Shoot out for the Metro-Minerva Theatre

The Metro/Minerva Theatre in Potts Point. File photo.

By JOHN MOYLE

With developer Central Element’s development application (DA) for the Metro-Minerva Theatre in Potts Point due to close for public exhibition on Wednesday, 15 September, it will be a tight fight between the developer’s slick public Zoom presentations and the efforts of the small but growing community organisation, the Metro-Minerva Theatre Action Group, to restore the building as a viable 1,000 seat theatrical venue.

At the heart of the developer’s argument for winning community support for their proposed hotel development was a presentation by project engineers Arup, a global concern which originally came to Australia from Britain in 1963 to solve the structural design of the Sydney Opera House.

Arup’s presentation set out to refute the possibility of the Metro-Minerva ever being returned to a 800-1,000 seat live venue, citing their adverse findings on sight lines, air-conditioning, electrical wiring, disabled lifts and commercial viability, among other things – all items that would need to be addressed in Central Element’s development.

“Tendentious is too mild a word, it’s like fake news that Arup can say those things”, says Andrew Andersons, former Assistant Government Architect responsible for the Riverside Theatre Parramatta, the Sydney Entertainment Centre, and – with architectural firm Peddle Thorpe & Walker – the Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay, the restoration of the Capitol Theatre and many other projects that have helped shape modern Sydney.

“If you look at the tactics of the whole thing, everyone agrees that the building is of significance but the Arup report purports to establish the you can’t restore it as a theatre because you can’t get the seats to work. But the real issue is that the place worked well before and if you reconstruct pretty much what was there, you would have a very good theatre,” Andersons told the Sentinel.

As for the sight line issue, Andersons said: “The Metro-Minerva is identical to the Capitol Theatre that has sloping ramps stalls and a much steeper step gallery and there are no complaints about the sight lines from the Capitol.”

The Metro-Minerva Theatre. Photo: John Moyle.

Given that the seats are no longer in the venue, an exercise was undertaken by Scott Carver Architects to estimate the possible seating numbers that may be configured for the Metro-Minerva.

Scott Carver produced a range of options to test the size of the internal space and they were able to show a possible scenario of just over 1,000 seats.

The Arup report also goes against the findings of the 2020 Hawkridge Entertainment Services report, commissioned by the City of Sydney Council and Create NSW, which found “strong interest in leasing and operating the Minerva from venue operators as well as from producers who wish to utilise the venue to present shows and performances”.

The Hawkridge report added: “The cost of purchasing the Minerva and the subsequent capital expenditure required to reinstate a fully functional theatre would be substantially less than the cost of a new 1,000 seat theatre, depending on the level of technical equipment required.

“Based on the cost of reinstating the Minerva back to a functioning theatre, it is seen as good value”.

Andrew Andersons also warns that Central Element’s DA appears to be under budgeted.

“I don’t believe the cost figure in the DA and I think it is going to prove to be far more expensive and difficult than they are saying, and that is because it is an unresolved design – and they may come back and say that we have to leave out one of the venues and that we can’t conserve everything.

“This type of thing happens quite often, [for example] the Walsh Bay project where Mirvac bought an interest in it,  and it was all about conserving the wharves, and then they said that they couldn’t afford to keep them and were going to rip them down.

“The whole object was about conservation and when they got the job, they said they weren’t going to do it.”

Andersons also points out that another issue with the Central Element proposal is that Springfield Gardens, the tiny slither of well-used public land opposite the theatre in Orwell Street, may be under threat of overshadowing.

“If the DA says that adding two levels to the lift tower has negligible effect, in fact it has a lot of impact – their own shadow diagrams show that there is a fair bit of overshadowing of Springfield Gardens, and in winter you want all the sunlight you can get,” Andersons said.

As the Zoom presentation progressed, Central Element tried to act as model citizens, pointing out that if the theatre was operational, there would be problems with bump ins and bump outs causing congestion and interruption to the traffic flow on Orwell Street.

Andersons said he doubted this would have as much impact as the proposed 24-hour valet parking operation for 28 vehicles.

Of course Central Element want to develop a hotel project, as that is where their expertise is – not in theatre operations.

“The flaw in the thing is that they are all working on the assumption that you cannot keep it as a live theatre, they accept the Arup report,” Andersons said.

“To me, the building is distinctive and unique, and is a great cultural artefact, and its real significance lies in the fact that it is a theatre … Turning it into something that is a mixture of a hotel, theatre restaurant and discotheque is, I don’t think, the right way to celebrate the significance of this building.”

A Change.org petition against Central Element’s DA for the Metro-Minerva Theatre is located at www.change.org/p/protect-the-metro-minerva-theatre-from-central-element-s-development-application-d-2021-89.

John Moyle is the associate editor and special writer for the Sydney Sentinel.

Disclaimer: John Moyle is a member of the Metro-Minerva Theatre Action Group.