquish heritage buildings and trade-off maintenance costs with the potential for extra revenue.

The Macquarie Cultural and Heritage Precinct Plan is expected to be launched by the end of the year, with the redevelopment to be undertaken in stages.

The museum’s proposal to knock down two buildings will be seriously considered, sources said, but another option could be to leave the resulting site as open space. Closing Hospital Road to traffic is also likely to be canvassed.

With the Land and Property Information registry already earmarked for partial privatisation, the sale or redevelopment of the heritage building is likely – but it could potentially become an option for a museum.

Sydney Living Museums has told the Heritage Council the existing Museum of Sydney site, above the archaeological remains of Australia’s first Government House on Phillip Street, could become a national monument dedicated to First Contact and the nine Sydney governors who lived there.

Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon, the museum’s acting executive director, said: “[It] is incredibly important in the history of Sydney and the early development of the colony, and we would like to focus much more attention on the exceptional cultural and heritage values it represents including for Aboriginal people and the first 60 years of the colony.”

She said the proposed Macquarie Street museum would “tell the expanded story of Sydney for tourists and Australians”.

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