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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 29-Jul-1989

Edition: Late

Section: News and Features


Page: 79

Wordcount: 1916



COCKATOO Island is the largest of Sydney Harbour’s seven islands. In developers’ terms it represents 17 hectares of prime land, mere ferry-minutes west of the Harbour Bridge, with splendid views in all directions and several kilometres of potentially saleable waterfront.

Yet the island, rendered invisible by inaccessibility, has been off public limits for so long that it has slumbered virtually unnoticed in the upper harbour – until recently.

In April, the Federal Government announced its intention to sell the island on the open international market. Since then, but perhaps speciously, it has become headline material, subject to dockworkers’ strikes, Aboriginal land claims and loud demands to “Save Cockatoo”. But for what? And from what?

For Cockatoo Island, named from the Aboriginal Biloela, is no unspoilt Eden and, ironically, private development of almost any kind is likely to bring it for the first time into the public domain.

In the first instance, only “expressions of interest” were called for. From those who, in response, were judged sufficiently experienced and well-heeled, a short-list of something over 20 developers has been drawn up and submitted to the Government with the recommendation that they be invited to tender. No design proposals were involved at this stage, nor, realistically, could they be, since the island falls under the jurisdiction of no council or planning authority and is covered by no established design guidelines.

An environmental study, drawn up by Gazzard Sheldon Architects earlier this year for the Commonwealth Department of Defence and the NSW Departments of Planning and of State Development, identifies some of the hazards of such an enterprise, classifies the island’s historic buildings, recommends viable uses and identifies possible design-guidelines – highlighting, in passing, some of the curious anomalies of Sydney’s planning system.

The study will provide the basis, eventually, for a set of draft development guidelines and, in turn, for a draft regional environmental plan(REP). Then, and only then, is the Government required to expose its intentions to public scrutiny. By that time, of course, many of the crucial decisions will have been made. But this is one of those wait-and-see games; the secrecy which has always shrouded Cockatoo persists.

The Commonwealth, for example, as vendor, is being remarkably cagey – even about just what it is that’s for sale. The official sales brochure (prepared for the Department of Defence by architects Philip Cox, Richardson, Taylor and Partners) is consistently vague, saying only that “the Commonwealth proposes either to sell the freehold of Cockatoo Island or to grant an extended ground lease” and admits that the title itself is so far as ill-defined as the development constraints themselves. And it remains unclear whether this particular 17 hectares will be treated henceforth as a matter of civic interest, or simply sold off as just another piece of real estate.

In any case, though, the island is expected to fetch more than $120 million and, in the words of the selling agent, Mr Paul Ward, “purchasers will also need to bear in mind that the total costs, to complete development of the island, may be in the

order of $800 million”. It is a substantial investment: who is likely to make it? And, more importantly, what is the likely result?

What, furthermore, can or should be done with an island which, despite its unchallengeably salable city proximity and views, is endowed also with other, less readily marketable assets: a significant but undefined acreage of suspected toxic waste (from years of ship-bottom scrapings), a flotilla of munitions’ barges moored within nominal danger-radius, no public road system to speak of and a complete reliance on ferries for transport.

It is an island which, moreover, has no clear or recently-surveyed title and has been part-quarried over many years (resulting in its present, idiosyncratic topography – a high, cliff-encircled centre, surrounded by a ragged apron of polder-flat reclamation) – not to mention the heavy encrustation of buildings, assorted industrial superstructure and other accumulated impedimenta, of which some, as heritage items, must be kept, others “ought” to be conserved “if possible”, while still others

will demand the effort and considerable expense of demolition.

Recorded history of the island begins in 1839 with the construction of a penal settlement for transferees from Norfolk Island. By 1871 a reformatory and industrial school for girls had also been established there, but two huge convict-excavated dry-docks, completed in 1857 and 1892, respectively, allowed ship-building gradually to replace incarceration as the island’s predominant occupation.

In 1913, two years after the creation of the Royal Australian Navy, the island was acquired by the Commonwealth for use as a defence establishment. Since then it has depended primarily on naval contracts for sustenance, at present being leased from the Government by Cockatoo Dockyard Pty Ltd, which employs some 2000-plus people in shipbuilding and submarine maintenance. The lease, however, expires in 1992: at about the same time, the present submarines will be superseded by another, newer breed, to be serviced elsewhere, probably South Australia. Events conspire to make the company’s departure seemly, leaving Cockatoo overhung by a great fateful question-mark: what next?

The island’s architectural legacy is similarly various, including, from the earliest period, several handsome, Georgian-style, sandstone barracks and prison buildings and a dozen or more huge bottle-shaped grain silos, carved 10 metres into the earth’s crust, as well as a 19th century brick powerhouse, several not-terribly-distinguished residential buildings and no mean collection of cranes and other heavy industrial machinery.

As well, there are the docks themselves, which are listed in their own right as “Items of Exceptional Significance”. The Government’s financial expectations notwithstanding, any redevelopment must be sorely constrained.

Gazzard Sheldon’s recommendations are concerned more with pre-purchase politics – that is, planning – than with strictly architectural issues. Their proposed land-uses cover the usual range of profitable hedonism: leisure, health and entertainment; hotel, conference and live-in education facilities; and, small-scale, commercial, shopping and marine-based activities – including”residential” development of the kind that has private marinas attached, with an emphasis on “themed” development (such as Darling Harbour or the Rocks) as being the most viable. Uses which have been excluded are large-scale manufacturing, industrial retailing and commercial developments, and high-rise or quarter-acre residential.

GENERALLY, the Commonwealh’s sales brochure follows suit, although it allows heavy industry or manufacturing – no doubt for sentimental reasons – if”associated with marine activities”. There is little acknowledgement, however, of Gazzard Sheldon’s more immediate, logistical recommendations which are, on the whole, resonant with good sense, if overtly market-led.

Taking as axiomatic the free-market premise that the purchaser must be enticed, the architects advise that, to maximise the island’s value, the Government should remove from the path of the potential purchaser as many obstacles as possible. They conclude, therefore, that for its own sake the Government would be wise not only to prepare an REP (which would codify all heritage, usage and design restrictions), but also to resolve fully all questions relating to toxic pollution, munitions’ barges, title and consent authority – before any attempted sale took place.

The study suggested, furthermore, the possibility of throwing in a waterside land base for on-shore islander parking (perhaps even the problematic Balmain power station?) as an added inducement to buy the island site.

Just common sense really; but the Government was in rather more of a hurry. The issues of toxic waste and title, say the selling agents, are now being dealt with, while the “munitions thing” has got “a bit out of hand” (by which, possibly, they mean proportion). Draft development guidelines are being prepared and will be given, it is said, to prospective tenderers; but since any such document is required also to be publicily exhibited before it hardens into an REP it is likely, even at tender stage, to be less than wholly immutable. The question of a land-base, too, remains unresolved, although the Commonwealth coyly suggests that it “may be able to assist in identifying land for this purpose”.

With regard to consent authority, it is to be expected that, after the now familiar pattern (viz., the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority, the Darling Harbour Authority and the City Planning Committee), some joint body will be concocted for the occasion, comprising, perhaps, a token, elected minority and several State appointees.

(It is a familiar enough stratagem which, tantamount now to a Sydney custom, reflects curiously on a society that strives to maintain the appearance of unwieldy democracy but, when anything needs actually to be done, simply suspends it for the duration. Any system which so habitually answers even the threat of council incompetence with the wholesale rejection of democratic accountability opens itself to easy, entrepreneurial abuse.)

On these sandy foundations, tenderers will be invited to submit a design/finance package in the usual way – with, no doubt, the usual ambiguous results. Where neither design nor finance is given precedence, design can barely hope to prevail.

A precinct plan at the end of Gazzard’s study emphasises the importance of restricting heights to preserve not only the view but also what remains of the island’s natural contours and recommends small-scale, articulated plans which, forming waterside plazas, provide uninterrupted public access to, and views of, the sea. All very reasonable, but the implication of isolated (suburban)buildings in a sea of green should be resisted, as should the suggestion that”themed” development along the lines of Darling Harbour or the Rocks is somehow appropriate here.

Cockatoo Island is potentially a part of one of the world’s great cities. It could be as thoroughly, unashamedly urban as Venice, say, or Dubrovnik. But urbanness demands neither high-rise nor high-gloss development. It does require density, cohesion and, above all, streets – defined and walled.

Cities may be artificial, but they are also, essentially, real places, imbued with the tangible, friable allure of real life. Sydney may need tourists, but even tourists are drawn to real places. No one travels half-way round the world to visit yet another Disneyesque theme-park.


Illus: Cockatoo Island …”themed” development should be resisted.



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