Objection to the Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal EIS and its Fake Consultations
18 February 2023
I write to complain about the misleading and deceptive behaviour of the proponents of the Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal in proceeding with this project when the NSW government publicly promised that the Powerhouse Museum (PHM) would be staying in Ultimo and be renewed. The commonly understood meaning of the word renewal is to refresh, rejuvenate, renovate or restore.
On 4 July 2020 the now Premier announced that the Powerhouse Museum would be staying in Ultimo and would continue to welcome visitors to its world renowned exhibits. The media release stated that the Powerhouse Museum would continue to provide an outstanding visitor experience in the areas of technology, science, engineering and design… would complement the future focussed Parramatta facility….would retain jobs at Ultimo and would explore if some of the funds earmarked for relocation costs could be used on renovations. None of these commitments have been kept. See NSW Govt Media Release here.
- The Powerhouse Museum is not being renewed, restored, rejuvenated or renovated. All trace of the Powerhouse Museum as we know it will be erased in the redevelopment and re-purposing of the site. The secret brief for the design competition, not revealed in the EIS, is to demolish all the PHM’s museum infrastructure and all trace of its landmark Sulman award winning design, buildings and heritage adaption. The museum’s state of the art facilities and purpose-designed exhibition spaces will be gutted at a ridiculous cost of $500 million. When the Powerhouse Museum was built in 1988 it was designed with the highest quality infrastructure for a working life of more than 100 years. It already has international standard museum and exhibition infrastructure, evidenced in numerous international loan exhibitions, including the Leonardo da Vinci Codex Leicester lent by Bill Gates. It is a travesty that this public investment in a much loved museum is being trashed after just 34 years when the option of genuine renewal was never considered by the proponent.
The confected analysis of alternatives in the EIS was: 1 ‘do nothing’ – when the government had already promised genuine renewal; 2 ‘change the museum’s use’, or 3 the proposal in the EIS being the $500 million gutting, demolition and repurposing of the PHM. In fact this is actually option 2. As noted in option 2 we are losing a recognisable cultural landmark and destination because the Powerhouse Museum as we know it is being demolished and repurposed, and its brand abolished. It won’t even be a museum anymore. The EIS proposal for associated industry, creative and entertainment uses, with a focus on fashion and design, represents a significant change of use and purpose which is actually option 2.
Option 3 should have been genuine renewal of the museum’s infrastructure, exhibitions, facilities and public domain. The architect of the Powerhouse Museum Lionel Glendenning developed a detailed renewal plan costed at $250 million. His plan was never considered by the proponent because there was never any intention of renewing the Powerhouse Museum. Nor was he consulted on the secret masterplan and design brief which requires the erasure of all trace of the 1988 museum adaptation, reducing the museum to just the brick shell of the former power station, as if the Powerhouse Museum had never existed. Since Perrottet’s announcement in July 2020, the proponent has engaged in a misleading and deceptive process to disguise this intention.
- Before approval of the current EIS the proponent has proceeded to stage 2, signing contracts and embarking on another round of fake consultations when vital information about the intent of the project has been withheld from the community. This is leading to a loss of confidence in the integrity of the planning system and in the truthfulness of the NSW government’s public statements on the Powerhouse Museum.
- I strongly object to the way these consultations have been run in a manner that is designed to mislead and deceive people as to the nature of the project. The current and previous rounds of consultations do not meet the DPIE’s required standards outlined in the Undertaking Engagement Guidelines for State Significant Projects.
Nor does the Engagement Report in the EIS meet the SEARS Requirements for Engagement since the consultations have been conducted in an information vacuum with no explanation or information on the changes to and uses of the site, and the intentions of the ‘renewal’ project and its impacts. Repeated consultations when critical information is withheld, and community feedback is ignored without analysis or explanation, is arguably an abuse of process.
- The EIS notably fails to reference the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Act, as required by SEARS as part of the Statutory Context. The secret plans for the development of a creative industries precinct and entertainment venue are plainly inconsistent with the objects of the MAAS Act, and the uses of the land and buildings owned by MAAS for the purposes of exhibition and education in the applied arts and sciences.
- The engagement process has failed to identify and engage with people and communities affected by the development. It has not recognised that the Powerhouse Museum is a state museum, funded by NSW taxpayers, with connections to families and communities all over NSW who have an association with and an interest in the PHM. Numerous groups were listed in the engagement report but were not consulted. This includes affiliated societies and regional and community museums. The museum’s Life Fellows, benefactors and donors were also ignored. There is no greater obligation of trust than what is owed by a museum to its donors when it has acquired important objects and family heirlooms. From the time the Powerhouse Museum project was announced in 1979 thousands of families donated their treasured objects. Their gifts were prompted by public enthusiasm for the Powerhouse Museum project. They had a reasonable expectation that the state of NSW would ensure that the Powerhouse Museum would be a permanent museum for future generations, and would continue to operate the museum and maintain its state of the art collection facilities and exhibition areas. This trust has been breached in every twist and turn in this destructive eight year saga.
- The proponent at previous consultations failed to disclose to participants clear and concise information about the project and its impacts, as required by the DPIE’s Engagement Guidelines. Transparency has been entirely absent both from the consultations and from the EIS reports. Surveys have artificially structured questions that require multiple boxes to be ticked where only one or no option is acceptable. This strategy to manufacture consent is repeated in the latest survey. In previous rounds of consultations people were asked if they wanted the museum renewed, without the proponent revealing their definition of ‘renewal’ means the demolition of all trace of the 1988 Powerhouse Museum and the site being turned into an entertainment centre and creative industries precinct with the former museum’s mission shifting to a focus on fashion, design and creative industries, not education and exhibitions of the museum’s collection. The EIS claims the proposal to gut and demolish the PHM is based on consultation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
- In the September 2020 and March 2022 consultations no mention was made of the plans for a creative industries precinct in the former Powerhouse Museum, or what impacts this would have on the museum’s functions, spaces and facilities. No mention was made of plans for a theatre on the PHM site. No mention was made that the Harwood building would not be part of the PHM, and would cease to operate as the PHM’s purpose designed collection, conservation, workshop and research centre. The inaccessible J Store development at the Museums Discovery Centre at Castle Hill was approved partly on the basis of the applicant’s false assurances that the proposal does not seek to replace existing operational or functional components of the Powerhouse. In fact it was one of the aims of the EIS. The Harwood building was excised from the current EIS. And now it has been handed to UTS in a secret sweetheart deal that forever degrades the museum’s functions and operational capacity as a collection, exhibition and education organisation.
- No detail was provided through the EIS and the engagement processes about the change of use and layout of the existing buildings, nor is there any detail of the breakdown of proposed land uses including ancillary uses. The EIS does not meet the SEARS requirements for built form, part 4.
- No mention was made in the consultations of the objective in the EIS, and in the Scoping Report prepared in December 2021, that Powerhouse Ultimo was to be turned into a creative industries precinct with its exhibition and education remit reduced to fashion and design. This is contrary to the public promises made by the now Premier on 4 July 2020, repeated at budget estimates on 7 September and in AQON where the Premier stated: the renewed museum in Ultimo will continue to present a program across applied arts and applied sciences. This will include historical and contemporary science, engineering and design. The EIS says the programming focus is on design and fashion, and programs that support creative industries. Two days before the Premier’s statement, the MAAS CEO at budget estimates reiterated plans for dedicated fashion and design galleries in the former PHM.
- Is the Premier unaware of the demolition plans for the Powerhouse Museum, or is the proponent of the Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal freelancing with $500 million? This cognitive dissonance is a mystery since the applicant is the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Is the Premier on board with turning the former Powerhouse Museum into a creative industries and theatre precinct? If not, the Premier should direct that the EIS is withdrawn and the Powerhouse Museum is renewed as a museum, as promised on 4 July 2020.
- At no stage over successive consultations has there been any explanation of what is involved in a creative industries precinct in terms of spaces and facilities and the impacts that this might have on the focus, capacity and functionality of the museum and its core purpose of exhibiting the collection for education and visitor enjoyment. Nor did the proponent disclose the changed remit of the PHM to fashion and design. When I raised these issues at the consultations in March 2022 other participants were surprised and dismayed.
- There was no mention during previous consultations that the intention of the proponent is to leave just three large objects in the former Powerhouse Museum, while the rest of the museum’s internationally significant power, engineering and transport collections will be packed off to Castle Hill. These collections are central to the meaning and design of the Powerhouse Museum in the converted former Ultimo power station. People have repeatedly said they want these collections to stay in the museum, in their purpose designed settings, but their emphatic views have not been communicated in the Engagement Report, nor are they addressed in the EIS or RTS. With absurd contortions of logic the Curio Projects CMP, prepared to facilitate the demolition of the Powerhouse Museum, treats the Sulman award winning Powerhouse Museum as if it is an empty brick box.
- I note the CEO of Create NSW denied at Budget Estimates that there was another CMP for the Powerhouse Museum. In fact the respected heritage architect Alan Croker of Design 5 led the March 2022 consultations on the social value of the PHM as part of his work on the CMP. He delivered a draft CMP for the Powerhouse Museum in April 2022, which recognises the outstanding significance of the 1988 museum design and adaptation, and the importance of the collections as an integral part of the significance of the place and the community’s attachment to the museum. After his draft CMP was delivered his contract was terminated.
- The proponent has not disclosed any information about the Ultimo Renewal project that might assist the community to understand the project and its impacts and the way the museum’s land and buildings will be used. This is unacceptable given the now eight year saga to save the Powerhouse Museum, and the government’s stated commitment that the Powerhouse Museum would be staying in Ultimo. In particular, the design briefs for the Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal have been withheld from the public. The proponent is keeping secret all information about the spaces and facility requirements detailed in the stage 1 and stage 2 design brief to the architects. This is clearly a requirement of SEARS part 4 – including identify any change to the use and layout of the existing buildings… . At least with the Parramatta Powerhouse the stage 1 and stage 2 design briefs were released. There is no case to keep the design briefs secret unless the proponent is hiding unpalatable information that is inconsistent with the Standard Instrument for an education and information facility, information that would prompt another round of public protest.
- SEARS was granted for the Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal as an Information and Education Facility, but the public cannot understand from the information provided whether the development is an information and education facility, that is, a place for the exhibition and display of objects and for educating visitors.
- I note that the Parramatta Powerhouse was incorrectly approved under the Information and Education Facility land use designation when the SO 52 papers, the design briefs and architectural plans reveal that it is in fact an arts and entertainment centre. The development has no designated exhibition spaces or collection facilities. It has seven over-scaled ‘presentation spaces’ all designed for venue hire, theatre, performance, conferences and large scale commercial and community events. There is a floor of apartments, a cinema, a large commercial kitchen, and a floor of retail. An information and education facility means a building or place used for providing information or education to visitors, and the exhibition or display of items. This is not the purpose of the Parramatta development. The MAAS CEO has said there will be just seven exhibitions a year at the ‘flagship’ Parramatta Powerhouse. The design briefs and SO 52 papers reveal that large parts of the building will primarily operate as commercial venue hire, for performances and large scale events, as well as a floor of retail and a floor of apartments for commercial rent. The Parramatta Powerhouse was approved on false pretences under the wrong Standard Instrument land use planning category.
- The Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal also claims to be an information and education facility. Participants in the consultations and the community ploughing through thousands of pages of the EIS have been given no information on the facilities brief to understand whether the development is a museum or another version of the Parramatta entertainment centre. The proposed creative industries precinct with subsidised artist studios and workshops could not be categorised as an information and education facility. Two and half years on from the Premier’s announcement that the Powerhouse Museum would be staying in Ultimo is ample time for the managers at MAAS to have prepared a detailed exhibition brief, facilities brief and operational plan to explain how the Powerhouse Museum will be used and ‘renewed’.
- The MAAS CEO has said in budget estimates that there will be ‘at least’ 10,000 square metres of exhibition space, (less than half what was designed for the real Powerhouse Museum), 1,400sqm of education space and 760sqm of food, beverage and retail. This totals 12,160sqm. The GFA for the development is 40,000sqm so that means there is another 27,840sqm of floor space for purposes that have not been explained or revealed in the EIS. The use of more than two thirds of the total space in the development is a mystery. Nor has the proponent revealed if the ‘exhibition spaces’ are to also be used for functions, events and venue hire. Unconfirmed reports say the stage 1 design brief for the architectural competition required the removal of all trace of the 1988 museum infrastructure and the creation of four large spaces for events, functions, entertainment and commercial hire, with the specification that only three large objects would remain and need to be accommodated in the former Powerhouse Museum. This brief must be released to the public before any consultations.
- There is evidence to conclude that Powerhouse Ultimo will operate under the same commercial business model as Parramatta, that is, as a commercially focussed arts and entertainment facility, not a museum. The MAAS CEO said in budget estimates that the revenue target for the former PHM is $38.8 million pa, or $106,301 per day, a sum far in excess of the self-generated revenue from our most popular and successful museums. Generating this amount of commercial revenue is inconsistent with a museum organisation whose primary purpose is collections, exhibitions and education. Sweating the real estate assets to run the former museum as a commercial entertainment site will inevitably compromise the museum’s mission, and lead to reduced public benefits from the investment of generations of taxpayers. Not least of these impacts is that museum staff will be rebadged to run the event management and 24×7 accommodation businesses, competing with commercial businesses in accommodation and venue hire.
- The project justification for the Ultimo Creative Industries Precinct in the EIS cites the Cultural Infrastructure Plan 2025+. The EIS omitted to detail what this policy actually says about the plans for the former Powerhouse Museum. That is: Following the MAAS relocation to Parramatta, the Government plans to invest in retaining a creative industries presence in Ultimo. The precinct will be a home for fashion, design and cultural exchange, with enhanced public space and pedestrian connections. A new museum will celebrate Australian and international design, fashion, creativity and architecture. A new 1500-seat Broadway-style theatre is also planned, which will provide a state-of-the-art performance space for musicals, live music and screen-based programming. This should have explained in the EIS.
- In September 2020, two months after the announcement the Powerhouse Museum would be staying in Ultimo, the MAAS CEO and head of Create Infrastructure made a submission to the Pyrmont Peninsula Place Strategy. Read here: 200911 MAAS to PPPS.PDF – Google Drive The letter describes plans for the Ultimo Creative Industries Precinct, a vibrant 24 hour precinct that integrates cultural, creative and commercial uses including the creative industries spaces and the development of theatre, performance, production and rehearsal space. The submission states there is a direction to test options for a 1,500 seat lyric theatre and creative industry spaces. None of this was mentioned in consultations held in the same month this submission was lodged. Nor was it mentioned in the media release of 4 July 2020 when the now Premier announced that the PHM would be staying in Ultimo. What this submission reveals is that Create NSW and MAAS never deviated from the plans detailed in the 2018 Ultimo Presence business case, to turn the PHM into a creative industries precinct with studios, workshops, theatre, rehearsal, production and performance facilities. Perrottet and Harwin’s announcement that the PHM was saved in July 2020 looks like it was a ruse to defuse community outrage at the looming closure of the PHM.
- At the time this letter was written, just a few months after the announcement that the PHM was saved, the proponents were already working on the Final Business Case and master plan for the former PHM. Nothing changed in these plans as a result of the announcement that the Powerhouse Museum would be staying in Ultimo. Instead the proponent engaged in fake consultations and sustained gas lighting of museum experts and community supporters. The plans for the creative industries precinct and theatre were not disclosed to the community or museum experts who were asked to help the museum with the master plan and exhibition renewal plans. Nothing came of these ‘dialogues’. There are no renewal plans. Half the people in the master plan dialogue were secretly working on plans to demolish the museum and radically change its use; plans which were not disclosed to museum experts or the architect of the Powerhouse Museum.
- The NSW government has better options to develop a creative industries precinct at North Eveleigh, strengthening the remit and role of Carriageworks. The use of high value museum facilities for subsidised studios and workshops is a poor economic outcome relative to the continued use of the PHM as a museum. In the year before Covid cultural and heritage tourism was worth $14.3 billion to the NSW economy. The No.1 interest of high value international cultural tourists is visiting history, heritage buildings, monuments and sites at 67%, followed by museums at 56%, and theatre and performing arts at just 17%. Just 9% of high value international tourists are interested in visiting artist workshops and studios. So the cultural and economic case to convert the Powerhouse Museum to a creative industries precinct does not stack up.
- Furthermore, Sydney is not short of theatres relative to the number of museums. In the 12 years of the LNP NSW government, more than $2 billion has been allocated to arts and cultural infrastructure, primarily theatre and performing arts, but less than 5% has gone to museums – not counting Parramatta which is not a museum. The Committee for Sydney’s 2021 benchmarking report shows that Sydney ranks 26 out of 48 for the number of theatres, (before the opening of Walsh Bay), but it ranks a lowly 41 out of 48 global peer cities for the number of museums. Many of our historic place museums, including the Sydney Observatory are barely open. So Sydney needs more museums that are open to the public, not museum demolition; especially given heritage museums have a far higher return on investment via income from cultural tourism than theatres. Create NSW should be aware of these facts, and these issues should have been considered in the EIS.
- The unstated intent of the Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal EIS is to demolish and repurpose the former museum into a contemporary arts and entertainment centre. The PHM is no longer called a museum. There is abundant evidence that the museum’s exhibition and education purpose is being degraded by its change of focus to contemporary arts. There are now only three education staff at MAAS. For the first time since the 1960s the museum has no curator of transport and engineering for this internationally significant collection. There are more artists and creatives in the museum than curators. Over the last four years the Powerhouse Museum recorded a 77.7% decrease in visitor numbers, and 74% decline in education engagement. In 2021-22 the PHM had just 16,701 learners and teachers on site and online, down from 63,911 in 2018-19. By contrast the Australian Museum had 71,680 learners in 2021-22, so this isn’t the legacy of Covid. On these figures the government ought to be calling in the auditors to look at where the money is going, ($55 million pa), not gifting the management of MAAS two capital projects worth $1.4 billion, more than five times the cost of Sydney Modern. Read more here.
- The EP&A Act and EP&A Regulation includes provisions to make important project documents publicly available on the major projects website. This is to ensure that the community has access to the information they need to understand the project and its impacts. The proponent of the ‘Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal’ must be directed to release the Stage 1 and Stage 2 design briefs and other project documents about the lyric theatre and creative industries precinct before proceeding with further consultations. More consultation without information is corrosive of public confidence in the planning system. The proponent must release the facilities brief and operational plan for ‘Powerhouse Ultimo’ and explain what all of the 40,000sqm of floor space will be used for. They must explain what is entailed in the redevelopment of the former PHM’s exhibition and public spaces as a creative industries precinct. The Stage 2 design work and consultations should be halted until this information is available and the EIS has been assessed.
- Given extensive criticism of the Curio Projects CMP, the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the DPIE should direct the proponent to release the Design 5 Draft Conservation Management Plan for public comment. Many people contributed to this CMP in good faith. The architect Lionel Glendenning worked with Alan Croker for more than a year, without a fee. His moral rights have been treated with contempt at every stage in this mendacious process. The intellectual property in the Design 5 CMP is drawn from the PHM’s architect, and the original research and contributions of museum experts and community members. We all have an interest in seeing what a proper CMP for the Powerhouse Museum says about its significance, one that is not slanted and confected to meet the proponent’s development ambitions.
- The Powerhouse Ultimo renewal scheme does not have community consent. There is no planning permission for the Powerhouse Ultimo Renewal SSD-32927319 development. It is unconscionable that contracts have been signed and the stage 2 design work is proceeding with more fake consultations before the EIS has been assessed, and we are just weeks out from the caretaker period.
- The Arts Minister Ben Franklin stated in March 2022 that as a cultural institution the Powerhouse has a responsibility to support creative industries in NSW. The Minister has been badly advised. This is not what the MAAS Act says about the museum’s objects to minister to the needs and demands of the community. Nor is it consistent with the ICOM definition of a museum. It is not the purpose of a public museum to function as an industry development body or an off shoot of the Australia Council. Museums are properly focussed on maximising public benefits for their audiences through exhibitions, collections, scholarship, education and public programs. No comparable historic museum anywhere in the world is tasked with a dual role as a public museum while supporting and subsidising artists and creative industries, and acting as a professional development arm for the fashion industry or any other sector of the economy. Otherwise why isn’t the Minister telling the Art Gallery of NSW they have a responsibility to support the commercial gallery sector, or telling the State Library of NSW their job is to support the publishing industry?
It is wrong that this shift to contemporary arts and creative industries has proceeded without any policy process, rationale, consultation or transparency, seemingly on the whim of the former premier. There has been no consideration of the impacts of narrowing the museum’s legislated remit on the PHM’s family audiences, or education mission, let alone consideration of visitors from regional NSW. The interests of the PHM’s regional audiences, and the museum’s status as a state cultural institution funded by NSW taxpayers, were not even considered in the EIS. And now this profound misconception of the museum’s role is driving the physical, functional, organisational and brand destruction of the Powerhouse Museum, a revered 142 year old public museum which the NSW government promised was saved, when it is all too evident from the planning documents and the last four annual reports that the PHM is not saved.