The leaning towers of Mascot

Mascot Towers now "leaning and unstable". Photo: Alec Smart.

BY ALEC SMART

Mascot Towers, the south Sydney apartment blocks above Mascot Station, which residents and businesses hastily abandoned on 14 June 2019 due to structural faults and fissures in the brickwork, are now said to be “leaning and unstable”.

The last few tenants in the premises – a restaurant and a shop still operating on the ground floor – received a letter from lawyers representing the owners’ corporation on 10 December advising them to vacate as soon as possible.

An estimated 70 employees will be out of work over Christmas and perishable stock, including refrigerated foods, will have to be destroyed.

The legal letter states: “Our client has been advised by the engineers for ‘Mascot Towers’ building that the facades of the buildings are leaning and unstable and has identified a genuine safety risk to the public on both the Bourke Street and Church Street boundaries.

“On 4 November 2020 SafeWork NSW attended the site and acknowledged the advice of the engineers that the facades are an immediate safety concern for which an exclusion zone must be established.

“You should assume that as and from 18 December 2020 your lot will no longer be accessible.

“Owner occupiers and tenants will not be able to trade from the lot for an indefinite period of time from this date.”

The legal letter to tenants followed a SafeWork NSW inspection that determined the building owners had inadequately responded to the risks of ‘falling objects’, identified in two previous building reports.

SafeWork NSW, the workplace health and safety regulator and enforcer, focuses on improving work safety culture and also investigates workplace incidents.

Mascot Towers, at 1-5 Bourke Street, Mascot, features two 10-storey apartment blocks comprising 131 residential units and nine ground floor commercial enterprises.

All apartments and all but two of the ground floor traders’ suites are now uninhabitable after Mascot Towers’ building management informed tenants and traders via letter on 13 June 2019 to vacate immediately because emergency props were being installed in the basement carpark to shore up the ceiling and reduce the risk of the high-rise complex collapsing.

This was because cracks had developed in the “transfer slab beams supporting the primary building corner”.

Residents were then obliged to leave by 9pm the following night, and relocate to a temporary shelter at Mascot Town Hall. Emergency services were deployed to assist the evacuation. Mascot Towers’ strata management company, Strata Choice, urged tenants to find longer-term alternative accommodation.

The new revelation that the buildings are leaning reinforces the prospect that residents will never return to their homes as the towers will have to be demolished and rebuilt.

Kevin Anderson, NSW Minister for Better Regulation and Innovation, insisted that despite the new safety warning, it didn’t mean the remaining businesses trading at Mascot Towers had to close.

“There are a range of measures that can be implemented that will ensure compliance. SafeWork NSW is working with the Mascot Towers Owners Corporation and the retail premises to ensure the safety of workers and patrons and the continued safe operation of the retail premise.”

Blame game

While the cause of the Mascot Towers cracks remains uncertain, blame was initially attributed to ‘vibrations’ caused by construction work by Aland Development Group on the neighbouring Peak Towers at 27 Church Avenue, Mascot, which was completed in early 2019.

On 25 June 2019, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro gave credence to this theory by confirming Mascot Towers was “sinking” due to a “drop in water tables” leading to “differential settlement” of the land mass beneath Mascot Towers. This was interpreted as caused by construction on Peak Towers.

However, the following day, Aland Development managing director Andrew Hrsto insisted there was “no basis in fact” that cracks in the 2009-built Mascot Towers was caused by or even linked to his company­’s construction work.

“We feel compelled to respond to some of the reckless commentary and speculation in recent days that has sought to pre-empt and in some cases shape the outcome of investigations,” he said.

Aland Development then dropped the bombshell revelation that they had engaged Australian Consulting Engineers to carry out a pre-construction inspection, called a ‘dilapidation report’, of buildings around its construction site project prior to their commencement of work on Peak Towers in 2016.

This included photos taken of Mascot Towers that showed significant cracks in the brickwork that were already ‘several years’ old – the same cracks that contributed to the 14 June 2019 emergency evacuation of tenants.

According to both Property Observer and The Australian Financial Review, the first official recognition of basement cracks at Mascot Towers came in 2011, less than three years after the apartment block’s completion.

Curiously, in March 2011, an extraordinary general meeting was called by Mascot Towers’ owners to commission engineer MES Consulting to investigate a range of defects, following the discovery of leaks in the carwash bay and significant basement cracks.

MES revealed there were also faulty gas meters and water leaks in common area corridors, believed to have been caused by “poor sealing practice at construction and in the construction joists”.

Further serious defects were discovered in October 2011, including: leakages in the swimming pool; faulty garden irrigation systems; faulty fire systems; and ‘structural movements’, the latter particularly pertinent to the current shock announcement that the building is ‘leaning’.

A former tenant retrieves mail from Mascot Towers apartments, which were hastily abandoned in June 2019 after cracks appeared. They are now said to be “leaning and unstable”. Photo: Alec Smart.

Deeds indeed

Five companies were identified as the landowners or developers of the Mascot Towers project. However, four of those companies have since been deregistered, although many of the directors and shareholders of the five companies continue to be involved in a range of other Sydney property projects.

The single company listed as still involved in Mascot Towers is the primary builder, J & B Elias Pty Ltd, although their ABN status lists them as ‘not currently registered for GST’. There are suggestions they’ve gone into administration, although a 69-unit project at 278 Bunneron­g Road, Hillsdale, owned by J & B Elias director Hanna Elias, received construction approval in 2018.

On 27 June 2019, at a meeting held with around 250 apartment owners, it was revealed that Mascot Towers owners struck a deal with J & B Elias in 2015 – accepting $750,000 from the builder to waive any responsibility for ongoing defects.

J & B Elias agreed to fix the defects identified by MES Consulting free of charge in what was recorded as a ‘spirit of co-operation between the owner’s corporation and the builder’.

However, after the repair work, it appears the defects returned. The reparations were subsequently found by the building committee to be ‘below general industry and Building Code of Australia standards and that problems were arising again subsequent to completion’.

Furthermore, “the committee noted its serious concerns in the builder’s commitment and ability to address these issues”.

Nevertheless, in May 2020, almost a year after the mass abandonment of their structurally unsound apartments, the owners of Sydney’s Mascot Towers announced they were pursuing more than $15 million in damages from the builders of Peak Towers, Aland Development Group.

Mascot Towers’ owners corporation filed documents in the NSW Supreme Court alleging that the deep construction work necessary to construct the Peak Towers basement carpark compromised the foundations of Mascot Towers, making them too weak to support the combined weight of the two towers.

NSW Fair Trading also declared they were investigating the building certification work on Peak Towers.

Mascot Towers’ tenants, most of whom are still homeless and at risk of bankruptcy, are facing a combined $53.5 million repair bill if the entire premises aren’t torn down – about $400,000 for each unit. They have nothing more to lose.

One of the last traders operating from the abandoned Mascot Towers, who were informed by lawyers on 10 Dec that the cracked and structurally unsound buildings were now “leaning”. Photo: Alec Smart.

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