National Parks and Wildlife Service plan for Watsons Bay headland draws opposition

Locals are taking a stand against redeveloping old government buildings at Watsons Bay. Photo: James Alcock Watsons Bay as the locals like it. Photo: James Alcock

Green Point Cottage at Watsons Bay. Photo: James Alcock

Constables Cottage at Watsons Bay. Photo: James Alcock

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A proposal to redevelop six historic buildings on the south head of Sydney Harbour to host private functions is drawing opposition from local residents and even within the Baird cabinet.

Opponents say the National Parks and Wildlife Service plan could bring up to a thousand visitors a day to the cliffs at the tip of the Watsons Bay peninsula.

Buildings next to Camp Cove Beach and set inside the Sydney Harbour National Park would be leased to a private operator for use as function centres, a restaurant and short-term accommodation.

Claudia Cullen, a spokeswoman for residents’ group Save Watsons Bay, said the proposal would turn a secluded beach into a noisy and chaotic “wedding precinct” with more than 1000 incoming guests a day.

“It’s one of the rare parts of the eastern suburbs that hasn’t been hit by over-commercialisation,” she said. “This isn’t about allowing the public access and it affects an historic beach that hasn’t much changed since 1841.”

The buildings are not currently in use but in recent years many have been rented out by the state government for functions and holiday rentals.

But the plans would see the buildings renovated and expanded by a private operator.

The Constable’s Cottage, a 19th Century home, would become a restaurant for seating for up to 70 diners.

An extra floor would be added to the heritage-listed Armoury Building, which would cater for 280 people and two functions. The adjacent Officers Mess would be landscaped and refurbished with capacity for up to 140 guests.

Guests would be driven in and out by minibus through a new path through the National Park.

The tender to operate the buildings was won by a company run by Chris Drivas, whose Dockside Group runs large function centres in Darling Harbour and the Rocks.

Mr Drivas said finding a commercial use for the buildings would, in the long-term, help preserve their heritage.

“We’re not talking about a large increase [in guests],” he said. “We are open to the local community and what they recommend; it’s all preliminary”.

The NSW Attorney-General and member for Vaucluse, Gabrielle Upton, says the proposal risks overrunning a “small peninsula of precious and fragile natural beauty”.

“It substantially increases the intensity of use for [the area] bringing with it more traffic, noise and activity,” she said. “It would seriously and negatively impact on the amenity of local residents.”

Mrs Upton said she would continue to lobby the Environment Minister, Mark Speakman, who must approve the plan.

The function centre would run until midnight, about two hours later than other local venues.

Three nearby cottages would be turned into short-term accommodation, likely to be used by wedding party guests.

Michael Wright, the deputy head of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, said the proposal was “adaptive reuse” of empty buildings and could turn them into “attractive, contemporary offers”.

The designs are open for comment until November 10.

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