Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
CONCRETE BLOCKS ON THE RISE AGAIN
W E’VE seen it all before. That’s the depressing thing. The long bleak corridors, sunless cul-de-sacs; the rows of terraces, remnants of an earlier world, huddled in permanent shade; the clusters of undistinguished towers, the elevated freeways that sterilise whole precincts, the 10-storey slab blocks stretching a hundred metres without so much as changing pace. It didn’t work in the ’60s, and it won’t work now. When they take the bandages from Pyrmont, in two or five years’ time, then there’ll be some egg on some faces. Then, though, it’ll be too late.
There is no excuse. In the ’60s it was different. From Moscow to Manchester, the exercise that became known as “comprehensive redevelopment”was undertaken, on the whole, in good faith. The housing need was urgent, resources were limited, “progress” was all the rage and the Corbusian mission of destruction against the traditional city seemed heaven-sent.
Now we know better. We’ve seen the sterility produced by those slash-and-burn policies. The concrete jungle passed long ago into cliche. In this regard, Sydney, blessed by distance, fortified by Jack Mundey and the green bans, suffered comparatively little, comparatively late. Remember Woolloomooloo? The Rocks? It was skin-of-the-teeth stuff for a while, and even so, Sydney didn’t escape completely. Waterloo and Surry Hills alone contain enough cautionary examples of high-rise housing to demonstrate that that singularly low point in urban history must not be allowed to reassert itself in Ultimo-Pyrmont.
Ultimo-Pyrmont is the lucky recipient of 117 million Better Cities dollars, courtesy of the Feds, and rightly so. Even now, there is still a chance for Ultimo-Pyrmont to become the kind of vital, mixed-use, human-scale, environmentally responsible city precinct which was envisioned in all the early documents and which would be a first not only for Sydney but for
the modern world. That chance, however, is slimming daily.
Four years ago, the possibilities for Pyrmont were exciting; two years ago, the objectives still looked plausible, if not altogether likely. Today, the tea leaves are all pointing in the other direction. Straight down the same old’60s gurgler. In theory, the height and density limits meant to guide development in Ultimo-Pyrmont are maxima, not automatic rights. Buildings, in theory, are approved only when other criteria to do with context, sunlight, and design quality are also met.
But applications currently coming in for approval propose almost without exception to build to the absolute upper limit (in most cases 10 storeys) and some go way over.
Sites that were designated in the controls as having one “landmark” tower now sport two, or three, or four such towers. Stands of terraces once mooted for heritage listing, right in the fine-grained heart of Pyrmont, are becoming accepted as redevelopment opportunities because the controls, and what look like imminent approvals, set expectations at a level which make that eventually inevitable.
At the same time stated population targets and car park ratios will produce enough car parking on Ultimo-Pyrmont to cover most of the ground plane, excluding roads. Most of this, because there is no stipulation to the contrary, will be accommodated above ground, raising the probability that the first two storeys in these supposedly pedestrian-friendly streets will consist in the main of dead parking space.
The much-vaunted light rail system is to have three stations, but only two are included in the current development application because only two are publicly funded. The light rail is not intended to benefit the precinct’s expected 20,000 residents, but is described by the department itself as mainly recreation and journey-to-work; even so no attempt has been made to require ticketing systems that mesh with existing forms of transport, or low-floor tramcars that do not necessitate 12-metre concrete ramps at every on-street station. Mustn’t scare off investors.
How can this have happened? How, if everyone is pushing in the same direction, can so significant a project go so spectacularly wrong?
Fundamentally, Pyrmont’s problem is a problem of government, of what happens when governments are ideologically opposed to governing, and planners are ideologically opposed to planning. If the black holes in the city weren’t enough, here is evidence that the market cannot be relied upon even to safeguard its own interests, let alone those of the public.
Urban design is not focused on architecture. The crucial issues – building height, solar access, density, block size, transport – are questions not of taste, but of value. As questions of value, community value, they are quintessentially political questions, which may be advised upon by technocrats, but can only be properly decided by elected people. The first, essential decision is what sort of place UltimoPyrmont is to be. Technocrats must find controls that will engender same: politicians must ensure that decisions stick religiously to it. For one thing is certain: better cities are made, not found.