Image: An indigenous portrayal of the Metro/Minerva Theatre in Potts Point. Credit: Artwork by Shane Smithers.
By JOHN MOYLE
When in February the NSW Arts Minister Ben Franklin announced the compulsory acquisition of Parramatta’s Roxy Theatre it brought about a call for similar action to take place for the Metro Minerva Theatre in Potts Point.
The Metro Minerva is currently owned by property developers Central Element who have a development application lodged for the heritage listed building.
Central Element’s website states “Plans will see the vacant building, last occupied as an office, lovingly restored int a multi-use venue, incorporating a 5 star boutique hotel and performance spaces, for which the building is renowned.”
Despite the findings of a City of Sydney/Create NSW feasibility study stating that the theatre could be restored as a working 1,000 seat venue, Central Element commissioned a study by Arup to state that this was impossible due to modern building standards and the degradation of the space during its conversion to a food court and later offices.
This was also despite 178 submissions from individuals, 1799 petition signatories and 21 responses from organisations being lodged against the proposal.
On 18 December 2020 the Metro Minerva was listed on the State Heritage Register and on 13 May 2021 a pre-development meeting was held between Heritage NSW and the City of Sydney regarding the new proposal for the site.
In May last year Heritage NSW handed down its own report regarding then DA that has at least one proponent for the retention of the Metro Minerva as a theatrical venue hopeful.
Andrew Andersons is a highly awarded architect who has spent much of his working life developing Sydney’s theatrical spaces, including the Ros Packer Theatre, Angel Place Recital Hall and the restoration of the Capitol Theatre.
“The thrust of Arup’s report was that the old theatre would never comply with contemporary standards, in fact it had the most generous seating of any theatre in Sydney,” Andersons said.
“You could reinstate the old theatre as it was without any difficulties because nothing has fundamentally changed in the way that theatre designs are made.”
Heritage NSW, in section 2 of the report, supports this, stating “A joint feasibility study by Create NSW and City of Sydney found that the Minerva could house up to 1,000 patrons and therefore be financially viable as a small to medium theatre.”
A Create NSW spokesperson said that it “noted that the Department did not agree with assertions made by Central Element that the restoration of the theatre to a 1,000 seat venue was not possible.
“The submission … confirmed that the proposal to restore the theatre t0 a 1,000 seat theatre is both workable and realistic.”
Andersons added that new smoke alarms and electronics are needed, along with an updating of the air-conditioning and new flying equipment is required, and that disabled accesses can easily accommodated.
Architect opposes elements of proposal
In Section 7 The Heritage NSW report states that the proposal should delete the demolition of the roof, the northern foyer wall and the introduction of partition walls in the auditorium.
“These are serious constraints that would really kill off the hotel, in my opinion,” Andersons said.
“The hotel is premised on building two levels of the auditorium roof, and all the best (hotel) rooms are in that section, and if you can’t build that you are reducing the desirability of the hotel.
“The idea of using that magnificent auditorium as a nightclub is also a really bad idea, as nightclubs are something you put into cheap spaces, not something that requires enormous excavation and underpinning, which again makes the entire project economically unviable.”
The City of Sydney noted that the DA was still under consideration and that the council officers were considering all documentation lodged with the DA against relevant planning controls.
The report contains one glaring mistake in Section 6.2.6 when is says that there has been no “active theatre productions in the walls since the 1940s” which omits the record breaking two year run of Hair from 1969 to 1971.
John Waters played Claude in around 1,000 performances during that time and said “It was the first theatre I had worked in as a performer in a theatrical show, and the acoustics and sight lines were brilliant for me as an actor.”
“The report is encouraging to me as it is dealing with the major cultural significance of the building and its impact on the performing arts,” Andersons said.
“If the state government wants to acquire then building it can negotiate a lower acquisition rate because the developer has no options to make it profitable.”
With the Roxy as a precedence, this is looking more likely at any time since Don Harwin’s time as arts minister, particularly with the support of Alex Greenwich, the independent member for Sydney when he said “I strongly support the compulsory acquisition of the Metro/Minerva as a theatre as its the least the major parties can do for imposing the lockout laws on Kings Cross all those years ago.”
If the planned hotel development goes ahead it will irreversibly change the look and use of the Metro Minerva, locking us out a world significant theatre space forever.
*John Moyle is a committee member of the Metro/Minerva Theatre Action Group.