Inner Sydney council bid to to set up refugee welcome centre within prime park real estate

Callan Park
Fixer upper…renovations could restore lives.



One of inner Sydney’s largest – and most fought over – open spaces is set to become a refugee welcome centre.

Leichhardt Council, in Sydney’s Inner West, voted on Tuesday 8th December to push ahead with plans to transform part of Callan Park’s 61 hectares and its buildings into a temporary home for refugees – including newly-arrived Syrians – and to act as a settlement hub providing support services and facilities.

It’s a bold gesture but with many of the Lilyfield site’s historic buildings in a woeful state of repair, the council has indicated it will pursue state and federal funding to cover the cost of renovations.

Labor Councillor Simon Emsley, who proposed the plan, said that Australia’s humanitarian program had been forced out to the fringes of metropolitan areas.

“Using a portion of Callan Park to help settle refugees will bring Australia’s great humanitarian project back into the city’s beating heart,” Mr Emsley said.

The site was once home to Rozelle Hospital, before it was closed in April 2008 and the final few mental health patients moved to Concord Hospital. It is still occupied by drug, alcohol and mental health NGOs, the University of Tasmania, the NSW Writer’s Centre, NSW Ambulance headquarters and Sydney College of the Arts, amongst others.

Leichhardt Mayor Darcy Byrne said it was “an opportunity for the inner west community to open its arms to people fleeing war and famine.”

“It’s one thing to support humanitarian principles, but by offering a place in our own back yard to the orphans and widows fleeing Syria and elsewhere, we can put our good intentions into action,” Mr Byrne said.

“The park’s tranquility offers an ideal environment for the traumatised and disorientated victims of war who have been accepted by our Government as future Australian citizens.”

The Australian government has committed to resettling an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom began arriving last month. NSW Premier Mike Baird has offered to take 7000 of these.

Mr Byrne said it would prove far more cost effective to rehabilitate existing accommodation than to build new facilities.

“Our ratepayers would not bear the cost of this plan. In fact, with the State Government so far ignoring the Callan Park Master Plan, this is an ideal opportunity to attract funding for the rehabilitation of buildings in Callan Park.”

“They can house refugees, but also in the longer term serve the Master Plan’s aims of bringing back more mental health services to the site.”

But Callan Park has been in limbo for some years and developers have regularly circled its environs armed with various proposals, including plans for a retirement village, residential accommodation and student housing, all of which have been vigorously fought off by the council and the community.

In 2008, State Labor granted control and management of 40 hectares of Callan Park to Leichhardt Council under a 99-year lease after a tense stand-off with then NSW Planning Minister Frank Sartor who wanted to let Sydney University to redevelop the site.

Leichhardt Council carried out extensive community consultation and came up with the Callan Park Masterplan, which was presented to the NSW government in 2011 but remains in draft form, its recommendations yet to be acted upon.

This inaction has proved harmful to many of the site’s empty buildings and gardens, which have further deteriorated. Some buildings are boarded up to prevent vandalism, some have been damaged by water and vermin entering through broken windows and damaged roofs, others are infested with cats and have collapsed verandahs or rising damp.

The Callan Park Draft Masterplan includes new mental health facilities, refurbishment and repair of the site’s historic buildings, guardianship of the site’s Aboriginal culture, maintenance of its sports fields and the continued presence of NGOs in the park. A trust would be established to ensure care, control and management of the site.

Dreams of a refugee welcome centre in the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Sydney’s Inner West will take some effort – not to mention cash – to realize.

Other local councils in Australia have also indicated they are willing to receive refugees. East Fremantle has offered Leeuwin Barracks, which held 370 refugees from Kosovo in 1999. Adelaide Hills Council has suggested reopening Inverbrackie detention centre in Woodside for emergency refugee housing.

Around 124 of Australia’s local councils have signed up to become Refugee Welcome Zones so far.

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3 thoughts on “Inner Sydney council bid to to set up refugee welcome centre within prime park real estate

  1. What gives Council the right to make decisions like this on behalf of the community and appoint themselves as the spokespeople for residents. My family and I are totally against the idea.

  2. I applaud the idea. Genius really, what a beautiful way to welcome people. A gesture of warmth to people who have had a hammer come down on their lives. Both my hands are raised in support. Well done leichhardt

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