Demolition of a heritage house in Haberfield.

Australia’s most significant and, until a few weeks ago, most heavily heritage-protected garden suburb has been eviscerated. And Sydney’s newly unelected czar of city planning, Lucy Turnbull, professed ignorance.

Haberfield is the oldest and most intact planned garden suburb in the world. Built in 1901, it exemplifies the Federation era: the birth of contemporary Australia. In their own environmental impact statement, WestConnex describes the garden suburb as “outstanding for its collection of modest Federation houses displaying skilful use of materials and a high standard of workmanship of innovative design and detail particularly reflective of the burgeoning naturalistic spirit of the Federation year in which they were built”.

A now-demolished house on Wattle Street. Image: Paul Vonwiller.

A later garden suburb at Hellerau in Germany, founded in 1909, is a national icon, drawing visitors from around Germany and the world to experience and study the uniqueness of the place and its architecture. It is fully protected.

Yet here in Sydney, WestConnex ploughs through this unique area, destroying not just 53 houses, 23 apartments and nine businesses, but iconic street trees and gardens.

It’s clear from their plans that cars emerging from the eight lanes created by this wilful and tragic destruction will grind to a halt, as they’re jammed onto two eastbound lanes on Dobroyd Parade/City West Link. The same is true wherever existing roads meet tollway exits.

Even a worthy project – one that sensitively provided mass transit solutions for a growing population – would have raised such serious concerns about the destruction of character and heritage that protection would have been ensured.

As the EIS repeatedly documents, the demolition of a wide variety of heritage houses, apartment blocks and buildings, some along Parramatta Road and others in Ashfield with locally listed heritage significance, would have “major adverse impact(s)”. The EIS described the effect on the Haberfield Heritage Conservation Area as “significant and unable to be effectively mitigated”.

As if this were not bad enough, many more “heritage items, potential heritage items and Heritage Conservation Areas above the proposed tunnels and in the vicinity of construction works may be subject to vibration impacts”, possibly compromising “a heritage item’s structural integrity”.

Instead of beautiful and historic houses and vegetation, Haberfield will be blighted with an eight-lane highway, and “the visual impacts of new motorway infrastructure”, including the unfiltered smoke stacks, motorway facilities and noise walls.

That these houses were people’s homes is a matter of complete disdain for government ministers.

Only four residents from the six demolished apartment blocks or the 53 demolished houses have been able to relocate back to their suburb. The housing stock is seriously diminished by so much demolition and the money paid by the government – clearly aware of their actions – is so far below market value that nearly all former residents of areas so far destroyed (including Concord, Homebush, Burwood and Strathfield) have been forced to live further from the city, and away from their communities of family, friends and schools.

There are four construction sites in Ashfield and Haberfield. Daily life is a horror show, judging from the experiences of Haberfield residents. One letter reads:

“To Mike Baird,

I have opposed the short-sighted, tunnel vision WestConnex project from the first announcement. I am not opposed to development, but I am opposed to more roads feeding more vehicles into the congested streets of the inner city. The project is well underway. The heritage Haberfield homes have been demolished as have affordable apartments in Wattle Street. Let me inform you of what residents in this part of Haberfield are now enduring as part of their lives.

1. The constant noise from 8am of excavators, bulldozers, cranes and other major plant and machinery. Similar work also on unspecified days from 9pm to 5am.

2. The vibration, akin to an earth tremor, of giant jack hammers breaking into bedrock and threatening to compromise the structure of our heritage homes.

3. Masses of dust and dirt settling in every nook and cranny of our homes.

4. Semi-trailers weaving dangerously through our suburban streets.

5. Workers vehicles parked everywhere without any respect for local needs or priorities.

Our community amenity has been ruined. Notifications to residents of planned work lack specificity, but are obsessed with giving us the rosy story of the idyllic future after WestConnex! Come and visit the massive scar you have created on the perimeter of our lovely heritage suburb! You would be most welcome to come and live in my house for the duration of the project. I will move to yours!”

One of the unfiltered smoke stacks is close to Haberfield School Primary School. People living near tollways will also be subjected to exhaust pouring from exit ramps. Ashfield Council’s submission to the EIS makes clear that: “The nature and impact of the major ventilation facility emerges in dribs and drabs. Located upslope of the Bunnings (former Peak Frean’s building), at 25 metres high the ventilation facility will be taller than the existing heritage-listed tower, and in its suggested form and bulk, vastly more assertive. It will resemble an isolated, peculiar apartment building. The facility will … be visible from a considerable area of the surrounding heritage listed streets of Haberfield.”

The National Trust’s submission to the EIS also objects to the massive expenditure on tollways, diverting much needed investment away from public transport, capable of moving large numbers of people more effectively and with much less adverse heritage impact.

The National Trust also argues that the provisions of public/private partnership agreements for urban motorways should be made public and that such agreements must not contain penalty provisions for compensation payments to a motorway operator if a public transport system competes effectively with the motorway.

Before the record number of 17,500 submissions to the EIS reports into the four stages of WestConnex had even been assessed, the Baird Government had awarded construction contracts. Is this even legal? Over 99 per cent of submissions were in opposition to the building of WestConnex.

The day the hoardings appeared, wrapped around the bomb sites where homes and gardens once stood, a protester received a phone call from someone in WestConnex public relations: “Do you have any photos of the heritage houses? We’d like to put them up on the hoardings,” they said.

Cassi Plate is convenor of NoWestConnex: Public Transport.

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  1. When just one objection is made to a development application for a small residential project, everyone gets together to work out a compromise. Thousands of objections are made to a massive project affecting the whole of Sydney and the project simply proceeds. What kind of a country is this?

  2. As a householder in Haberfield I am getting surround sound and dust from three destruction sites 6 days a week and to add insult to injury night work on Parramatta Road! For nearly 3 years we have been using every avenue to speak up, question and warn of the wasteful and destructive madness of this scheme. Our peaceful protests ended in arrests and a lecture from the magistrate about transgressing the limits of protest! Similarly when attempting to defend our environmental heritage and the remnant Ironbark forest last week WestConnex brought in the police and then the riot squad. The level of repression in NSW, a State which is open for business, continues to increase.

  3. WestConnex has two alternative fates – congested within a few years as it attracts more cars onto roads, and complete white elephant when the oil runs out. So just a temporary band aid on Sydney’s transport sores for which we are losing both architectural heritage in Haberfield and natural heritage in Beverly Grove and more besides.

  4. So much destruction of valuable, historic character, which enriches our suburban lives. And for what? A motorway for cars that the new generation rejects. They’ve lived their whole lives with traffic jams and choose public transport instead. Even Baird now says he will build a train line from Parramatta to the city. But only because even the developers can see the stupidity of Westconnex and demand public transport to their Bays precinct developments. If there’s going to be this new trainline, then Westconnex is not needed. The Innerwest is being raped by Baird, for a motorway no one wants.

  5. At a Traffic Committee meeting earlier this year, the RMS representative asked me whether I would have been happy with a train line through Haberfield rather than a tollway. I told him that of course I would be happy with the train option.

    A train running in tunnel along the Westconnex alignment would not have needed the massive entry/exit vehicle ramps that the road needs, as stairs would have sufficed.

    A train running on the surface could have used a lane of the existing roadway and still allowed a lane for the remaining delivery and tradey trucks because trains carry ten or more times the people as cars in the same lane width. Traffic congestion would disappear and road speeds increase.

    A train would not be subject to the daily accident-caused traffic jams which require car commuters to allow extra travel time in every trip. You can write your emails or read a book on the train, it does not represent lost time.

    New roads only serve to lock us into an oil-based transport system at a time when we only have 19 days of petrol and only 13 days of diesel in the country at any one time and all our refineries are being closed down. What happens when other countries decide to turn off the tap?

  6. This destruction in reponse to Westconnex must not be viewed in isolation. Rather it is the latest in a long list of crimes against the history, environment and people of our city and state carried out by RMS and the former RTA. While RMS ministers come and go the entrenched power of the roads lobby and RMS bureaucrats becomes ever more powerful, able to influence the media, control the state treasury, bully the ministers of other departments and fool the majority of the population that what they doing in the interests of ‘progress’. If ever a royal commission was needed it is into the dysfunctional operational agenda of the RMS. In other civilised countries such a bureaucracy would not be allowed to function / exist. Here it seems they thrive on our collective indifference.

  7. Maybe the unfiltered exhaust stack could be disguised as a huge federation style home a la the Big Pineapple or The Big Banana. Maybe the government would then have it heritage listed.