A Sydney heritage expert describes as “tricky” the extraordinary marketing of 18 antique properties as one title in one of Australia’s most historically loaded, post-settlement neighbourhoods.
Spruiked as a “landmark investment”, the Longs Lane Precinct in Sydney’s The Rocks on the southern shore of Circular Quay is a 99-year leasehold on the 17 dwellings and one commercial property being offered to the Australian and international markets in an expression-of-interest campaign closing in early April.
The mostly late Victorian agglomeration of terraces – nine currently tenanted – come under the custodianship of the NSW government Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. And, although this sales pitch looks like a final rousing flurry in the four-year selling campaign of 189 other department-owned properties from 2014-18 that occurred around proximate Millers Point, this is not the first time the Longs Lane grouping has come to market.
A department spokesman says the precinct was marketed in late 2019, but paused at the beginning of the pandemic “to ensure an optimal financial and use outcome could be achieved”.
Agents for the deal Savills Australia are not authorised to comment on this relisting of the 2452-square-metre title between Gloucester and Cumberland streets in the elbow of the Cahill Expressway.
But John Tropman, of the architectural firm that has advised and worked on scores of local properties, says when “this little zone that is frozen in time” first appeared on the market 18 months ago, several developers and speculators, including one from Hong Kong, approached his firm for advice
The director of Tropman and Tropman Architects says those interested parties were “looking at the possibility of subdividing it for potential commercial and restaurant usage, but …”
This is where “tricky” comes in. “There are a lot of heritage controls on it.”
The department spokesperson says “the state heritage-listed properties on the site will be leased with heritage protections in place”.
The little pocket has a history dating from the get-go of the penal colony of NSW.
Close to the very ground where in late summer 1788 the convicts and marines of the First Fleet erected their tents, stores and rudimentary wattle and daub hutments, The Rocks evolved through long decades from being a notorious, closely settled, colourful slum to having most of the property progressively resumed by the government from the early 1900s.
If they didn’t fall down, a lot of the area’s fringe dwellings were knocked down in the 1920s to make way for the approaches to the Harbour Bridge, with more lost in the 1950s in the path of the expressway.
Through the 1970s, green bans preserved other remnants from bulldozers, and after low-income public-housing tenants and squatters had wrought much use-wear and damage, Tropman says the government finally recognised the rare potential of “the highest part of The Rocks” and in the 1990s initiated a careful restoration project that won Longs Lane a 1998 architecture award for its “outstanding urban design”.
“It’s a special little spot,” he said. “It sits up there by itself and still has pedestrian stone-flagged laneways. It’s a little island of preservation; a great urban space so close to the CBD and it could explode into something quite amazing.”
While the serious bidders can chat with Savills about the potential price of such an exceptional piece of Australiana and clarify what the government means by “the conditions of the 99-year leasehold”, Tropman says the ideal candidate “would be someone who is prepared to take a risk”.
He assumes that the makeover options might shape up as a mix of “low-key residential” and smaller-scale commercial such as shops and specialist eateries. “It has the potential.”
With the cashed-up new Millers Point residents (and soon the buyers who will take up the rebooted Sirius building apartments) “looking for places to go to in the area, it could have much more attractive uses. It needs someone with great vision”.
Tropman cites the drawing power of a small basement bar down on George Street “that has become so popular through social media it’s exploded”.
In several small rooms beneath and behind the 1840s sandstone shop terrace, The Doss House is a whisky and cocktail bar made over to evoke its history as among other things, a boarding house and an opium den. Its styling is the sort of imaginative adaption that could occur throughout Longs Lane, he thinks. “What about a gin distillery? Longs Lane needs a person with vision who can make it work as something special. If really interesting things are done and promoted, it could go all the way”.
The EOI campaign concludes at 4pm on Thursday, April 8.
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