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Byron Shire
November 29, 2023

The politics of gentrification and ‘holding the line’

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Illustration from the Byron Shire DCP.

In 1750 Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote – ‘Money buys everything, except morality and citizens…’ In 2022 money still buys everything, except a Byron vibe. 

Who are the visionary architects and planners that will protect and enhance this ramshackle surf town’s social fabric and built environment? If you take a cursory glance at the documents created by our Council you may think we are in safe hands. Simple guidelines are in place to ensure that ‘local development is appropriate and environmentally sensitive’. And we don’t have to worry about Byron town because the LEP states that buildings will ‘contribute to the natural, cultural, visual and built character values of Byron town centre’.

NSW Heritage has identified plenty of buildings in the Shire, including places in Byron, that are identified as contributing to the ‘cultural, visual and built character values of Byron town centre’. The charming 20th century row of shops in Fletcher Street, the Balcony building on Lawson St and the 19th century post office and railway buildings. In addition, residential areas with original weatherboard houses, single-storey houses along the west side of Shirley Street, and the familiar row of Norfolk pines flanking Ewingsdale Road. 

Sean and Doug Kay with their completed ‘kabul’ snake artwork in Byron Railway Park. Image: Byron Shire Council

Variety benefits

Research indicates that the wider community benefits from retaining built heritage in various architectural styles and periods, thus avoiding a homogenous suburban environment. 

As much as developers want to turn Byron into Palm Springs by the sea we are not a midcentury town, and we are not the Gold Coast. Thoughtful development enhances the built environment; thoughtful development also respects the existing DCP/LEP that specifies setbacks, landscaping and existing height restrictions. We need to hold the line on this precise point. 

Byron’s roots and growth are more closely aligned with Haleiwa, a surf town an hour from Waikiki in Hawaii. Both towns are under pressure by those with dollar signs in their eyes. 

The Mercato Shopping Centre in Byron Bay.

Preserving roots

Haleiwa has a similar creative vibe, surrounded by agriculture and the sea, with an unpretentious main street that is being preserved and enhanced. 

Byron’s slightly daggy and unsophisticated elements are born from the origins of a working town and the people who lived there. Much of this laid-back vibe is being demolished and replaced with tilt-up concrete buildings with rooftop bars and plunge pools for visitors. 

Recent refurbishment and adaptation of a weatherboard house by Sustainable Bakery, long-time favourite The Top Shop, and even the tastefully done Commonwealth Bank/Patagonia building are considered commercial development. The existing Balcony Bar is always humming; the proof is in the patronage.

The empty and vacuous Mercato building demonstrates what poorly designed, ‘bigger-is-better’ development looks like. This upmarket mall, with tokenistic sustainable elements (recycled ceiling) and excessive height, does not connect with its environs, residents, or even the tourists that drift in and out of Byron. Who wants to come to a coastal town and sit inside a concrete shopping centre five metres above the street life? 

Come on council!

Unfortunately, Jonson Lane appears to be of a similar model with little natural light and a heartbreaking absence of landscaping, reducing its street appeal. 

Byron Shire residents have long championed and protected the low-rise, small-scale aesthetic of the region. Frustration is palpable among locals, with many questioning why the Council is not safeguarding our small villages from this surge of development at all costs. 

Developers are naturally in the business of making money; still, we need to protect what attracted everyone here in the first place. We have regulations, but administrative decisions are allowing variations to chip away at the aesthetic elements that make good buildings become part of the community. These ‘forever’ structures are often procured by investment funds and then handed over to developers who may never live in the Shire. 

The looming sales of Mitre 10, Repco, Secret Garden and the current Suffolk Park development site are the next dominos to fall. If you value what’s left of the low-key, understated surrounds – now is a good time to voice it. 

It’s no secret the hazy days of alternative living, surf culture, and backpackers have taken a knock in the Shire of Byron. But that doesn’t mean we have to replace all the colours of the rainbow with black boxes and give away ‘the needs and aspirations of the community’ when it comes to development.

*quotes from Byron Shire Council DCP/LEP

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