Secretive sale of the Sydney GPO raises questions

Published Date: June 25, 2017
Source: The Sydney Morning Herald


Stand at the imposing entrance of the GPO building at 1 Martin Place and the significance of this substantial Italian palazzo-style building is beyond doubt. It “stands as a monument to the confidence of colonial NSW in the late 19th century”, according to a plaque inside.

The first stage of the General Post Office opened in 1874 and, as the Sydney Morning Herald of September 2 reported, “the day was a red letter one in Post Office annals”.

Over time the building has undergone some significant transformations. A major refurbishment with shops, restaurants and hotel rooms was completed in 1999, ahead of the Sydney Olympics. Then the demolished staircase was reconstructed with the idea that the public could ascend to the first floor surrounded by “visual delight and grandeur”. Sadly a sign on the red-carpeted stairs now states it is for use only of The Westin hotel residents and their guests. Today the heritage-listed building is a monument to the confidence of commerce.

For that reason, another and perhaps more worrying transformation is underway.

As the Herald revealed earlier this month, Australia Post has sold the building, subject only, it seems, to the ticking of a few boxes. The new owner is international property developer Far East which is owned by Singaporean billionaires Robert and Phillip Ng. The price looks a bargain at $150 million. Australia Post announced a public process last year in which it planned to sell seven state GPOs but the sale was cancelled. The Sydney deal went ahead on a private basis.

Predictably the brothers Ng have grand plans. These have been seen by the Herald. In simple terms they intend to have more shops, more restaurants and, within a stone’s throw of the Cenotaph, an outdoor piazza-style dining area. Far East, already owners of The Westin, currently pay Australia Post some $6.5 million annually for retail leases relating to the site.

That the building is to fall into foreign ownership is not, per se, what concerns the Herald. There are precedents. The Queen Victoria Building was purchased by Malaysian developers Ipoh Garden Berhad​ and refurbished before reopening in 2004. The much-loved QVB demonstrates that heritage constraints allow these arresting edifices from another era to stride into the 21st century with dignity intact. The Strand Arcade, also in the ownership of Ipoh, is another case in point.

What is of concern is the secretive nature of the deal. Australia Post commissioned a heritage report from architects Lucas, Stapleton and Johnson, the company that oversaw the pre-Olympics refurbishment. Their report warned, “Very substantial loss of significance may occur should any part of the place be sold or otherwise alienated from Australian ownership”. Australia Post decided to keep the report under the counter and it was never made public. In defence, it says, crucially, the entire building remains heritage protected,  and the deal would free up capital to invest in staff and services.

There are questions to be answered, especially in these times when it seems fashionable to offload long-held assets, whether they be the farm, the family silver, the poles and wires of electricity supply or the land titles registry. Why was the public process announced and then dismissed in favour of a secretive sale? How was the valuation of $150 million arrived at and why was the critical report buried?  Answers to those questions might explain how it is that the process of sale is now so advanced that it appears too late for the public to even comment.

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