A row over whether to prioritise heritage concerns over public access in the redevelopment of a historic Sydney stairway has divided the opinion of local residents.

The heritage-listed McElhone Stairs, that connect Potts Point’s Victoria Street with Woolloomooloo’s Cowper Wharf Roadway via 113 steps, are the subject of a City of Sydney proposal to build an elevator alongside them, allowing for improved accessibility.

Constructed in 1904 and referred to by locals as ‘The Stairs of Doom’, the Stairs have a long and rich history, and were even used for espionage activities by Russian spies during the Cold War.

In late 2022, Councillor Lyndon Gannon proposed a new elevator to be installed directly next to them, a spot currently occupied by a large sewerage vent pipe, to mixed responses.

According to a Resolution of Council published by the City of Sydney, Potts Point has a ‘challenging topography’, with the number of young families and elderly residents increasing. According to the council there is “an undeniable need to improve accessibility between Potts Point and Woolloomooloo via lift access”.

However, Andrew Woodhouse, the director of Heritage Solutions and president of the Potts Point and Kings Cross Heritage Society, has criticised the cost of the lift, as well as the risk to the stairs’ integrity, saying it far outweighs any potential social benefits.

“The cost of the lift, perhaps as high as $4-6 million, is prohibitive,” Woodhouse continued, “And involves the removal and relocation of a massive six-storey tower. The stairs’ heritage curtilage would also be compromised.”

Woodhouse, who compiles heritage reports for his clients’ properties and prepares risk statements for the Council’s consideration, told Central News that: “The 311 bus remains the safest, best and most convenient transport method, especially for mothers with prams, those with walking sticks and those walking in the wind and wet.”

We definitely need a lift here… some of these people are quite elderly and it’s a bit of a challenge for them.

The 311 bus comes every 30 minutes between Central Station and Millers Point, providing a link between Macleay Street and Cowper Wharf Roadway. If you have impaired mobility, it’s the only viable option for access between Potts Point and Woolloomooloo.

Local residents Mark and Cherie Laymann, a retired couple living in Woolloomooloo, spoke to Central News while climbing the stairs – a part of their daily exercise routine – and expressed their support.

“We definitely need a lift here, because we do these stairs for fitness, but you can see that some of these people are quite elderly and it’s a bit of a challenge for them,” said Mr Laymann.

Tyrone Errol, 64, who has lived on Potts Point’s Challis Avenue for the past 25 years, said: “I’m not against it, I think it’s a great idea, particularly for the elderly… there are a lot of residents around here that can’t do those stairs. And very often you’re trying to do those stairs anyway, and there’s a lot of exercise.”

According to scholar and architect Jennifer Preston, who wrote ‘Social Climbing: The Architectural, Cultural and Heritage Significance of Sydney’s Public Stairways’, the novelty, varied environment and fitness benefits that the stairs provide far outweigh any potential challenges that come with navigating them.

But Woodhouse argued the Council’s entire plan was wishy-washy with no clear benefit to the community.

“The idea is a thought bubble without any social impact statement, heritage impact statement, or groundswell of community support,” Woodhouse said.

“There are no detailed plans or a solid cost statement. The concept is, therefore, unsustainable.”

Main image from Google Maps.