Wanted: powerful vision for derelict White Bay station

New vision … White Bay power station could be opened for public events. Visitors at the White Bay Power station open day in 2011.
Shanghai night field

IN GENTRIFIED Sydney, it is barely imaginable: a power station smack-bang in the city, firing coal, raising steam, as men worked in 70-degree heat then trudged home, blackened and sore, the clamour still ringing in their ears.

However, history turned and the White Bay power station fell silent for 30 years, home only to vandals, pigeons and the occasional film crew.

That is set to change. A state government taskforce has recommended the site be opened for public events and other uses ”in the short to medium term”.

It has fuelled debate on how best to awaken the derelict site, Sydney’s longest-serving power station and the only one still containing the machinery of its time.

The chief executive of the developer lobby group Urban Taskforce, Chris Johnson, has a few bold ideas.

”Looking at that site with views out over the water and [so] close to the city … the first use you’d have to think of is residential accommodation,” he said.

”It’s a big, robust building, and I think those buildings were always meant to be cut and quartered and adjusted and rebuilt and pipes put through the middle of it.”

As power stations shifted to the coalfields, most plants in Sydney were demolished or reused. The Star casino was built where the Pyrmont plant once sat; Ultimo’s became the Powerhouse Museum.

But White Bay sat idle and rotting. Heritage restrictions, such as retaining the rusty cladding where possible and a ban on new buildings that block views to the site, could mean ”it will sit unused for another 30 years”, Mr Johnson said.

A former power station worker, Bob Hughes, speaking in an oral history account, recalled ”working at heights, working in dangerous conditions … I’d be doing jobs working next to a boiler where it would be 70 or 75 degrees.”

The City of Sydney’s director of city planning, Graham Jahn, said White Bay and its surrounds were ”the last vestige of maritime and industrial activity for a port city” and any re-use should ”have a public purpose”.

”The majority of the harbour has been gentrified through residential conversions and redevelopment right through the harbour … executive living on the waterfront in every situation isn’t always appropriate,” Mr Jahn said.

The council has suggested film studios or a university campus, and says the huge turbine hall is ripe for conversion into an art gallery or museum.

Submissions to the Glebe Island temporary exhibition centre reveal that the Bays Precinct Taskforce, commissioned by the state government to consider the future of land around Glebe Island and Rozelle, called for the power station site to be opened to the public, at least temporarily. The site is undergoing decontamination and conservation work. The report was handed to the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, in the middle of last year.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

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