Heritage dreams now a pile of rubble

Before being sold in November 2019, the large Federation home at 436 Marrickville Rd, Marrickville was described by its real estate agent as a “grand beauty” which had the “potential to revert to a palatial family home”.

How the Marrickville Rd, Marrickville home, known as Otaki, looked in its real estate advertisement in 2019

Yet, just over a year later, and despite these glowing references, the home has been demolished, in what can only be regarded as a wake-up call for heritage planning in Sydney’s Inner West.

These photos were captured on Sunday, 13 December, when a digger sat on top of the home’s bricks, with former doors and metal roof sheeting flung around the site.

About the home

The home, known as Otaki, was thought to be built in the 1890s.

A history prepared by the Marrickville Heritage Society said the home was “an eye-catching Victorian villa, bright yellow and set well back from Marrickville Road on the corner with South Street”. The history also noted the home had “a frontage not often seen along the road from Marrickville to Dulwich Hill.”

The history also states: “The house has links to four politicians (two local and two State), a celebrity doctor, and a medical/legal case referenced in books.”

Before its 2019 sale, the home was also likely to have been delivering an affordable housing outcome, as it contained three flats.

Site set aside for development

Otaki’s trouble can be traced back to the Marrickville local environmental plan (LEP), which was finalised in 2011.

The LEP placed the 700 square metre parcel on which Otaki sat in a general residential zone, in which residential flat buildings and townhouses were permitted.

Most of the surrounding area was zoned for low density purposes, in which these uses were not permitted.

Otaki’s site was also given a 11m height limit, rather than the surrounding 9.5m height limit.

These planning controls no doubt made the site attractive to townhouse developers and created an expectation that development will be supported.

According to the heritage society, a development application was lodged with Inner West Council in 2020 to demolish Otaki and build five three-storey townhouses, but then withdrawn shortly after the exhibition period.

Perhaps this was because the council may have been shaping to refuse the proposal, meaning the developer would need to go to the Land and Environment Court to get an approval.

The heritage society says that, instead, the same application was lodged by the site’s owner with a private certifier, seeking approval via the NSW Government’s new complying development code (which commenced in July this year) for the demolition and the townhouses.

Fearing the worst, and reportedly thanks to the intervention of Councillor Colin Hesse, the council staff placed an interim heritage order on Otaki on 20 August.

This order temporarily protected the home from demolition while an independent heritage assessment was undertaken.

However, on 24 November, this order was lifted, because according to the council:

“This (heritage) assessment found that while the site is a good example of a Victorian Italianate free-standing house and would make a positive contribution to a heritage conservation area, it is less intact than comparative heritage items and does not meet enough criteria for listing as in individual heritage item.”

Hopefully, the heritage assessment was not swayed by reports that the house had been deliberately vandalised from August onwards, through the removal of decorative brackets under windows.

What’s gone wrong here?

Unfortunately, we now know that the Marrickville LEP – which is now a decade old – had a very light touch approach to heritage conservation areas and even worse placed many fine buildings, such as Otaki, into development zones.

For instance, in 2018, quick-witted neighbours were only able to save an inter-war bungalow in The Boulevarde, Dulwich Hill after being given the mandatory 14 day notification of a demolition approval.

A quick-witted neighbour saved this home at The Boulevarde at Dulwich Hill

Again, this home was in a development zone but, unlike the Otaki example, in this instance the council not only issued an interim heritage order, but then stood by its order and listed the property.

Also, in 2018, a period home at Old Canterbury Rd, Lewisham – which was again not in a heritage conservation area – was bulldozed and replaced by an wholly uninspiring and generic project home which is completely out of character with the surrounding area.

This period home at Old Canterbury Rd, Lewisham was around 2018 replaced with
This wholly uninspiring project home

Given that the council says it did not approve this new home via the usual development application process, it is quite likely the demolition and new home’s approval was via a private certifier.

During 2020, we also witnessed the intense debate about whether the Church of Christ in Illawarra Rd, Marrickville should be saved – another example of a potential heritage item being put in a development zone.

The council’s August 2020 statement about Otaki acknowledges the home would have made a positive contribution to a heritage conservation area.

If such a heritage conservation area was in place, then certifiers would have had no power to approve Otaki’s demolition.

The demolition of Otaki, and the other examples outlined above, are a lesson about the need to keep local heritage planning up-to-date, otherwise good homes can be demolished – and replaced with tick-a-box style development – at the stroke of a certifier’s pen and without any public input.

With private certifiers now having additional powers to demolish homes and approve new medium density projects, there is a need for the Inner West Council’s heritage planning to be urgently updated, particularly in the former Marrickville LGA.

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