A sad state of affairs for both Balmain Tigers & the inner west Sydney community
Who doesn’t want the Balmain Tigers to return to their spiritual home in Rozelle, right? The financially-strapped club is on the brink of collapse and the Tigers are adamant they can’t survive much longer without reopening the leagues club. Having already suffered the shame of merging with Wests in 1999, saying goodbye to this foundation footy team for good would be a great loss for Sydneysiders. So Leichhardt Council and site developer Rozelle Village – for the love of rugby league and the good of the inner west community, can you two please just compromise?
The abandoned iconic Victoria Rd venue has been officially vacant since 2010, after the Tigers received notice to vacate to make way for the new NSW Government metro transport project. Since then, those plans was scrapped and the cash-strapped club infamously sold the property for $1.00 (yep, one dollar) to the Rozelle Village developers. In exchange for this deal they agreed to help with the Tigers’ $23 million debt, build them a brand new clubhouse within a new development and provide ongoing financial assistance to the ailing business. Over the years Rozelle Village has purchased several properties sandwiched between the club and carpark, in their efforts to get the large-scale proposal pushed through. The boarded up buildings and grungy exterior have left the stretch between Darling St and the Bridge Hotel looking increasingly bleak.
Since the site’s closure, neither the Council or the developers have been able to reach an agreement on the proposed scale of the new project, which was to become an ambitious combined residential, commercial and entertainment precinct. The abandoned building is now completely derelict – an infamous urban wasteland (read: urbex explorer wonderland) thoroughly vandalised by local youths, stripped by thieves and on occasion housed by the odd group of squatters. It’s become a popular underground spot for the Sydney art scene, with several pieces from well known street artists appearing on the carpark walls.
Although I always see beauty in the abandoned, even I’ll admit that this place has become an eyesore on the horizon of Darling St Rozelle. The row of tagged up buildings acquired by the developer look well out of place with the rest of the quaint suburb. Quite frankly, it’s not out of order to say this situation has been an ongoing insult to the fine heritage of both the Balmain Tigers Club and the whole inner west side.
While I’ve enjoyed exploring and photographing this notorious secret Sydney spot a few times now, I hope this situation is resolved so the Balmain Tigers can come home before they’re forced to call it quits. It’s a shame a place tied to Sydney’s heritage allowed to deteriorate like this. It would be incredibly sad if Sydney lost another of our historic rugby league clubs to the history books…
Leichhardt Council VS Rozelle Village – the lowdown
The ongoing saga has been rumoured to be a dodgy development deal, with whispers of corporate fat cat corruption involved in the approval of the building’s sale. This fateful decision has allowed Rozelle Village to take control of the property and plan construction of two gigantic skyscrapers – so huge at one point that Airservices Australia warned they would encroach onto Sydney’s airspace! Leichhardt Council claims the structure will overshadow the low-rise heritage inner west area and is against community interest. It’s demanding the towers be reduced to a height that Rozelle Village claims will make the project unable to turn a profit.
This seemingly neverending status quo has left the once mighty Tigers in a frustrating and vulnerable state of legal limbo since then. After the latest public mediation hearing held at Rozelle Village’s offices in December 2015 failed to reach an agreement on the issue, the Tigers have now well and truly missed the deadline for their contractual agreement with Rozelle Village. This clause which officially expired on 29th November gave the club first rights as leaseholder of the new site, plus a discounted rate on rent.
As the developer is no longer under any legal obligation to the Tigers, This failure to pass a decision on the latest proposal has left club in very precarious position, because if they’re booted out of the building they have literally zero funds to lease a premises elsewhere. With no power against these competing community VS commercial interests, the Tigers are essentially a financially weak and contractually helpless animal at the mercy of bureaucracy. Rozelle Village developer Ian Wright says “We’ve made no secret that we’re going to sell [the site]…if we sell it to someone after November 29, that buyer has no obligation at all to the Balmain Leagues Club.”
In 2015 Rozelle Village escalated an appeal to the NSW Land & Environment Court, requesting it determine the case. In an game of legal-style jinx, Leichhardt Council has retaliated by also requesting a hearing with same court, insisting the current commercial zoning laws be changed to protect Balmain’s heritage character. This grudge match is now set to be refereed by an impartial, but possibly locally unsympathetic 3rd party.
Wright insists the development has been compromised enough, having already reduced the original plan for two formidable 32 and 28 storey buildings down to 12 and 8 storeys. He says the current 2015 proposal complies with NSW Planning and Environment Department zoning laws set in place since 2008, which at that time were Council approved. Wright says after the latest proposal rejection he “can’t see any way now that the Balmain Leagues Club can return to that site..if the Tigers do not survive the journey, it will be Council with blood on their hands.”
But Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne is confident the current laws are in breach of local community interest and wants the site rezoned. He is adamant Council will refuse to pass any deal with Rozelle Village that doesn’t guarantee the Tigers will return to the new development and be financially viable at a maximum of 8 and 6 levels high. Byrne says “the whole premise of this rezoning, since 2008 when council first approved it, is that the Balmain Leagues Club would have a new home in the redevelopment…after recent public statements that they ‘can’t see any way now that the Balmain Leagues Club can return to that site’, the developer has again failed to provide certainty that the Tigers will have a home in Rozelle.”
With Wright and Byrne both publicly pointing the finger at each other for destroying the Tigers’ chances of getting back in the building, the bickering between them seems increasingly personal – Wright even recently threatening to sue Byrne over statements made that he says are defamatory and suggest he’s acting outside of the law.
The only thing both sides say they agree on is they want the Balmain Tigers to stay on home soil – but after years spent watching the old Tigers left to suffer for too long like a wounded beast, it’s fair to say both Rozelle Village and Leichhardt Council lack good sportsmanship and gotta start playing fair. It’s just not cricket, boys…
The Balmain Tigers Club Board has called out Leichhardt Council for being inconsiderate of the commercial realities and untenable situation the club’s facing, by not taking into account the vast profits both the club and developer have lost due to years of unexpected closure. In a 2015 press release Club Chairman Dr Leslie Glen criticises the Council’s stalling tactics, which he says have been a waste of tax payers’ money.
Dr Glen has warned that Council’s refusal to pass the latest development plan by November 2015 will mean the club is likely be forced into volunteer administration -He argues: “How can Council justify a proposal to scale down this site, when every other site is Sydney is being developed to accommodate the growing needs of the community?”
So it seems that unless some Russell Crowe-type tycoon randomly decides to swoop in and save the day, the club is in very serious trouble indeed…
Adventure time – Tigers style
It’s known in Sydney’s underground urbex scene that this place has security surveillance in operation – but I’ve chanced it during the mid-afternoon several times now with no problems, providing there’s a good gap in the fence to slide through. Technically, I’ve never seen any signage dissuading people from entering the property and as a lifelong inner west resident, I feel it’s my civic duty to investigate this one!
Teenagers from local Balmain High School can be found here, identifiable by their black & white uniform, plus young budding creatives who take advantage of the space for various art projects. They’re harmless enough and usually scatter like shy cubs once they spot a strange girl on the scene – preferring to play amongst themselves while pretending not to pay me much notice, apart from giving a few little grunts in my general direction.
The dim entrance to the dark underground carpark levels looks gloomy, but once inside the lair bright colours splashed on the walls by spraypainters sets a vibrant tone to the large multilevel space. The floors are littered with rotting moudly mattresses, piles of rotting garbage and in some areas the stale scent of urine pervades one’s nostrils.
The expansive interior of the main entertainment room is dark and cool compared to the scorching Sydney summer heat outside. The building has been completely stripped of valuable copper by opportunistic thieves, leaving the discarded electrical wiring dangling from the ceiling. Masses of cords hang like thin vines which I dodge in the dim light, squealing whenever one scrapes against my skin.
An audible hum from the outside traffic on busy Victoria Rd is a soothing backdrop, reminding me that civilisation is still close by. Glass from the many smashed windows crunches underneath my Doc Martens as I creep around the room surveying the scene. The building is seriously leaking – water drips from the roof and the carpet squelches with every step. Evidence of water damage is clearly visible in the main ballroom, the waterlogged floorboards have buckled and feel wavy to walk on.
Litter is strewn all over the floor and any furniture not bolted down has been upended, giving the room an apocalyptic vibe. The space is so trashed it’s hard to imagine this was once an okay place to grab some drinks, eat a steak and catch a local entertainment act.
While I’m an advocate for the preservation of our heritage suburbs and protecting community interests, to come at the cost of killing off our beloved Balmain Tigers is a blatant act of animal cruelty.It’s hard to believe that either Leichhardt Council or the inner west community could prefer this decaying sight over a 12 and 8 storey construction. Considering everyone seems to agree that the current building is a blight on Balmain, it stands to reason that the current development proposal would be a considerable improvement of its current sorry state.
While the current proposed towers would still alter the current low rise landscape, new apartments, club, shopfronts and underground parking would provide inner west Sydney residents with a modern new residential, entertainment and business precinct. The recent huge success of nearby Harris Farm and Salt Meats & Cheese development in Drummoyne should stand as an example of what the Balmain and Rozelle suburbs could benefit from. Business at the glitzy new Harris Farm has been booming and this proposal almost didn’t go ahead, due to local objections.
I could never support a redevelopment that would destruct Sydney’s heritage buildings, or threaten our native wildlife. However, there’s something to be said for updating disused sections of the Victoria Rd strip – capitalising on the 50s era building of the leagues club building and creating even more of these combined residential/business hubs would ultimately benefit the whole inner west community, providing our city continues to accommodate the increased urban density by improving public transport services.
With neighbouring iconic Rozelle Markets sadly ending its longterm presence at nearby Rozelle Public School in January 2016, this stretch of road could do with some much-needed cheering up. I can’t think of a more perfect way to celebrate the suburb and than by bringing the Balmain Tigers back to their rightful home and keep them in the competition.