Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
PYRMONT IS EVERYONE’S BUSINESS
LIBERTE, egalite, fraternite. The French Revolution, now being celebrated, is commonly hailed as the root of modern democracy. And perhaps that is so. But to ride the Paris Metro in the bleak pre-dawn of any weekday is to glimpse the other side of the coin. The trains are patronised almost exclusively by those thousands who pour in, ashen and somnambulent, from grim, outer suburbs to service and sustain the city we all cherish. They are the unwashed, the servant class.
Because of Australia’s comparative plenitude of land and money, this great tidal underclass is not so very much in evidence. But humanity, especially urban humanity, is structured hierarchically, and all great cities need servants.
There is no necessary ignominy in such servitude; ideally, it is what all citizens do. But in Sydney, for instance, as land prices ferment under market pressure, it is becoming inevitable that the lower echelons – who have the least capacity to make commuting comfortable – be pushed further and further from that centre, to whose maintenance they are so crucial.
Inevitable, that is, without some sort of coherent government intervention. In theory, of course, it is the job of any democratic government to defend the interests of the voiceless many against pressure from the powerful few, to champion, that is, the good of the society – or city – as a whole. But such intervention is itself impossible without some clear prior commitment as to just what the city, as a whole, is, and where it ought to go.
In the case of Pyrmont, identified rather vaguely in last year’s Central Sydney Strategy as “the most exciting city-edge redevelopment possibility in Australia”, it is exactly this coherent, governmental commitment – vision, if you like – that is,
so far, so emphatically lacking.
That is not to say that Pyrmont should or even could revert to its 19th-century role as a pocket of specifically workers’ housing; any more than developmental exuberance should be left unfettered to reduce the peninsula to a mere appendage of the CBD. Healthy cities are marked by balance, by the infinte, interlinked variety and complexity of their composite parts and forces – bringing all levels of commercial, residential and even industrial activity into vibrant, dynamic equilibrium.
Sometimes, in pre-modern cities shackled by technological primitivism, this harmony came about almost by accident. Modern Sydney, however, was formed during and by the technology explosion; blown apart almost before it had a chance to cohere and kept that way by a combination of wealth, space, political will and popular inertia.
It remains to be seen whether, here, the lion of commerce may be induced, with any semblance of equanimity, to lie down with the residential lamb. Pyrmont makes it possible, but it hasn’t happened yet and, most certainly, in this world of free-range capitalism, won’t happen without deliberate intervention. It won’t happen without planning.
Sydney in general is a zoned city: CBD for daytime use, suburbs for evening; CBD for working, suburbs for sleeping and domesticity.
Pyrmont, water-edged and so tantalisingly close to the centre, represents a singular chance to avoid the cultural inpoverishment that urban disintegration almost always implies, and make instead a rich, mixed city quarter of the kind that Sydney does not yet possess.
To this kind of city the very idea of zoning is anathema – at least in the crude, ham-fisted way it has usually been practised in modern times. But a laissez faire attitude is no answer, either. Hands-off policies result with equal inevitability in a zoning system of their own, based on a rigid, economic, inverse-square law. Government intervention is, therefore, just as crucial in avoiding the zoned, ghettoised city as in implementing it.
Cities are the products of government and good cities, of good government; that is, ideally, self-government – careful, cohesive, co-operative, microscopically skilled and telescopically wise. Hardly surprising that good cities are so rare. But it is for this reason that one looks forward with such anticipation to the report, at present being prepared under the joint leadership of the City Planner, Frank Hanson, and the Assistant Director of the (NSW) Department of Planning, Sue Holliday, which will mould Pyrmont’s future.
The issues are many and complex. Pyrmont is no tabula rasa. Much of the infrastructure – the streets, the services, the topography, even an existing rail line – that will form the peninsula’s new urban skeleton is already in existence. That is part of the problem – and part of the solution.
In early days after settlement, Pyrmont was largely farmland, but the mid-century expansion of coastal shipping established Sydney as a regional, mercantile centre, bringing to Pyrmont not only dockyards, woolstores and grainstores, but industry; foundries, flour mills, factories (including, by 1876, the Colonial Sugar Refinery, which still occupies something over 12 hectares of the peninsula’s north-western tip), and in 1853 a quarry, which provided high-grade sandstone for many of Sydney’s finest buildings and left Prymont with its dramatically scraped land-form, while the opening of the Glebe Island bridge locked Pyrmont into Sydney’s increasingly complex transport net.
Most of those who worked in Pyrmont not only shopped, socialised, worshipped and educated their offspring locally, but lived in the peninsula’s expanding clusters of two-storeyed, terrace housing along Miller Street and the Harris Street “ridge”. By the end of the century Pyrmont had the highest population density in the colony.
Since then, however, the story has been one of decline; population shrinkage at a continuing average of 5 per cent per year closed schools, churches and pubs. By the 1970s Pyrmont was classifiable as a stagnant, inner suburb – and so it remains, with a residential population now around 1,000.
In recent years, of course, things have changed again. Darling Harbour, while so far only marginally successful in commercial terms, has swung the CBD’s centre of gravity sideways and south, bringing Pyrmont within the mental range of your average city developer. Development proposals – for hotels, office blocks, tourist attractions, retail centres and luxury residential developments – proliferate. At the same time and, in part, for the same reasons (harbour views, proximity to the city, etc.,) house prices on Pyrmont have been doubling and tripling. Suddenly, Pyrmont is under pressure: developers want zoning and height restrictions lifted, residents want their”rights” (security, views, amenities, parking) guaranteed; and everyone looks expectantly to the planners to arbitrate. As indeed they must. What is likely to come of it all?
Probably the worst that can happen is that the planning authorities, in their evident eagerness to involve (and presumably, placate) all interested parties, will produce a policy document of such unarguable, equivocatory blandness that “planning” will be carried out henceforth by the Central Sydney Planning Committee on a one-off, ad hoc basis: the developers win by default.
Ideally, all sectarian interests should be heard, but none given sway. (If residents were to prevail, which residents? The thousand who happen to be there now, or the 50,000 who may inhabit Prymont in the future? And, if developers, which? CSR – as was, in fact, mooted by the Department of Planning itself, in the hope that they would also help pay for the study – on the basis of their 110-year tenancy? Or others who, so far deprived of the opportunity, may yet help to build the new Pyrmont?) Prymont is everyone’s business.
So, what is best? The first thing, clearly, is to take stock of existing constraints, to determine which may be changed and which must be obeyed. These constraints fall into three categories: history, landowners and traffic.
The historic legacy of Pyrmont is motley but not insignificant; nor is it without problems. What can sensibly happen, for example, to the Power Station, with its four iconic but useless chimneys, or to Walter Burley Griffin’s derelict incinerator or to the railway, in that fantastic, sheer-sided gorge?And what of the old bond stores?
Existing landowners, too, present a force to be reckoned with. Both CSR and the Maritime Services Board (MSB), for example, who between them occupy the entire northern tip of the peninsula, profess perfect comfort in their present positions. CSR, for example, brings raw materials into its own deep-water port, produces sugar, alcohol and wood panels in its own factories supplied by its own power station and distributed by its own trucking service. Neither has any immediate plans to leave – at least, not until the offer can no longer be refused.
There are, further, umpteen other government bodies with landholdings in Pyrmont, some of whom have entrepreneurial inclinations of their own. Planned new buildings for the Water Police have recently been suspended and an Electricity Commission proposal, designed by Rice Daubney, architects, to convert the power station into mixed residential/commercial/retail is, like so much else in Pyrmont, holding fire, awaiting the government study.
The Fishmarketing Authority, however, is proceeding with its conversion of Fairfax’s old paper store on the western flank – stage I of a major scheme to revivify the markets to attract the Darling Harbour tourist hordes.
And what began as a $35 million joint venture between Custom Resources International (CRI) and the Department of Housing (DoH) is also full-steam ahead, although in rather a debased form. The venture was intended as one of those curious, public-private “partnerships” now so much in vogue; the DoH would provide the land while CRI put up the equity to build 140 private and 200 public dwellings at the ostentatiously view-blessed junction
of Mill, Church and Point Streets. The idea, at the time, was that the private development would in some sense pay for the public; in the event, however, and perhaps predictably after a change of government, only the private housing is going ahead.
Traffic is the really fundamental force in Pyrmont, and controlling it the most important single sine qua non of making the place habitable again. Pyrmont, at the moment, is dissected, pulverised by traffic: both local, north-south traffic generated by the CSR and the MSB and regional traffic on the multi-strand Western Distributor which weaves its roaring web across the middle-peninsula, humiliating pedestrians, mocking the urban scale and severing Pyrmont irretrievably from Ultimo.
What of this can be changed? Not much perhaps, given that the new Glebe Island bridge, already under construction, commits Pyrmont to life as a thoroughfare – although the bridge itself should pull traffic out of the Pyrmont Sreet/Miller Street strand of this swollen road mass, allowing the restoration of this neat, urban crossroads to its former role as village centre.
A recent semester-long study by six groups of Masters students at Sydney University’s Urban Design course assumes just this – that arterial traffic through Pyrmont should be restricted to a single perimeter route. The students, guided by visiting Professor Fritz Stuber from Zurich, produced one or two other interesting ideas – notably, the erection of acoustic, “barrier-block” housing along the freeway and the creation of a new “town centre” at the water end of Harris St.
There was also some exhaustive fact-gathering and analysis. What was generally absent, however, was any really convincing response to the drama of the peninsula’s topography (the cliffs, quarry and cutting) rather than just its splendidly bankable views, or evident understanding of the way in which close-grained, truly urban density can be used to heighten, rather than diminish, this dramatic effect.
Sydney’s closest approach at the moment is probably the invigorating, heterogeneous density and unshamed artifice of Potts Point, with roughly the same size and topography as Pyrmont. But Pyrmont could be our Brooklyn Heights. Such urbanness, however, depends above all on definition, on the courage clearly to distinguish between public and private, mass and void, man-made and nature and on the deliberate reinforcement of the edge – the cliff, say.
It can only be defused by that now habitual (guilty?) antipodean urge to fringe any edge, particularly any sea-edge, with parkland. Cities are not natural but man-made phenomena and their edges can be pleasurably accessible without being swathed, drowned in openness. Parks are city phenomena (the country doesn’t need them), and can be just as exciting, or more so, when given a clear hard – that is, built – urban edge.
Usually it is not the fact of commerce, or even industry, but its size that renders it immiscible with housing, so why not zone Pyrmont, not according to function, but to scale? Why not keep parkland in the centre, making a sequence of gracious, defined urban spaces along Pyrmont’s curving spine, and give the peninsula a tight, clear, urban sea-edge. Medium, even high density need not mean high-rise. It could be 70 stories like Manhattan, or five, like Valetta. But why not, rather than allowing Darling Harbour to invade Pyrmont, encourage Pyrmont to fix Darling Harbour’s suburban frivolity in a tight, urban embrace, making it, for the first time, truly a part of a more human and habitable city?
The possibilities are almost infinite. Pyrmont need be neither dull CBD nor dreary suburb. As Chris Stapleton, one of the new breed of traffic engineers, suggests, with regard to Pyrmont, “we are limited only by our imaginations”.
Three Illus: Pyrmont old and new … the most exciting city – edge redevelopment possibility in Australia?
Picture by Jackie Picone