Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
The peninsula divide remains real
Ultimo-Pyrmont attempts to recapture urban vibrancy with a residential/commercial mix – ARCHITECTURE
E M FARRELLY
ULTIMO-PYRMONT used to be two separate neighbourhoods. Now, despite the roaring crosstown freeways that split them perpetually asunder, the two share a double-barrelled name. Very apt too, since any weekend afternoon scores of young U-P arrivals with pressed jeans and Ikea bags can be spotted picking their way across the roadside construction rubble that separates the taxi from the smoked-glass security of this or that new (or newly converted) apartment block.
Thirty years ago, when urbanism was still in its slash-and-burn phase and our foremost architects (Seidler, Gruzman et al) were queuing to raze The Rocks, McMahons Point and Balmain, neither Ultimo nor Pyrmont would have rated a second blink. We would have whopped the lot – excepting the freeways, of course – exiled the inhabitants and started over on nice clean terra nullius.
Not so now. Under the current plan, a good deal of the industrial fabric will remain, along with most of the existing houses and even something of the street pattern. But the character (and this may be no bad thing) has already changed beyond recognition.
Ultimo-Pyrmont has been touted by the Government as “the most exciting city edge redevelopment possibility in Australia”. The guiding concept was obvious but has proved surprisingly elusive: a residential/commercial mix, much like traditional cities, designed to recapture the urban vibrancy that was all but extinguished by the sterility of post-war city zoning.
So, will the new improved version of the peninsula fulfil such expectations? It all depends on whether the excitement you’re after is quantitative or qualitative.
In the late 1980s, Government plans for the peninsula set targets of 16,500 residents and 54,000 workers. Commercial floorspace was rationed, but there was no limit to the amount of residential development you could stuff onto a site. The presumption was that, so close to the CBD, commercial development could look after itself, but residential needed all the help it could get.
Events, however, proved contrary. City-centre living came into vogue just as the recession, inter alia, drove office development to the suburbs. City vacancy rates rocketed. Nobody, but nobody, wanted to build commercial, especially within cooee of downtown.
Even now, only a handful of the new developments in Ultimo-P are commercial (three TV outfits and a casino are about it). In the residential stakes, by contrast, some 2,000 new units are already built, with the same again approved or under construction. Real estate agents swear, as admittedly they are inclined to do, that it’s all very hot cakes. And to some extent at least, the density and frequency of on-ground Ikea-movements bear out the hyperbole.
So much for quantity. But what of the emerging quality of the place? Can Ultimo-Pyrmont prove to greater middle Australia that apartment living is not only tolerable but fun? Will the result be a sufficient improvement on workaday developer standards to justify the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars already poured into infrastructure and land subsidies? Or are we going to look back in 50 years, as we now look back on the red-brick walk-ups, and wonder why we let it happen?
To some extent, the answer is still emerging. Although we all assiduously talk as though the peninsula were a single entity, the divide is more real than ever, etched not only by motorways but by Government policy. The history of the place meant that most of the existing housing stock was in Ultimo and central Pyrmont, while the big development sites, strewn with the leftovers of obsolete waterside industry, were ranged around the Pyrmont waterfront. Recent planning policy has reinforced this historical hierarchy. Pyrmont gets the glamour developments, the parks, the views, the town square, the light rail and the boulevards – while Ultimo, already view-challenged, is fast becoming over-built, under-lit, and seriously under-greened. To say nothing of the traffic.
Apart from the casino, now half-built and every bit as outsize as expected, most of the smart, front-of-house waterside sites remain to be developed. Pyrmont Point is most advanced, with a large public housing development, now complete, styled in homage to Leslie Wilkinson’s nearby Spanish-style Ways Terrace and with similarly fabulous views – for the moment. The winner of last year’s architectural competition is about to start on site, and the large foreshore park on the reclaimed apron is under construction.
Much will depend, though, on the future of the next door CSR site, recently bought by Lend Lease in a deal which smacks of substantial commercial pre-commitment. The design will be done by Philip Cox – giving him, with the casino, two massive slices of the Pyrmont pie.
Most of what is actually built, to date, is back on the poor-cousin sites. The idea here was to encourage low-rise medium-density development which would make up in vitality what was lost in the way of view and open space. One of the early developments south of the divide, however, was the Goldsbrough Mort warehouse, crammed in 1994 with a half-dozen extra storeys and 500-odd flats. The conversion was approved, despite council objections, by the Darling Harbour Authority, and is now held aloft in Planning Department brochures as a shining success. From the motorway, as you fly over to Gordon or Ryde, it looks grand. Palatial, even.
Inside, though, perhaps a third of the residents live in tiny flats and bedsits which receive only what light or ventilation filters down the two multi-storey light wells. Little sun penetrates these depths, much less view. In light and air terms, Darling Harbour car parks offer a better deal.
Few of the subsequent developments are as grim. Some seem still substantially overbuilt, such as The Darlington, squeezed in between Bulwara Road and the motorway, and the huge new Meriton scheme on Bunn and Pyrmont Streets, its red and yellow brickwork substituting for architectural detail. Others, such as the Wolski, Lycenko and Brecknock design, and its neighbour in Pyrmont Street, are polite and civilised.
Many of the later schemes were improved by a late change in the rules wrung by the City Council in 1994 from a reluctant Planning Minister, Robert Webster, after the Goldsbrough Mort lesson. This bodes well for the housing to come but cannot redress the glaring imbalance. Pyrmont has half a dozen big new parks and a very handsome square. Ultimo has one new “pocket” park, south-facing onto Mary Ann Street, and one right on the border, over the Fig Street cutting. No more are planned.
And while the north end of Harris Street awaits imminent transformation into a tree-lined boulevard, the southern half, Ultimo’s spine, has been sacrificed to the traffic of the Glebe Island Bridge – subject to ongoing community consultation, of course.
There is one bright spot, however, in the Ultimo firmament. The new Lawrence Nield-designed community centre, far and away the most substantial piece of architecture to hit the peninsula for many a decade, opens next month (watch this space …)
ILLUS: The Goldsbrough Mort in Pyrmont.
Photograph by SAHLAN HAYES