For most students, the Victoria Park steps are little more than a scenic entrance to the University and a key part of the commute to Broadway and the bus stops of Parramatta Road. For the University, the stairs are a privilege for which they must pay the City of Sydney $6 every month.
Since 2001, the University has paid a licensing fee for construction and use of the stairs, which lie on council land, totalling $70 a year. The 24 steps at the western edge of Victoria Park are a favourite of photographers and picketers alike, and central to a historic sightline running through Victoria Park up to the Quadrangle. Two flights rise up to University Avenue, with a large University coat of arms affixed to each column either side of the top landing.
The staircase originated from a remodelling program undertaken in Victoria Park in the 1990s. Victoria Park was once a key part of the University’s grounds, with a grand entrance running from Gardener’s Lodge (now The Gardener’s Grill) at the City Road gates, across a bridge over Lake Northam and up to the Quadrangle. This ‘Main Avenue’ was integral to architect Edmund Blacket’s vision for the University. However, a 1920s land swap exchanged the University’s Victoria Park holdings for a strip of land where Fisher Library, the New Law complex and the Carslaw building now sit, laying the foundation for campus as we now know it.
Over the course of the 20th century, Blacket’s axis was ignored and then obscured. The University’s Parramatta Road entrance became its primary entrypoint, and a fence — where the steps are now — cut the University off from the park. By the 1950s, careless construction of Victoria Park Pool, the removal of the bridge over Lake Northam and the deterioration of the lake’s condition largely erased the impressive Victoria Park sightline.
Various improvements to Victoria Park were made in the 1990s in cooperation between the University and the then-South Sydney City Council to restore Blacket’s original vision. Lake Northam was reshaped, the bridge was rebuilt, and the Victoria Park staircase was constructed, opening a new pedestrian entrance to campus and recreating a modern ‘Main Avenue’. A fountain on University Avenue was also included in concept designs but was ultimately not built. However, the staircase came with strings attached, and the University now coughs up $0.25 per step per month to keep the sightline open.
The stairs and their surprising fee feature in the University’s property portfolio. Among the dozens of locations for which the University is a tenant, the monthly $6 is the lowest of all rents that the University is charged, other than a handful of hospital facilities provided for free.
This is not the only unusual tenancy arrangement with which the University is involved, given the one peppercorn in rent the University can demand from the Uniting Church each year. Other far-flung locations for which the University pays rent include accommodation on the One Tree Island Research Station and the French School of the Far East in Cambodia as part of its Angkor research.
The utilitarian and aesthetic value of the staircase is priceless, but, as to what would occur if they stopped paying the rent, the University would seemingly rather not find out — according to a spokesperson, “the agreement is intended to continue.”