Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Lament for a lost city oasis
E M FARRELLY
IT’S not as if downtown Sydney has more grass than it can use. Not like Canberra, where greensward engulfs even the big central rathaus. Sydney’s downtown grass quantum can be counted by the individual blade, each one vied-for, come lunch-hour, by multiple would-be sandwich eaters. And a good proportion of these blades, Hyde Park aside, subsist within the raddled bounds of poor old Wynyard Park.
Oddly shaped, overshadowed and chronically traffic-bound, Wynyard hasn’t been exactly elegant for some time. But it has been green, and lushly planted: a rare CBD oasis. What, then, could have possessed the State Rail Authority to spend princely sums shrinking the grassed area of Wynyard to a pockethandkerchief at either end? A lady’s handkerchief at that.
Not surprisingly, it’s all about money. In 1933, the railways commissioners appropriated a small patch on the park’s Carrington Street edge. In late 1994, the State Rail Authority, newly afflicted by budget-induced profit motive, gained development consent for considerably expanding this patch to accommodate a large, domed skylight and two major exits to a greatly augmented station concourse (with compulsory retail centre) below.
Not that Sydney City Council, as consent authority, had much choice about it, being legally bound to approve whatever any government agency proposes. What worried the council, in this case, wasn’t the development itself, which is a marked improvement and, anyway, largely under ground, but its above-ground protuberances – especially those in Wynyard Park.
These protuberances include a large spiked steel-and-glass dome, some 10 metres across, and miscellaneous vertical ducts – air intakes during normal times, smoke exhausts during a fire – which bring the development into compliance with new safety regulations. To date, the vent-duct count includes half a dozen vents masquerading as new sandstone piers, as well as a big squat round one – also some metres in diameter, got up as a pinboard for the park’s pictorial history and sitting in a bed of herbage – and
two huge tiled numbers left over from the 1970s and intended to remain, although in some more fashionable garb.
So far, so intrusive. But there’s more to come – half as much again, if State Rail has its way (and who’s to stop it?). Stage two of the station upgrade will involve reformatting the squat round vent, which has approval only until September 1997, then adding as much again, in some disguise as yet unknown.
State Rail agreed in principle, earlier in the year, that this next crop of vents – about 35 per cent of the total capacity – would be accommodated within the redeveloped Transport House, just across York Street. But on the advice of the State Properties unit, and with a weather eye on the resale value of Transport House, State Rail has since reneged on the deal, leaving yet further corrosion of the park as the only option.
None of the existing vents connects to the concourse; the demand for air is coming solely from the retail centre. If it were just a railway station, you could use ground-level grilles, New York-fashion, as currently being installed in Hyde Park south.
It comes down to a straight swap, really – parkland for profit. A large amount of shopping for a small amount of parkland, admittedly. But of the two, in downtown Sydney you’d have to say that parkland was the more endangered species.
A further side-effect of all this has been the steady degreening of what park remains. For its first half century, from 1792, the park was a military parade ground known as Barrack Square. After that it was successively subdivided and squabbled over (as a site for the temporary GPO, and potential site for the Town Hall) before being dedicated to the public as Wynyard Park in 1887.
In 1893, the statue of John Dunmore Lang – politician, evangelist and Scots Church founder – was unveiled on the park’s central axis. The statue hasn’t moved, but is now decidedly off-axis, a constant reminder of the slimming effects of widening York Street.
The park’s high point was around 1900, with its single grassy plane fringed by the darker green of phoenix palms and Norfolk pines, encircled by gravel paths and tall iron railings in the manner of a London city park. Since then, especially after the huge railway excavations of 1925-33, it has been a story of progressive fragmentation.
Now, State Rail’s picturehistory assures passers-by – with perfectly straight face – that “the park is being restored as one continuous urban room” and “will remain a verdant oasis within the city well into the next millennium”. The display is mounted, however, around the considerable circumference of a vent shaft that sits as centrepiece to a large gravelled dais that once was lawn.
Gravel is fine and satisfyingly crunchy. But verdant it ain’t and you can’t eat your lunch on it. The current grassed area is less than shown either in the council’s management plan or State Rail’s own development approval.
A further design study, by Tract Consultants, has recently been adopted by the council. The plan is simple – maximum grass, with trees and paths kept as far as possible to the periphery. All it needs now is the London railings – and a major vent-shaft vanishing act – and we really will be back to the spirit, at least, of Wynyard’s Victorian apotheosis.
ILLUS: Air vents plus gravel equal less grass for Wynyard Park.
Photograph by BEN RUSHTON