Creative ideas to transform Sydney’s old buildings into venues

T2 Building Taylor Square photo by Paul Patterson City of SydneyMusicians, performers, not-for-profits and other small creative businesses will find it easier to breathe new life into old buildings under a plan to support the creative industries championed by the City of Sydney.

In its New Ideas for Old Buildings discussion paper, the City is looking at ways to reduce barriers preventing creative enterprises from setting up studios, workspaces, galleries, pop-up theatres and other creative spaces.

Now open for feedback during March and April, the paper outlines six actions that could create a more supportive regulatory environment for Sydney’s creative sector, while ensuring venues remain safe and accessible for organisers and audiences.

Ideas include developing regulatory processes tailored to small creative spaces, providing clearer assessment criteria to speed up development applications, and advocating for changes to state and federal environmental and planning laws for pop-up or temporary projects.

Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the City wanted to make it easier for creative Sydneysiders to get their ideas off the ground. “Cities across Australia, and all over the world, are facing the challenge of adapting 20th century planning laws to today’s diverse creative scene,” said the Lord Mayor.

“We need to develop smarter regulations that maintain high safety standards, but also provide clear and cost-effective ways to adapt older buildings to the needs of a contemporary creative city. The creative sector is vital to Sydney’s future. NSW is home to 40 per cent of Australia’s creative industries workforce, which contributes more than $1.4 billion to the state economy – and the bulk of this is in the City of Sydney area.

“This discussion paper proposes a range of potential solutions. What we need is for other levels of government, industry groups and the wider cultural community to contribute their own ideas on how we can work together to reduce the barriers facing the creative sector.”

The New Ideas for Old Buildings discussion paper follows the release of the City’s cultural policy and live music and performance action plan in 2014. Both papers recognised the difficulties faced by creative enterprises in negotiating building regulations and approvals for new and innovative projects.

In response to recommendations made in those plans, in mid-2015 the City held a forum with more than 120 representatives from the building, planning, creative and small business sectors to identify common problems, as well as potential solutions.

Kerri Glasscock, director of the Sydney Fringe Festival and a member of the City’s live music taskforce, presented to forum participants on her experiences navigating Sydney’s regulatory challenges.

“Each year, the Sydney Fringe Festival faces Sydney’s growing venue crisis head on. With rising real-estate costs, overly burdensome regulations and increased costs of living, the profit margin of operating culturally-focused venues gets smaller every day,” said Ms Glasscock.

“As such, the supply of small-to-medium sized venues simply no longer meets the demand. With a growing number of graduate artists entering the industry each year, this is simply devastating to the sector. This discussion paper addresses practical solutions that would enable artists to think outside the box, redefine the traditional performance space and use available, affordable spaces that until now have been unavailable to the performing arts sector.

“Using existing properties will encourage a varied night-time economy and reinvigorate our struggling high streets, while filling a gaping hole in our local venue ecosystem, without major investment in new infrastructure. It’s about clever ideas and simple solutions to unlock new ideas for old buildings, and we are thrilled by the possibilities and smart solutions laid out in this discussion paper.”

Another live music taskforce member, urban geographer and planner Dr Kate Shaw, also addressed the forum, discussing how Sydney could follow the lead of other global cities facing similar challenges. “When it comes to creative space, planning and building issues can be complex – involving federal, state and local law,” said Dr Shaw.

“Internationally, we’re seeing artists moving into older buildings and giving them a new purpose – often, that’s the only way they can access affordable buildings. We’ve seen places like Berlin and London changing their regulatory systems in response to that trend.

“In Australia, however, our building and planning systems make things incredibly difficult. In effect, turning an old warehouse or shopfront into a theatre or gallery draws you into the same regulatory pathways we use for a large nightclub or sports stadium.

“We need a regulatory system designed for small-scale cultural uses – not just bars or pop-up shops, but something that covers a much broader array of cultural activity.”

New Ideas for Old Buildings is on public exhibition until 29 April 2016. To view the discussion paper or make a submission, visit: for details.

Image: Reko Rennie, Always was, always will be (2012) on T2 Building Taylor Square, Sydney – photo by Paul Patterson (City of Sydney)