Sydney's pubs with no beer: the heritage hotels lost to development

Megan Gorrey
The former Town Hall Hotel in Balmain now houses a gym chain and massage parlour.
The former Town Hall Hotel in Balmain now houses a gym chain and massage parlour. Photo: AAP

They are Sydney's pubs with no beer. Developers are gutting some of the inner city's iconic watering holes to make way for businesses and apartment blocks.

Balmain's famous pub culture was dealt a double blow when last drinks were called at two historic hotels that developers snapped up and transformed into mixed use sites in 2017.

Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne said the sales were a sign demographic change and gentrification;  and the changing nature of the city's night-life due to lockout laws threatened historical pubs.

Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne doesn't want to see the area's pub culture "go out the back door".
Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne doesn't want to see the area's pub culture "go out the back door". Photo: Edwina Pickles

Cr Byrne said residents feared a "snowball effect" among developers targeting hotels for commercial and residential developments.

"We've got to draw a line in the sand and prevent that happening," he said. "There's a strong view that we can't let our pub culture go out the back door.

"The pub is a public, social and cultural institution as well as being a business and a commercial enterprise."

Pyrmont's Terminus Hotel co-owner Binu Katari bucked trends when he restored the building and revived it as a community pub.
Pyrmont's Terminus Hotel co-owner Binu Katari bucked trends when he restored the building and revived it as a community pub.  Photo: Christopher Pearce

He will urge the council to investigate which inner west pubs have heritage value and need protection in a motion set to be debated this week.

Balmain's Town Hall hotel, built in 1879, sold for $7 million and now houses a bottle shop, gym chain and massage parlour.

Its revamp followed the conversion of the 138-year-old Exchange Hotel into a mixed business development that included a call centre. Nearby Dick's Hotel is on the market.

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Cr Byrne backed a statewide policy that would better protect heritage hotels so the buildings still operated as pubs, bars or eateries.

"This is one thing that unites the city and the bush; the pub is at the centre of community life."

The transition has been felt across Sydney.

Paddington residents campaigned to keep the Four in Hand Hotel open after it was sold and marketed earlier this year as a $6 million residential conversion.

Woollahra Council has since approved the heritage protection of the pub's facade and internal features.

Infamous Irish pub Scruffy Murphy's in the CBD could face the wrecking ball to make way for a 40-storey hotel and residential tower with shops.

And the City of Sydney council last month recommended a proposal to redevelop Erskineville's Swanston Hotel into a mixed use building be knocked back, partly due to heritage concerns. The development application was later withdrawn.

Among those bucking the trend is Pyrmont's Terminus Hotel, built in 1863, which closed due to lack of patronage three decades ago but reopened in March after a two-year restoration.

Owners Binu Katari and David Mathlin bought the property with a view to reopen it as "a community pub".

"I think the price of the real estate market is what's driving a lot of developers and hospitality isn't the greatest return," Mr Katari said.

"If you're just another hotel offering cheap beer and a $10 steak, I think it's tough. It's not a hard business but you've got to do the simple things well."

A NSW Office of Environment and Heritage spokeswoman said development approval was required for any changes to the appearance or use of heritage-significant buildings, but the use of a listed building wasn't regulated under the legislation.

A building's continued operation as a pub depended on its liquor licence.

Labor's heritage spokeswoman Penny Sharpe said old pubs were "part of the fabric" of communities but were protected by a "patchwork" of local government and state heritage rules and regulations.

She said the opposition's proposed heritage strategy would consult councils, pubs owners and communities on how to better protect the buildings and their history.