Pedestrian-friendly George Street - Martin Place shows how
Back in the late 1960s, detractors predicted the downfall of Martin Place when the City of Sydney championed the close-off to traffic and a pedestrian-friendly plaza.
There was outcry from government, banks and other private investors that lined George and Pitt Streets that such a “revolution” would come to no good. This was despite constant calls for a traffic-free space in the city centre and frequent complaints from workers and shoppers about congestion and pollution.
The City, as part of a broad strategic plan for the city’s long-term development and growth, resolved to install, in stages, a scheme “for traffic free pedestrian movement throughout the City, incorporating widened footpaths, boulevards, colonnades, arcades, subways, bridges, railway station concourses, malls, plazas and parks into an integrated system”.
“There were a lot of scaremongers and a lot of fear of the unknown,” recalls seasoned CBD businessman, Grahame Gillespie.
“The Martin Place precinct was mainly the home of the banking fraternity. There was no fine dining. The city was staid and stolid. They loved their street parking and the wide footpaths and thought that removing access for cars would bring everything to an end.
“How wrong could you be? It worked in reverse.”
Mr Gillespie is Secretary Manager of the Commercial Travellers’ Association (CTA), which was founded in 1883 and has been operating in Martin Place since the early 1900s (pictured right).
For him, the proposed light rail scheme and “pedestrianisation” of sections of George Street will “reap fantastic benefits for all.”
Despite the objections, a trial closure of the Martin Place section between George and Pitt streets was finally agreed to in early 1970s.
Stage 1 of the Martin Place pedestrianisation: The Plaza, with the Cenotaph at the centre
This block, with the Cenotaph, the GPO and other significant buildings such as Challis House, Colonial Mutual Life Assurance and the ANZ Bank, was the best known stretch of the city.
It had a strong civic and ceremonial tradition, regularly reinforced by Anzac Day services, public ceremonies associated with Royal and State visits and gatherings for social or political protest.
Before the trial period had run its course, it was obvious traffic had adjusted to the change. The NSW government agreed to make the road closure permanent between George and Pitt streets.
On 10 September 1971, the Lord Mayor Alderman L.E. McDermott unveiled a plaque for the opening of the first stage of the new pedestrian plaza which had been paved, lined with poplars and fitted out with seating.
Celebrating the "highest concrete office block in the world" in 1978. (Courtesy the Australian Women's Weekly and National Library of Australia).
In May 1972, the Australian Women’s Weekly (above) celebrated the transformation of the former “traffic-choked” place into a “slice of pedestrian paradise and refuge for lunch-hour throngs”.
“It has captured a Continental atmosphere,” the Weekly wrote, “a place for meeting friends, for leisurely walks, concerts or a respite from the swirl of city life . . . an array of flower stalls and magazine stands provide bright splashes of colour.
“Now, with the need for a plaza fully realised, in a city teeming with people and vehicles, part of Martin Place has reverted to its intended form of 100 years ago – a place for feet, not wheels.”
More changes were to come with the extension of the pedestrian plaza up to Elizabeth Street.
For Grahame Gillespie and the CTA, a revolutionary shift was about to happen.
Since the days of the horse and buggy, the association had been ‛home’ for commercial businessmen travelling into Sydney from all over the country; it even had a ticket office for the state rail system.
Over the years, politicians, artists, directors and public figures had stayed in the Association’s accommodation wings . . . including the acclaimed aviators Charles Kingsford Smith and Bert Hinkler, whose names are on an old record kept by the club.
Former prime minister, John Curtin, and the Supreme Commander of the South-West Pacific Forces, General Douglas Macarthur, held a secret meeting there during World War II.
But the old was to make way for the new: renowned architect Harry Seidler’s design for the tallest building outside of North America – the MLC Centre – was coming, and with it a new era for the city central – with dining, shopping and night-time activity for Sydneysiders.
Celebrating the “highest concrete office block in the world” in 1978 (Courtesy The Australian Women's Weekly and National Library of Australia)
“Back in the ’70s, Martin Place it was banking, it was business, it was the CBD – and it was all over by 9pm,” Mr Gillespie said.
“Who could have foreseen the establishment of family-friendly restaurants in the city?”
On 5 June 1972, the Council approved the extension of Martin Place’s pedestrian zone up to Macquarie Street, starting with the second stage up to Castlereagh Street.
The Terrace Block
The section between Pitt and Castlereagh streets – known as the Terrace Block – had a six-metre slope; plans were made to build a raised terrace on the Pitt Street side, and a sunken amphitheatre above, which was hoped to attract community activities and lunchtime entertainment.
The City’s planners enthused: “the possibilities in this direction are exciting. Open air entertainment in good weather – music, ballet, theatre and the like – has a sparkle and colour which, once established, can become a permanent and rewarding part of a City’s life.”
A scheme for a waterfall fountain was dropped, due to rising costs, then picked up again when the renowned artist Dr Lloyd Rees launched a Citizens’ Committee for the fountain, saying: “fountains and running water breathe life into a modern city – aesthetically, they give the impression of dazzling movement, delighting the eye of the beholder”.
Objections to the traffic closures on Martin Place continued, principally from major property owners.
Martin Place was lined by office buildings that did not have suitable frontages for cafes or restaurants, however, senior bureaucrats in the NSW government opposed the City’s proposal for a pavilion restaurant in the top two blocks of the plaza.
The Rural Bank complained that “the ‘traditional dignity’ of Martin Place would be compromised by people eating their lunch in front of the Rural Bank” building.
Stage 2 was opened on 15 July 1976, with Dr Rees turning on the fountain in December of that year. The fountain (above) and amphitheatre area proved an instant hit with lunchtime workers and for informal concerts.
The Station Block (above), between Phillip and Macquarie streets, opened the following year. Split into two sections and paved with the same pink granite of the other sections.
About the same time, the massive white modernist column of the MLC Centre (pictured right) was finished and offices opened in the 67-floor, 228-metre tower.
The Market Block (below), between Castlereagh and Elizabeth streets, and the Grove Block, between Elizabeth and Phillip - conceived as a tranquil space with two terraces of seating - were completed along with the railway tunnel and train station.
Pedestrianisation of the great city plaza was complete and Martin Place station was put into service in 1980.
The Commercial Travellers Association relocated both underground and in the white mushroom-shaped building which houses the accommodation wings for its members.
The CTA building August, 2012
Today, the MLC houses the Sydney Consulate of the United States of America, the Theatre Royal, a shopping centre with exclusive labels and a huge underground food court.
As it celebrates its 121st birthday, Martin Place is filled with people flocking in at lunchtime, despite the cold winds of late winter.
“When the different sections of Martin Place were being opened up for pedestrians and new office space was advertised, there were people who said it would never be filled,” Mr Gillespie said.
“For anyone to say Martin Place is not more people-friendly today than yesterday wasn’t there.
“Look at Pitt Street Mall. It’s hard to imagine the city without that section of the street closed from traffic.”
Martin Place: August, 2012
The City’s commitment to a $180 million upgrade of George Street – predicated on a new light rail system – will include installing three new public squares and new street trees along the route.
Years of consultation by the City has gained general acceptance from the retail industry for the car- free zone between Bathurst and Hunter streets, excepting delivery vans and commercial parking which will continue to have vehicle access to the strip, and applicable taxi egress from the Hilton Hotel.
Major global retailers, including Burberry, Paspaley Pearls and Louis Vuitton, as well as major retailing industry groups, support back the vision of transforming George Street into a world-class shopping and pedestrian boulevard with light rail which will provide a significant economic boost to city businesses.
Under the scheme, every two minutes a sleek, modern light rail carriage will whisk passengers through the city from Central to Circular Quay without today’s noise and delays, moving thousands of people across the city every hour.
Light rail will spell the end of traffic congestion, making Sydney an easy city to get around – in step with other global cities such as London, New York and Paris.
Artists’s impression of George Street transformed into a light rail and pedestrian-friendly boulevard
by Project Coordinator 5 Sep 2012, 1:08pm