Ire over sale of Sydney icon to Singapore property developers

Writer: Jonathan Pearlman
Published Date: June 11, 2017
Source: The Straits Times

Aussies worry GPO will lose its character but buyers say they will follow heritage rules

A deal to sell one of Sydney’s most famous buildings – the 19th-century General Post Office building – to Singaporean property developers has caused a backlash and prompted appeals to the federal government to block the move.

The 1874 building in Sydney’s Martin Place has been sold by Australia Post, a state-owned company, to Singapore’s Far East Organization and its affiliate, Hong Kong-based developer Sino Group. The firms are owned by Singapore’s Ng family and together comprise one of Asia’s largest property groups.

But the sale – reportedly for A$150 million (S$156 million) – has caused anger over concerns it could lead to the General Post Office building being renovated and losing its character. Far East and Sino Group have declared that they will respect all state and federal heritage requirements.

Sales of Australian icons – whether they are brands of biscuit or large farming estates – have often prompted public opposition, particularly when the sale involves foreign investors.

Criticism of the GPO sale has been led by Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Ms Clover Moore, and the National Trust’s New South Wales (NSW) branch president, Dr Clive Lucas.

Ms Moore said she was concerned about the building leaving public ownership rather than the buyer being a foreign entity. She urged the federal government to keep the “masterpiece” in public hands, though Canberra has indicated it is unlikely to block the sale.

The Victorian-era building in Sydney’s Martin Place is famous for its prime location. The deal will see the post office continue to operate on the site until at least 2096 under an existing lease signed in 1997.

Part of the building was sold off in 1997 but Australia Post made a deal earlier this year to sell the remainder, which is currently under lease to Far East and Sino. The firms already own part of the site which houses the Westin Hotel.

The sale has been approved by the federal government’s Foreign Investment Review Board. But the deal must still receive approval from its Commonwealth Heritage agency.

Far East and Sino have previously restored historic buildings in Singapore and Hong Kong, including The Fullerton Hotel in Singapore, a 1928 building that also once housed the country’s General Post Office.

In Hong Kong, the Ng family conserved and converted the Old Tai O Police Station, a 1902 building, into Tai O Heritage Hotel, as part of its non-profit heritage conservation foundation.

The chief operating officer of Far East Organization’s Australia Properties Business Group, Ms Lay See Shaw, said it had no firm development plans.”While the owner is exploring various concepts to enhance the Sydney GPO, no firm proposals or… timelines have been set,” she told The Sunday Times.

“The owner will be guided by all relevant federal and NSW heritage laws and regulations if any development concepts are to be proposed for the building in the future.”

The federal Environment Minister, Mr Josh Frydenberg, whose portfolio includes Commonwealth Heritage, has signalled support for the deal.

Ahead of the sale, Australia Post obtained a heritage report from the architect and heritage planning firm, Lucas, Stapleton and Johnson, which recommended against selling the GPO to overseas interests.

National Trust’s Dr Lucas, who is also a consultant with Lucas, Stapleton and Johnson, said the sale to a foreign buyer was a “tragedy”.

“I think it’s scandalous that such an important building in such an important city should be sold off in this way,” he told Australia Associated Press. “It’s part of the nation’s heritage. It should really continue to be owned by Australia.”

Ms Moore, the Lord Mayor, noted that she had no problem with long-term leases, such as the 99-year lease of the city-owned iconic Queen Victoria Building to Singapore’s Ipoh Pty Ltd.

The NSW government has flagged a range of public buildings across Sydney that may potentially be sold – a move that could lead to further public criticism.

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