Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Welcome to the green machine
Governments and citizens persist in putting pressure on the environment. Density could help, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
When thirtysomething is the number of storeys between your queensize and the street (as opposed, for instance, to the number of endangered species you meet-‘n’-greet before breakfast, or girth around your hair shirt) that’s when you know you’re really Living Green.
Put more simply, if you love nature, live in town.
Such advice may be hard to swallow, love being a visceral, hands-on affair for most of us. But there it is.With the size the human race is now, there’s no such thing as a sustainable model for generalised out-of-town living.
Doesn’t matter how many solar panels you have on the roof, or (native) worm farms in the yard. The entire population might be fully lawn-and-rosebush-free (gospel according to Tim Flannery). But still, the moment you factor-in travel, and multiply by a half million or so, you get the same old land-hogging, gas-guzzling ozone-shattering suburb. Where’s the eco-joy in that?
We know all this, of course, and dutifully put the rhetoric in place. We have fat-salary seers and soothsayers (aka planners, academics) to remind us at not-too-regular intervals. Then we shelve their expensive tomes and go right on behaving as if nothing could be further from the truth.
But councils go on aggressively evading densification requirements; governments go on carving out roads and carving up farmland; we voters go on acting like can’t stop now, self-interest is the only possible concern. In the years since we’ve known about global warming, Sydneysiders’ car use per head has increased by around 40 per cent, almost entirely due to recreational trips. In other words, it’s voluntary.
This is not an obvious route to success for so nakedly eco-dependent a species.
We should all be deeply grateful, therefore, to the mysterious hordes who are sustaining Sydney’s high-density inner-urban residential boom far beyond even the rosiest expectations.
Gary Rothwell, architect-turned-developer who heads the Winten Property Group, has reason to be especially grateful. He’s all-but-completed the 38-storey Forum at St Leonards, after a handful of preparatory successes around the North Shore.
The St Leonards site is spitting distance from the Royal North Shore Hospital, TAFE North Shore and ABC-TV (shortly to move to Broadway), and directly over St Leonards station. Five stops to Wynyard, three to North Sydney, two to Chatswood.
It was because of these attributes that the site, adjoining three separate council areas (Willoughby, North Sydney and Lane Cove), was identified in a tri-council planning study 20 years ago as capable of major development, despite the comparatively down-scale context. St Leonards was already earmarked as Sydney’s fourth-largest employment node after the City centre, Parramatta, and North Sydney, in that order and the new development would be its “town centre”.
The first proposal, late-’80s, was a twin-office-tower job, complete with modernism’s usual suspects vast windswept street-plaza, huge overshadowing, shapeless ground plan and so on. This didn’t stop council approval, or State Rail endorsing a 99-year lease of air rights over the rail line, in return for a rebuilt station and a sizable dollop of cash.
Luckily the ’90s arrived, placing a just-in-time cold teaspoon on this, and other, ’80s over-tumescences. In 1995 the site was bought by Winten. The three councils prepared a new development control plan reconceptualising the site as “the first development in Sydney to fully integrate residential, commercial and retail with a transport hub”. And in 1997 State Rail, implementing its air-rights-for-station-upgrades program, sold St Leonards to Winten (and Bondi Junction to Meriton).
It’s one of those situations where the overhead thought-bubbles of the various players become suddenly visible, and fortuitously convergent. State Rail wanted it for the free station rebuild. The council wanted it because it knocked off a decade’s worth of densification requirements imposed by the Carr government and inescapable in non-ALP municipalities in one go. And the planners wanted it because for years they’d been pushing the idea of Sydney as a poly- (as opposed to mono-) centric city and here, all packaged up, was one of the polys.
Perhaps the least guaranteeable support was from the developer himself. Not everyone would have fallen over themselves to invest big-time in residential high-rise at a time when pundits were already prophesying a painful end to the residential boom, and a nowhere-in-particular point on a major arterial. In-home railway stations are all well and good, but not altogether comparable with Bondi Junction’s views, downtown’s proximity or Darling Point’s cache.
Nevertheless, invest Rothwell did. One of the huge advantages of residential, these days, is that you can sell off the plan, transferring most of the risk (but none of the profit) from developer to individual.
Having kept towers but changed their function, accordingly, Rothwell, with architect Andrew Andersons, internalised the windswept public space to make a personable palm court. A 12-storey street-front podium links the towers compositionally, protecting courtyard from highway with a street-comfortable wall of office and retail space.
Thus the three buildings, while functionally and compositionally distinct, in the modern manner, co-operate closely at ground-level to define the public space.And while it may not be Barcelona, enough has been learned from East Circular Quay and elsewhere (the colonnade, the shades, the granite setts instead of cheapjack pavers) to bring its authenticity quotient well above that of the usual off-the-shelf town-centre.
The buildings themselves, 38 and 30 storeys respectively and providing almost 800 units between them, are white, vaguely heroic, broadly unremarkable. The internal planning you could quibble with, but their intelligence is strategic, as much as architectonic.
Rothwell himself, despite having gambled on it, is still bemused by the continuing depth of the market for high-density urban living. His philosophy, though, is simple; to please the market you provide choice, affordability, convenience, transport.
Because single-bedroom and studio flats are often investment units, which are then rented-out, unit-mix tends to generate council-developer squabbling. Here, though, the council harboured no such social-engineering goals, so the mix of units was essentially market-driven, about 75 per cent studios and “ones”. These units, with and without parking, are concentrated in the buildings’ lower halves, with a separate lift system, lower space standards, no air-con and, of course, lesser views. Two- and three-bedroom apartments float higher in the mix, with penthouses atop.
This, you might argue, is social engineering in a different guise or at least a sort of upstairs-downstairs representational Darwinism. Thinking, though, as a new graduate, finally fleeing the shared house syndrome, or a young city-employed couple, the new, secure apartment, complete with pool, supermarket and rail station, could seem immensely attractive. Screw the view. Here you can survive, without wealth, and without a car.
Plus, no-one has to live here. And Stage I is full (apart from a single, south-facing penthouse) while Forum West, not completing till mid-year, is already 85 per cent sold.
The real question is not why did it happen, but how can we get such developments happening more often? And why isn’t the Government bending over backwards to ensure this, given its endless rhetoric about “integrating land use and transport”, “reducing car usage” and “no growth” in road-vehicle-kilometres.
Why are we still seeing land releases at Marsden Park, Riverstone, Glenmore Park, Harrington Park, Edmonson Park and Bringelly, none of them even on the same page as a rail station? Why send a further 300,00 people more than the population of Canberra to live in paddocks serviced only by sclerotic main roads and already known as repositories for greater Sydney’s pre-loved air?
Why is the Government inviting proposals even now for a “town centre” at Rouse Hill (what train? where?), simultaneously citing Rouse Hill as a never-to-be-repeated cautionary tale, precisely for its dearth of transport services (unless you count a “promised” bus-lane on a gridlocked road)? And why, oh why, was the Government’s only serious public-transport investment proposal the Chatswood-Parramatta link tossed to the never-never within months of its much feted announcement?
Forget granny flats. Forget six-packs. Pain-to-gain ratio is too high. St Leonards should become a model, with every suburban railway station totting up its air-rights dollars. And the 300,000-by-2016 new Sydneysiders should be encouraged helped if necessary to live there. If you really love nature, live in town.
TWO ILLUS: The Forum at St Leonards.
Is this the model for high-density residential development in Sydney?
Photos: Brendan Esposito