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The Bondi Daily

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by SAM BARAN, The Bondi Daily chief reporter


IT WAS A QUIET, pleasant Sunday afternoon in the Seagull Room at the Bondi Pavilion. A gentle sea breeze was whispering in through open windows, cooling down the hot and curious residents who had come to see Waverley Council’s renovation plans for the historic building.


Around the edges, a spokesperson for Mayor Sally Betts was walking us through easeled representations of the Pavilion’s re-design, fielding questions and commenting on various facts and features. Little did she know the storm that was about to erupt in that quiet rom.


“Sometimes people wander in through the back and feel like they’re not meant to be here,” she explained, then added confidentially: “Right now people mainly use it for the toilets.”


Built in 1928, the Bondi Pavilion has a long and colourful history as the vibrant heart of Bondi Beach, widely regarded as Sydney’s most famous and which draws millions of visitors per year to its sun-drenched expanse. Over the years, the Pavilion has seen use as a home for grand balls, thriving festivals, and children’s weekend dance classes alike, and has been formally recognised by the Heritage Council as possessing great cultural and historical significance.


Recently, however, the Pavilion has begun to show its age. Decades of deterioration have left it battered, outdated, inflexible and unable to even meet modern fire-safety codes. And so we were being presented with the details for the council’s Bondi Pavilion Upgrade and Conservation Project, intended to not only restore the structure to its former glory, but improve it as well.


“We’re aiming for a five green-star [ie, environmental] rating, and that’s really ambitious,” enthused a council spokesperson.


The first storm-clouds bean to gather 15 minutes after the meeting began when a vocal resident called the room’s attention to herself, shattering the quiet, intimate exchange, and demanding a panel discussion on the future of the building. Despite protestations from the Mayor and assembled councillors, residents were soon pulling up chairs and arraying them in battle lines in front of the beleaguered officials.


As the councillors exchanged worried glances with each other, the vocal woman declared the impromptu forum officially open.


Immediately, hands were being raised and questions thrown at the harried-looking Mayor, who nonetheless responded professionally with a reminder that all concerns should be addressed to the council via online or written submissions.


“I’m just asking some questions, and not everybody has time to make a submission. This is my submission!” exclaimed someone who identified herself as a mother of four.


“This isn’t accurate community representation,” complained another, referring to the three-week deadline for community input.


Soon, the councillors relented and a stormy Q&A got underway. Overly rowdy participants were shouted down by the crowd.


It was an impressive display of frank, spontaneous debate, and the residents’ love for this historic centre of their community, tarnished with age though it might be, was abundantly clear.


The greatest fears expressed seemed to be for a perceived loss of public space and the threat of “privatisation by stealth”, in large part triggered by a lack of definite detail on how commercial leases would be assigned in the renovated building, together with accessibility for local dance and martial arts classes.


A proposed new theatre on the ground floor to replace the 40-year-old first-floor Bondi Pavilion Theatre proved a particular point of contention.


“There’s nowhere near enough detail for us to feel comfortable with it,” argued Peter Winkler, the former musician-in-residence at the Pavilion for 20 years. “We need real plans, not a fancy little drawing of a building with a thing.”


One third-generation resident went so far as to accuse Mayor Sally Betts of not understanding local concerns. After a lengthy tirade, he stormed out, claiming he was too worked-up to stay. “Unless you swim where I swi, and walk where I walk, you’re not a citizen. You’re not a local,” he said.


One issue everyone seemed to be in agreement about was the $10m allocated to restoring the heritage nature of the building.


A few funding concerns aside, the council’s choice of heritage architects Tonkin Zulaikha Greer -- restorers of Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse and bustling Carriageworks – met with general approval. Indeed, residents seemed positively eager for the planned removal of post-1970s non-heritage additions, and the reintroduction of original features, like the open-air amphitheatre.


Some residents said they had come along not to dispute the plans but because they wanted to be part of reinvigorating their beach-side community.


Local Bondi artist Martin Greer bemoaned the lack of a museum in the plans, which he said drew traffic away from Bondi and towards its rival Manly, whose art-gallery-and-museum had been the first regional metropolitan venue of its kind in New South Wales, he explained. “I have twenty years of surfing photos and I’d love to paint a mural on the wall of the museum,” he added.


The meeting ended after an hour and a half. The council’s plans for the renovation of Bondi Pavilion are available on the Waverley Council website.


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