Monday, December 15, 2014

Bronte House

Bronte House mid-restoration this year.
TONIGHT'S council meeting gave in-principle support to a proposal to lease to the Derwent Valley Community House part of the building known as Bronte House at Willow Court. It was not an easy decision. One councillor voted against the move and I can understand why. But the decision was not a knee-jerk reaction as one person remarked when leaving the meeting. Neither is it a fait accompli. The parties involved still need to negotiate a lease agreement and that document will have to come back to the council for approval in the new year.

It needs to be said that the Community House is not being forced to relocate from its current premises just along the Avenue and still within Willow Court. Neither will the move result in the "loss" of Bronte House as some have stated. The Community House has been looking for new premises for several years and despite being offered accommodation at Carinya Education Park (my preferred option) the board of the Community House has consistently expressed its desire to remain in the general area of Willow Court and in particular reasonably close to its community garden.

The council has been involved in discussions with the Department of Health and Human Services (the principal funder of community houses) for some months and in September the department made a formal offer of funds for infrastructure and capital works associated with moving the Community House into Bronte House, subject to the council offering a long-term lease.

A special meeting of council was held in early October to discuss the various options for the use of part of Bronte House and I raised a number of concerns including the apparent abandonment of the original concept of Bronte House being the visitor services hub at Willow Court. That meeting was attended by a number of members of the Community House board of management and after considerable discussion with them, the council resolved to seek architectural drawings and costings for two designs; one providing for spaces that could be shared by the Community House and the Willow Court visitor services (toilets, kitchen etc) and the other having no shared spaces.
The proposal was considered by the Willow Court Conservation Special Committee at its meeting in November. The committee noted the positive aspects, including the significant investment of additional funds to complete the refurbishment of the building as originally planned. But it also noted the need for some public space, including display space within Bronte, in order to provide basic services and information to general visitors to the precinct. In the end the committee formed the view that those requirements should be able to be accommodated in conjunction with the use of Bronte House by the Community House.

Work inside Bronte remains incomplete.
And so the proposal came back to the council meeting held tonight. Several members of the public expressed their opposition to the plan and I understand their reasons. Unfortunately the funds available for Willow Court are all but exhausted. Much work remains to be done and there is no further funding on the horizon. While considerable work has been done in Bronte House to prepare it for the provision of visitor services, large parts remain unusable and proposals for a commercial kitchen have been shelved due to lack of funds.

The only money presently on offer for any part of the council-owned section of Willow Court is that from the Department of Health and Human Services for the purpose of hosting the Community House in Bronte House. With that in mind I put the following motion to the meeting:
  1. That council give in-principle support to the use of part of the Bronte Building for a community house pending successful negotiation of a lease agreement to be approved at a future council meeting.
  2. That the necessary structural alterations be at no cost to the council.
  3. That the area of the lease be based on the plan labelled Option 3, without the visitor kitchen installation and subtracting the area described as "reception".
  4. That a front entrance ramp be provided along the front of the building for entry to the community house and that a retractable concertina-style wall be installed across the dining room.
  5. That two accessible toilets be installed in the council visitor services area rather than a single accessible toilet and two standard toilets.
This motion was seconded by Cr Barry Lathey and when put to the vote it was endorsed by all councillors but one. Before the council decision becomes a reality, a suitable lease will need to be negotiated and then approved by another council meeting. Everyone with an interest in this matter - for or against - will have another opportunity to be heard at that time.

Co-locating the Community House in Bronte House is going to mean some changes to the arrangements for visitor services at Willow Court, but those arrangements had changed already through the decisions of the Conservation Committee. Despite my misgivings about the proposal, moving the Community House into Bronte does not mean it is a building lost. It is a building saved. 

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