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By Andrew Taylor
Everyone is equal on Bondi Beach.Credit:Louise Kennerley
It’s hard to flaunt your wealth in a bikini or pair of budgie smugglers, but Bondi Beach is an unlikely socialist paradise.
The median price of a two-bedroom apartment in 2022 is $1.57 million, while a three-bedroom house costs $3.7 million. Median rental prices are just as eye-watering – $780 a week for the two-bedder and $1450 for a family home.
Yet, the prevailing wisdom still says class barriers are washed away on Australia’s most famous stretch of sand.
Tensions are mounting back from the beach.Credit:Flavio Brancaleone
“Everyone is equal on the beach,” says restaurateur Maurice Terzini, whose Icebergs Dining and Bar, perched at the southern end of Bondi Beach, has been an icon in Sydney’s dining landscape. “We have this beautiful public space and what it offers is open to everyone.”
That includes billionaire James Packer, whose 2014 street brawl with former Nine chief executive David Gyngell garnered international headlines.
Bondi’s tabloid reputation was also cemented in 2006 when hotel heiress and reality TV star Paris Hilton received the red carpet treatment from former Waverley mayor George Newhouse who gushed: “I have to say that Paris is welcome at Bondi anytime.”
Little wonder Waverley’s current mayor Paula Masselos insists Bondi Beach is an egalitarian place. “Half the time you wouldn’t know someone was a judge or a brickie or a tourist until you get chatting,” she says. “That’s what makes our beach very special and that’s something I jealously guard.”
Bondi rolled out the red carpet for Paris Hilton in 2006.Credit:Steve Lunam
Masselos’ view echoes a piece of graffiti once scrawled on the sea wall near the Bondi Surf Life Saving Club: “The rich come here to escape and the poor come here to dream.”
Billionaires, brickies and backpackers might be happy to share the sand and surf. But a turf war rages in the streets behind the beach where residents fear Bondi Beach will be “choked to death” by developers trying to jam too many people into the suburb.
Waverley Mayor Paula Masselos wants to guard the egalitarian character of Bondi Beach.Credit:James Alcock
Multimillion-dollar apartments and the conversion of housing to Airbnb-type rentals adds to concerns that Bondi Beach will become an enclave for the wealthy.
Bondi Beach Precinct co-convenor Lenore Kulakauskas says the suburb has been turned into a “constant construction zone”.
“We have all experienced vibrations in our buildings, and suspicious new hairline cracks in our older buildings situated blocks away from the multiple sites under construction,” she says. “The noise is constant, the disruption to foot traffic is constant.”
Kulakauskas says there were very few neighbourhood shops left and “everything sold here has become more expensive”.
“The colourful jumble of buildings are being replaced with grey boring McApartments,” she said.
Bondi has become a “constant construction zone”, says Bondi Beach Precinct co-convenor Lenore Kulakauskas.Credit:Edwina Pickles
Terzini worries that Bondi Beach may have lost some of its youth and vibrancy as soaring property prices make the suburb unaffordable for some people.
“Twenty years ago, there was a house party every night,” he says. “Literally, you’d leave work and there were parties everywhere. Nowadays, at 10 o’clock at night, it’s dead.”
Masselos says developers push projects that ignore local planning rules and construct buildings that create wind tunnels, congestion and overshadow neighbours, robbing them of privacy.
“Worse than that, often what is built is not what people want and they are not affordable,” she says. “I’ve heard of a one-bedroom in this area going for $2 million. How is that affordable?”
The head of developers’ lobby group Urban Taskforce Tom Forrest says the quality of housing stock in Bondi Beach is in “desperate need of renewal”.
“Overseas visitors are in awe of the magnificent beach, but the suburb itself has not moved on from the backpacker frat-house milieu it developed in the 1970s,” he says.
A developers’ lobby group says development funds real improvements to Bondi.Credit:Edwina Pickles
Forrest said the vast majority of upgrades to public amenity in the past 15 years were funded by levies from developers: “The only parts of Bondi Beach with even footpaths are those that have been replaced or fixed by developers.”
Forrest says the council spent too much time navel-gazing and funding staff to oppose development instead of improving the suburb.
“Rather than simply preserving Bondi in aspic, the mayor of Waverley should consider how development might fund some real improvements for the Bondi Beach community,” he says.
The founder of swimwear label Bondi Born, Dale McCarthy, says the best cities in the world protect their beauty, character and liveability through considered long-term planning.
“It can’t just be about developer greed and the council’s short-term revenue needs,” she says. “I do worry that Waverley Council – who was responsible for Bondi Junction – is also responsible for the future of Bondi’s town planning.”
Similar tensions over property development can be found across Sydney, but few suburbs also face Bondi Beach’s crush of visitors.
And nowhere else in Sydney fought a battle for traffic jams and crowded buses rather than a train line that might make it too easy for the western Sydney residents to enjoy a day at the beach.
Yet tourists are the backbone of the local economy. Without them, businesses have struggled to make money and find staff, especially in the cafes and restaurants that are integral to the Bondi experience, says Bondi and Districts Chamber of Commerce president Emmanuel Constantiou.
But hopes are high for a hot vaxxed summer after years of bushfires, COVID-19 and wet weather. The reopening of the Bondi Pavilion and Icebergs Dining and Bar also promises to bring back visitors.
Bondi Beach remains popular as a backdrop to events such as Sculpture by the Sea and City2Surf, as well as a beach party for World Pride.
Maurice Terzini, whose Icebergs restaurant is a Bondi institution, worries the suburb may have lost some of its vibrancy.Credit:Jamie Barrett
However, events such as the White Dinner “posh picnic”, scheduled to be held on the beach on November 12, and a proposed private beach club on the sand have divided opinion, with some residents concerned about the commercialisation of public space.
Kulakauskas says the residents’ group had asked the council to encourage visitors to go to the other beaches, and hold events in other areas such as Bondi Junction, Bronte and Tamarama.
“We are also not keen on council trying to get more and more things happening here, particularly in winter, as it is nice to have some quiet time,” she says.
Despite concerns about parking and traffic congestion, Kulakauskas says buses were sufficient and “we don’t really see the train to the beach as feasible”.
“We have always had hordes of beach visitors and accept that as business as usual,” she says. “We have the luxury of choosing our swimming times so can avoid the busiest parts of the day.
“Our main fear is that developers will try and jam so many people into this small area that it becomes not overrun by visitors but choked to death by its residents, their cars, the extra rubbish, not to mention the strain this will put on an ageing infrastructure.”
Kulakauskas’ grim vision of the future is at odds with the Bondi brand, which sells an idyllic version of Australian life through swimwear, tanning products, beer and reality television.
McCarthy says the beach suburb offers “a lifestyle that everyone in the world wants”.
“Anyone who wants to live their best life is drawn there and its relaxed style invites them to be whomever they want to be,” she says.
Local historian Lawrie Williams says the demographics and attitudes of Bondi Beach have changed dramatically since he joined North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club as a teenager in 1971.
Back then, it was a working-class suburb whose residents knew which pubs to avoid and when to shut the windows to get rid of the stench of Sydney’s sewerage that was poured directly into the ocean.
Bondi was a lot more working class in the 1970s.
“Developers have always been attracted to Bondi Beach,” he says. “That can be traced back to the extension of the tram line down to the beach in 1894 thus providing an efficient mass transit system connecting Bondi to the city and beyond.”
Yet Williams says the suburb maintains a “great sense of community” through local sporting and volunteer groups, such as surf lifesaving and winter swimming’s Bondi Icebergs Club.
“These clubs and organisations provide the glue that binds locals and others together to provide invaluable community services and at the same give people a sense of belonging and a feeling that they are contributing to a greater cause,” he says.
Bondi Rescue lifeguard Anthony “Harries” Carroll enjoys surfing with the beginners and the blow-ins.Credit:Louise Kennerley
Bondi Rescue lifeguard Anthony “Harries” Carroll also points to the community ethos embodied by lifesavers on the beach and the weekly Fluro Friday sessions where surfers gather to raise awareness of mental health.
Carroll also embraces the flotilla of surfers waiting to catch the perfect wave.
“People don’t like surfing with beginners and crowds,” he says. “But I love it – you meet such a diverse range of people in the surf out there having the best time ever.”
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