The defunct coal-fired White Bay Power Station has seen more than a dozen proposals over the past 40 years.
Currently, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment are preparing a Place Strategy to outline the vision, principles and key directions for the precinct. However, if history has shown us anything, it’s the redevelopment of the site is anything but easy.
Built before and during World War I, the 38,000sqm power station functioned until 1984, with the site set to be demolished.
Two years after the power station was decommissioned, the Maritime Services Board called on the state government to acquire the White Bay and Pyrmont power stations and the Glebe Island grain terminal.
MSB believed it should acquire the land “without significant cost” for the expansion of commercial shipping on Sydney’s waterfront, from Darling Harbour to White Bay.
In 1989, then-Liberal premier Nick Greiner announcing plans for a private-sector redevelopment of the Pyrmont-White Bay area as a commercial, tourist and residential hub to “eclipse Darling Harbour”.
His plan would later become part of the City West Urban Strategy unveiled in 1990 – a project aiming to redevelop large amounts of private and government-owned land in Pyrmont, White Bay and Ultimo with housing, workplaces and light rail line.
The Balmain Chamber of Commerce submitted a proposal to the Casino Control Authority to build Sydney’s first casino at the site in 1993, but it was rejected as it didn’t fit with the City West Urban Strategy. The Star Casino was later built at Pyrmont in 1997.
Then Prime Minister Paul Keating proposed the Royal Australian Navy be relocated from Garden Island to White Bay in 1994.
A wide-ranging report exploring the commercial potential of the site was commissioned by Pacific Power – who still owned the land – with the finished product outlined various options including a small hotel, office space, shops and restaurants and an entertainment complex. With Sydney already preparing for the 2000 Olympics, the report also proposed incorporating the Olympic media headquarters and training facilities.
In 1997, the state government removed planning authority from Leichhardt Council after unveiling the “Bays Precinct” strategy for Rozelle, Blackwattle and White bays, which restricted the precinct’s future to a mix of commercial, port-related employment, waterfront and recreational uses.
The White Bay Power Station’s local significance and rarity saw it listed on the NSW State Heritage Register two years later.
Pacific Power sold the White Bay Power Station site to the government in 2000 and three years later the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority announced a conservation plan, which set guidelines for new developments and outlined plans to adapt the buildings’ interiors.
The four-hectare site was bolstered in 2010 when the government acquired the White Bay Hotel site on Victoria Road – it had burnt down in 2008 – and added it to the parcel of land with the power station.
In 2015, UrbanGrowth NSW – a state-owned corporation with a mandate to coordinate and deliver a portfolio of major urban renewal programs – explore submissions for development of the land.
Google proposed an innovation hub and public access to the waterfront, while Stockland, Woods Bagot and Meld Technologies proposed a mixed-use hub for science, technology, engineering and maths professionals and global architecture practice Grimshaw suggested White Bay be converted to a source of renewable energy.
White Bay Power Station redevelopment illustration
The government confirmed it would be converting the White Bay Power Station into a technology hub as part of the 95-hectare Bays Precinct redevelopment with Google, which it described as “one of the largest urban transformation projects in the world”.
Google later revoked it offer and the proposal later fell apart, with the state government’s inability to boost public transport infrastructure to the Rozelle site in time was reportedly a key stumbling block in the discussions.
“Ultimately, the complexity of the project and the timing of associated transport infrastructure could not meet Google’s requirements at this time,” the NSW government explained.
Construction of a new metro station and a giant interchange for WestConnex – a road tunnel to the north shore and northern beaches, and the MetroWest rail line – was well underway by 2020.
The development cast cast doubt over the future of the nearby heritage-listed power station, with the state’s Treasurer suggesting it should be knocked down.
“It’s full of asbestos, it’s a highly contaminated site, it really adds no value…but we’ve got to work through a process in terms of the decision of government,” he said at the time.
Planning Minister Rob Stokes quickly scotched the idea of demolition, saying Perrottet was “an excellent treasurer but would make a terrible heritage architect”.
For now, the old power station survives another day, awaiting its fate.