Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Forget paradise. Put up a parking lot
Bondi Junction needs a facelift, no doubt, writes Elizabeth Farrelly. But in the public spaces – not more malls.
It is often said science dominates our times, shapes social change, motivates/actuates/asphyxiates what passes for pro-gress. But I reckon it’s shopping.
Of all the last century’s much-vaunted innovations, leisure is the biggest and broadest. Shopping is now our main cultural activity. But not just any old shopping. What we want, apparently or at any rate what we’re about to get are yet more chain stores, more climate control, and more, more, more indistinguishable global pap. When it comes to shopping we vote with our feet, and our feet go for the packaging every time.
Take the $350 million redevelopment plan for Bondi Junction, for an example. There’s no denying it is due for a makeover. Well due. Oxford Street, Darlinghurst-Paddington-Woollahra, runs the gradient from designer grunge to straight designer as it moves up the slope. But Oxford Street, Bondi Junction, right at the top topographically, is the pits. It is not just tired. It’s downright grotty and has been for years, with street-level cigarette butts outnumbering the black beemers and coiffured pooches put together and that’s saying something.
In the way of the times, though, it’s not the public spaces that’ll be getting the treatment. The $350 million that is to be spent over the next three years is private money and, surprise, it goes to private space. Public space is too exposed, too uncontrollable, too, well, public for private investment. Besides, who goes there?
Bondi Junction’s demographic has always been very mixed, but essentially, and in retail terms, it falls into two groups: the David Jones types (DJTs), and the rest. The DJTs never leave the safety of the Westfield Centre unless they have to pop into the Carousel for some DKNY sunnies. That’s the way it is, and that’s they way it’s gunna stay leastwise if Westfield has its druthers. Which you’d have to say looks likely.
And it’s this split, graphically manifest in the Junction’s municipal pattern, that has doomed it to progressive dilapidation. In a hangover from the days when streets were seen as dividers not connectors, the class chasm runs right down the centreline of Oxford Street. In this way Liberal-dominated, pro-development Woollahra, on the north, is divided from ALP-run, heritage-conscious Waverley, south of the border.
But while it may sound like a good basis for a bad British sitcom, this is the kind of humour that loses its zing when you live every day with the impossibility of holding a joint tea party, let alone collaborative capital works of the kind so desperately needed in the Oxford Street Mall. And don’t even think about planning.
For Waverley, Bondi Junction is the primary urban centre. For Woollahra, whose piece of Bondi Junction, the “sliver” as it’s known, between Oxford St and Syd Einfeld Drive, it’s just a diversion one that pays $2 million or so in rates, but a diversion nonetheless from the main game of harbour and Double
Bay. So Woollahra, while jealously protecting heritage and amenity in the Bay, remains sanguine over the minister-approved construction at Bondi Junction of buildings nearly twice the height allowed in the joint 1997 Waverley-Woollahra plan. Thus arrive view-guzzling uglies like the two Meriton towers fronting Syd Einfeld Drive, broadside to the view, backside to the town centre. “Stuff you” buildings. (It’s a technical term.)
For the mall, this mixed parentage has led to year after year of blatant neglect of which the end is nowhere in sight. People do go there, doggedly loyal because if nothing else the mall has real air, real sun. But it’s desperate stuff. Waverley professes itself willing to contribute half of the $4 million it says is needed for an upgrade, although my guess is double that amount might just about do it. Woollahra, on the other hand, seems reluctant to return its rates revenue to the area and more inclined to play the we’ll-only-contribute-if-we-can-run-the-show game. Nothing childish about that.
Either way, although in theory the mall upgrade will open with the Westfield centre mid-2004, there’s no plan and no money allocated, so don’t hold your breath. The horror of Oxford Street Mall is probably the best argument there is for amalgamating councils but where’s King Solomon when you need him?
It was Craig Knowles, then minister for planning, who in 1997 (and no doubt doing the King’s wise work) plucked Westfield’s huge Bondi Junction redevelopment proposal from the caring lap of the joint councils and sent it instead to a specially constituted commission of inquiry. Planning inquiries are not like other commissions of inquiry. Their job is not to illuminate who’s done what to whom, which might get really interesting, but rather to act as quasi consent authorities in their own right, assessing the issues ab initio and advising the minister accordingly. As if he didn’t already have a vast department of his own.
As it happened, the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning made a submission to the inquiry supporting the proposed development with its nearly 3,000 car spaces well in excess of either council’s code. This despite the fact that Bondi Junction must be the most highly transport-serviced retail node in the country and that increasing car usage directly contravened half a dozen high-profile government policies, all of which trumpet public transport.
The provision of so much parking space also contravened the Waverley-Woollahra joint plan for the area (JLEP 1991), as gazetted by the government in 1991, which enshrined as a primary objective for Bondi Junction the need to “strengthen the role of the centre as a major public transport interchange”. All this was duly pointed out to the commissioner by the well-meaning but toothless Department of Transport. Even the normally pro-traffic Roads and Traffic Authority expressed concern about both the public transport system and the inappropriate traffic modelling systems used by Westfield’s consultants, who insisted, as they would, that the project’s traffic impact would be minimal.
The commissioner, Bill Simpson, argued in much more practised and sophisticated fashion. His reasoning was that reducing the parking significantly would worsen congestion by forcing people to park illegally, and would increase car usage, pollution and so on by forcing people to drive instead to more distant centres such as Burwood or Chatswood, which do provide parking. And who said planning wasn’t creative? Simpson therefore recommended a slight decrease (of about 300 spaces).
Apart from the parking, the Westfield proposal included five levels of retail on both sides of Oxford Street, including Grace Bros and David Jones in their existing spots, as well as a Target, a Coles yes, that’s another Coles 220 specialty shops and a 2,500-seat cinema complex. Oh, and a broad, two-storey bridge across Oxford Street and a two-storey tunnel under it. This amounted to about 50 per cent more floorspace than was allowed on the site under the gazetted controls, but again the commissioner was unconcerned, citing the continued vitality of the centre, etc. No-one was surprised when the minister approved the proposal.
That was May 1998. Since then, Westfield has become even more seriously expansionist, acquiring two more Bondi Junction sites next to the existing holding the Carousel Centre (next to DJs) and the Bronte Road Arcade, linking GBs to the street. These have been subsumed into the development bringing the total retail area to some 100,000-odd square metres, and the number of car spaces to 3,300.
This development, approved by the current minister, Andrew Refshauge, in January, still divides along roughly the same lines DJs and the rest. On DJs’ side of the street there are a 2,500-seat cinema complex and and eat-street type ELP (retail argot which stands for Entertainment and Lifestyle Precinct). And a 30- to 40-place child-care centre as a sop to the locals. The architecture is tolerable, a glassy modernistic look not unlike Fox Studios’ Bent Street, making the whole much more transparent and permeable than the traditional black-box language of shopping malls. Even the two-level bridge across Oxford Street is (now) transparent although, because transparency is about allowing retail expression, much will depend on the retailers and the centre management in terms of maintaining graphic standards.
The real question, though, is about the rest of Bondi Junction. Our cities are full of high streets sucked dry by internal malls. Bondi Junction is no exception, its public space already lined with two-dollar shops and blasted by winds deflected from the two Westfield towers to its north. Can it survive another onslaught? You can shrug, and see it as Darwinism in action. Or you can worry about whether a measly $4 million upgrade of the public realm can even begin to compete. When the class war really hots up it ain’t the big guys who go under. And the irony is, it’s all approved positively pushed through the approval process by a Labor government.
Perhaps Keating was right: developer-funding of politics should be verboten.
Two Illus: In the mind’s eye …
the planned $350 million redevelopment of the top end of Oxford Street in Bondi Junction, above, and the plan’s architect, Frank Alvarez, far left, and design manager, Iain Johnstone.