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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 30-Sep-2003

Edition: Late

Section: Metropolitan


Page: 14

Wordcount: 1017

Council takes dense approach to a crucial site

Elizabeth Farrelly

Once again our civic parents are discovering, just slightly late, what everyone else has known for years. To the rest of metropolitan Sydney it has been in the blinding category for decades that Carlton & United Breweries (CUB), squatting on the last big industrial site in town, would eventually sell.

When, we didn’t know. But the mere fact that every developer on the books was getting a cricked neck watching should have told the City to get prepared. Think ahead. Plan, even as cities do. Here come da big one.

Having a plan in place ahead of time would have meant everyone knew where they stood. The buyers and sellers would have had some idea how to value the site; the planning committee would have had some basis for assessing development proposals, and some chance of defending their decision in court (should it come to that, heaven forbid);

the public would have had some inkling of what to expect on this massive, city-changing site.

As it is, none of the above.

It is big. No doubt about that. At 5.7 hectares, CUB is the biggest developable area to be liberated in the city centre for yonks. Twice the size of World Square; smaller than CSR’s Pyrmont site, but way more strategic. Being a peninsular city, Sydney is bound on three sides by water. Short of reclamation, the only possible growth direction is south were it not precluded by the impenetrable combination of Prince Alfred Park, Central Station and the CUB.

Foster’s recent sale of the site to Australand changes all that. Suddenly, instead of a barrier, there is a broad, trafficable link between the city-centre and the vast southern developer-land still spreading around Green Square. So even if there’s no plan to speak of, you might expect some idea, some future concept, for so pivotal a site. A vision, maybe. Yes?

Well, no, actually. The City Plan didn’t so much as tag CUB as significant. ‘Course, now that it’s come up, we see the import, sure, absolutely. Meanwhile, though, our plan the 1996 Central Sydney LEP treats this precinct-to-be just like any other bit of city-rump dirt.

Which is to say it is zoned “city edge”. There is a blanket 15-storey height limit, draping down to five around the Chippendale edges, and no prohibited use except brothels (brothels?) and abattoirs. The density controls hugely incentivise residential (allowing 5:1, almost twice the floorspace limit for commercial), despite the fact that residential hardly needs the carrot, being already highest and best use anywhere this side of Wagga. Oh, plus there’s the odd heritage item two pubs, a gateway, a chimney, a terrace house or three. Not what you’d call vision, quite.

Funny thing is the CUB site was originally lassoed as City territory rather than leaving it in gruff South Sydney where it belonged precisely in order to ensure some more distinguished future than roll-it-out residential. And yet that is precisely what the City Council prescribed.

Until now. Now that the site is actually officially sold, the City has, in its wisdom, decided to redo the rules. Now, when push comes to stand-off, 5:1 emerges as embarrassingly unachievable within the 15-storey height limit.

The City’s response to this conundrum is, as ever, to set up a sub-committee, and hold a competition. In that order. The sub-committee comprises Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull, Government Architect Chris Johnson and the top NSW planocrat, Andrew Cappie-Wood. The competition is a way off, since architect Philip Thallis is still drafting the brief. What will it say?

More height, for a start. The only way forward is up, and everyone knows it.

Brendan Crotty, Australand’s managing director, must be thrilled, having conditioned his agreement to pay Foster’s $203 million over 10 years on the outcome of the civic haggling.

Crotty declares himself “happy with the process” and confident that “a design competition will produce the best solution”. He’s already had three “first class” architects, un-named, produce masterplan ideas, which established the basis of the haggling, and is sanguine that “if you take the best elements of all three you’d end up with a best-of-the-best”.

Or you could get a camel. Just ask Burley Griffin, who stormed out of Canberra all those years ago for more or less this reason.

But such is the acceptance that down-zoning is impossible, and such the spectre-power of legitimate overdevelopment, that the City is rendered helpless, hoist on its own sloppiness. So what does it do but head straight for the leafy cover of competition. Never mind the height, try the cafes.

And perhaps that’s right. As city dwellers we don’t look up all that much. Certainly you can argue the tower question either way. On the one hand, increasing inner-city densities makes perfect ecological and even cultural sense, especially if combined as the sub-committee insists with vibrant mixed uses, responsive street patterns, good public squares and so on.

On the other hand, 15 storeys is already far higher than anything else around except the UTS tower over the road and Australand’s own, just-completed, Quadrant development, same height but on much lower land, down Broadway. Going higher still will set a precedent a potentially loathed precedent for the entire neighbourhood into the foreseeable future.

In any case, regarding 5:1 as any sort of right in a residential development must indicate some local lunacy cluster, given that it is roughly four times the density of Lend Lease’s Jacksons Landing, and of Kings Cross.

The real joy of the CUB story, though, is the delight the pride, dammit we as citizens should all feel in the process. There is an undeniable comic element in watching a City go to the vast bother and expense of having a plan, however lame, only to abandon it retrospectively at the crucial moment.


ILLUS: The sale of the CUB building to Australand has unlocked this strategic inner-city site for development but opened the gates to arguments about density, height and zoning.

Photo: Wade Laube


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