It’s hard to flaunt your wealth in a bikini or a bunch of parakeet 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 rents are just as eye-watering – $780 per week for the two-beds and $1450 for a family home.
Yet the prevailing wisdom still says that class barriers are being washed away on Australia’s most famous stretch of sand.
“Everyone is equal on the beach,” says restaurateur Maurice Terzini, whose Icebergs Dining and Bar, located on the south side of Bondi Beach, has been an icon in Sydney’s dining landscape. “We have this beautiful public space and what it offers is accessible to everyone.”
So is billionaire James Packer, whose 2014 street fight with former Nine CEO David Gyngell made international headlines.
Bondi’s tabloid reputation was also boosted in 2006 when hotel heiress and reality TV star Paris Hilton got the red carpet from former Waverley mayor George Newhouse gushing, “I have to say Paris is always welcome at Bondi.”
No wonder the current mayor of Waverley, Paula Masselos, insists Bondi Beach is an egalitarian place. “Half the time, you wouldn’t know someone was a judge, a mason, or a tourist until you were chatting,” she says. “That is what makes our beach so special and I am very careful about that.”
The view of Masselos reflects a piece of graffiti once scribbled on the seawall at the Bondi Surf Life Saving Club: “The rich come here to escape and the poor come here to dream.”
Billionaires, masons and backpackers love to share the sand and surf. But a turf war is raging in the streets behind the beach, with residents fearing Bondi Beach will be “choked to death” by developers trying to lure too many people to the suburbs.
Multimillion-dollar apartments and the conversion of homes into Airbnb-like rental properties raise concerns that Bondi Beach will become an enclave for the wealthy.
Bondi Beach Precinct co-organizer Lenore Kulakauskas says the suburb has turned into a “constant construction zone”.
“We’ve all experienced vibrations in our buildings and suspicious new hairline cracks in our older buildings, which are blocks away from the multiple sites under construction,” she says. “The noise is constant, the nuisance to foot traffic is constant.”
Kulakauskas says there were very few convenience stores left and “everything sold here has become more expensive”.
“The colorful jumble of buildings is being replaced by gray dull McApartments,” she said.
Terzini is concerned that Bondi Beach has lost some of its youth and vibrancy as rising real estate prices make the suburb unaffordable for some people.
“Twenty years ago, there was a house party every night,” he says. “Literally, you would stop working and there were parties everywhere. Today, at 10 p.m., it is dead.”
Masselos says developers are pushing projects that ignore local planning rules and build buildings that create wind tunnels, congestion and eclipse neighbors, robbing them of their privacy.
“Worse, often what is built is not what people want and is not affordable,” she says. “I’ve heard a one-bedroom in this area costs $2 million. How is that affordable?”
The head of the developer lobby group Urban Taskforce Tom Forrest says the quality of the housing stock in Bondi Beach “is in dire need of upgrading”.
“Foreign visitors are in awe of the beautiful beach, but the suburb itself has not progressed beyond the backpacker-frathouse milieu it developed in the 1970s,” he says.
Forrest said the vast majority of public utility upgrades in the past 15 years have been funded by developer levies: “The only parts of Bondi Beach that even have walkways are those that have been replaced or repaired by developers.”
Forrest says the council spent too much time navel-gazing and funding staff to oppose development rather than improve the suburb.
“Rather than just keeping Bondi in aspic, the mayor of Waverley should consider how development could fund some real improvements for the Bondi Beach community,” he says.
The founder of beachwear label Bondi Born, Dale McCarthy, says the world’s best cities protect their beauty, character and liveability through thoughtful long-term planning.
“It can’t just be about developers’ greed and the short-term revenue needs of the municipality,” she says. “I am concerned that Waverley Council – which was responsible for Bondi Junction – is also responsible for the future of Bondi’s town planning.”
Similar tensions over property development can be found all over Sydney, but few suburbs also face Bondi Beach’s footfall.
And nowhere else in Sydney was a battle fought over traffic jams and overcrowded buses rather than a train that might make it too easy for western Sydney residents to enjoy a day at the beach.
Yet tourists are the backbone of the local economy. Without them, companies struggle to make money and find employees, especially in the cafes and restaurants that are an integral part of the Bondi experience, said Emmanuel Constantiou, president of the Bondi and Districts Chamber of Commerce.
But hopes are high for a hot, hot summer after years of wildfires, COVID-19 and wet weather. The reopening of the Bondi Pavilion and Icebergs Dining and Bar also promises to draw visitors back.
Bondi Beach remains popular as a backdrop for events such as Sculpture by the Sea and City2Surf, as well as a beach party for World Pride.
However, events such as the White Diner’s “posh picnic,” to be held on the beach on Nov. 12, and a proposed private beach club on the sands have divided opinion, with some residents concerned about the commercialization of the public space.
Kulakauskas says the residents’ group had asked the municipality to encourage visitors to go to the other beaches and hold events in other areas, such as Bondi Junction, Bronte and Tamarama.
“We’re also not keen on the municipality trying to make more and more things happen here, especially in winter, because it’s nice to have some peace and quiet,” she says.
Despite concerns about parking and traffic congestion, Kulakauskas says buses have been adequate and “we don’t really see the train to the beach as feasible”.
“We’ve always had hordes of beach visitors and accept that as business as usual,” she says. “We have the luxury of choosing our swim times so that we can avoid the busiest parts of the day.
“Our biggest fear is that developers will try to trap so many people in this small area that it won’t be overrun by visitors, but choked by the residents, their cars, the extra garbage, not to mention the strain this on an outdated 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 TV.
McCarthy says the beachfront neighborhood offers “a lifestyle that everyone in the world wants”.
“Anyone who wants to live their best life is drawn there and the relaxed style invites them to be who they want to be,” she says.
Local historian Lawrie Williams says Bondi Beach’s demographics and attitudes have changed dramatically since he joined the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club as a teenager in 1971.
At the time, it was a working-class neighborhood whose residents knew which pubs to avoid and when to close the windows to get rid of the stench of Sydney’s sewage pouring straight into the ocean.
“Developers have always been drawn to Bondi Beach,” he says. “That can be traced back to the extension of the tram line to the beach in 1894, which created an efficient public transport system that linked Bondi to the city and beyond.”
Still, Williams says the suburb has a “great community feel” through local sports and volunteer groups, such as the Bondi Icebergs Club for surfer rescue and winter swimming.
“These clubs and organizations provide the glue that binds locals and others together to provide invaluable community services while also giving people a sense of belonging and contributing to a greater cause,” he says.
Bondi Rescue lifeguard Anthony “Harries” Carroll also points out the community ethic embodied by lifeguards on the beach and the weekly Fluro Friday sessions where surfers gather to raise awareness of mental health.
Carroll also embraces the fleet 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 array of people in the surf having the best time ever.”
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