Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Gosford holds its breath for some je ne sais quoi
Yet more is needed than just plumping for modernity or old world charm, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Paris. No, Perth. NO, PARIS. No, I said Perth. The city fathers’ tug-of-war over the future of the Central Coast metropolis of Gosford would be comic, were it not so sad. Or sad, maybe, were it not so comic. Freewill is something we humans like to pin on ourselves, factually or otherwise. But do we really believe we can will the shape of cities? Sculpt them, like so many topiary peacocks? Photocopy Paris?
Gosford, named for the Earl of, is 180 years old. For most of that time it was a thriving little Mudgee-esque country town, first port, then railville. Bustling, blooming even, vaguely tweedy. Now it has a very contemporary problem.
It has more than 100,000 people, but no cinema, playground, eat-street or town hall. There are fresh air and water frontage, but high-street shops sit vacant. Three World Cup games were played in town, but cafes and bottle shops just didn’t bother opening at the time. And in the pretty mid-town parks security guards are on permanent patrol, keeping the smackheads at bay.
As if that weren’t enough, there are two major development proposals major as in three times the height limit knock, knock, knockin’ on Gosford’s door. But no city plan. Not so as you’d notice.
It’s a classic case, by no means unique to Gosford, of death-by-car. American towns have been dying thus for decades. For Gosford, though, it really took hold in the early ’80s, when the all-wise Gosford Council shook from its sleeve a spot rezoning for a shopping centre at Erina. Suburban Erina, six kilometres out of town, happened to have some land going, that’s all. Now, after successive expansions, and expansive success, the wee suburban mall is Lend Lease’s Erina Fair, biggest on the coast. Five minutes from Terrigal Beach, Erina boasts 4600 car spaces, a 900-seat food hall, ice-rink and, yessir, cinemas.
A few years later, and a few more minutes out of town, came Westfield’s Tuggerah, near Wyong, complete with courtesy buses, kid zones and seniority clubs. They’re scary, and they’re relentless. (Erina Fair has just had a $210 million expansion; court approval was give recently for a similar project at Tuggerah, albeit for a mere $60 million.) So, uh, why would you go to Gosford?
Night followed day. Retail values started falling, just as residential started to rise. The council, frozen to the spot and plan incapable, hid its spot-rezoning habit under a thatch of 1990s “merit-based” planning rhetoric. Noticing too late that such habits put any plan, any intention to plan, in the bin.
Property owners, quick to recognise a system that favours the longest lunch, either networked frantically or sat tight for capital improvement, depending on personality type. Slowly they stopped bothering with maintenance; broken windows stayed broken. Suddenly mainstreet the venerable Mann Street was semi-derelict.
A council in grey times, especially a planless one, is a council weakened particularly in the just-say-no department. Developers, tuned to such weakness, move in for the kill.
Enter Spurbest. Its $105 million waterside proposal for Mann Street was a six-tower mix of residential, hotel, commercial, retail and cinema activities: 24 storeys in a seven-storey zone. Even as an ambit claim, it was a doozy. Then came the leagues club proposal: same general deal, but rising to a mere 17 storeys, beside the stadium.
Which was about when Paris-or-Perth made headlines. The main protagonists were old foes: Councillor Malcolm Brooks envisioned a city with “cobblestone streets, Irish bakeries, German pubs and Italian restaurants” and a functional height limit, while developer Phil Anastas pushed “a vibrant, modern city by the water”, modelled on his favourite, Perth.
Negotiations began. Things got messy, then messier. Spurbest pushed the city saviour argument, as it would. Councillors were divided, as councilllors are.
On the one hand, they supported Brooks: “a garden city by the water with a European theme” and “a quality of life based on minimum population growth”. Behaviourally, though, they were tempted to Perth.
The height of the proposal dropped to 18 storeys and stuck there, hoist on the mayor’s casting vote, until Bob Carr (having vociferously run the Spurbest flag up his election pole) finally moved. In went ex-Sydney City planner and Planning Institute president John McInerney, briefed to sort it by the March elections. White knight to king four.
The task is not small, and McInerney may yet regret it. So far, though, there’s no shortage of goodwill. McInerney is described by the minister, Craig Knowles, as a “big gun” with “a CV that most architects and planners would die for”, by the local rag as the new “planning tsar” with a “wealth of experience [from] London, Rome and New York”, and
by Gosford Chamber of Commerce president Louise de Martin as, simply, “our miracle man”.
So, which way will he point to Paris or Perth? Thankfully, McInerney knows it’s not so simple. Knows that miracles don’t grow on fenceposts; that no single move be it mammoth development or mainstreet tart-up can save a city. That the problem, and its solution, is structural.
So, while he optimistically insists that “Gosford is not dying, just holding its breath”, McInerney is hardly uncritical of government. Gosford may be a microcosm, but its problem is a big-picture one getting small-picture treatment.
“Regional planning,” argues McInerney, “is the most important sort. People think planning is development control, but it’s not. It’s resource allocation on a regional scale. And actually it’s not hard. It’s damn simple. As simple as saying if you have a railway you put your infrastructure near it. It’s the politicians who seem unable to hold firm. This is where the state ought to be doing most of the planning, and it’s not doing it. Planning becomes nothing more than a whiteboard exercise when the politicians are all scrabbling to save their skins by paying off marginal seats.
“It’s the inability of state government to think strategically. Strictly speaking, regional planning doesn’t happen here. And it ought to.”
That’s his hobby-horse. But, sadly, not his brief, which is far narrower. White knight on hobbled charger: what can he deliver to Gosford? A plan, for a start. One based not on whim, but on the real, economic forces shaping the town. But how do you resuscitate a transport town once the port has gone, the main road by-passed and rail is no longer it?
McInerney’s ideas-to-date are: nurturing Gosford as a major teaching-hospital town, with new pedestrian links across the railway and expanded day services; encouraging nearby residential, maybe up to 12 or even 15 storeys, around mid-town; vivifying the civic precinct with a new town hall and library; connecting the city to its waterfront.
This last involves calming Dane Drive, Gosford’s own on-ground Cahill Expressway, with lights and traffic diversions; relocating Gosford Primary School to link Mann and Baker streets more plausibly to the bay; and encouraging a major cultural facility or performance space on its site at the edge of Brisbane Water. Gosford’s Opera House? “Something like that,” smiles McInerney.
And for Spurbest? Current thinking suggests 12 or 15 storeys around the station, stepping down to maybe four or six storeys on the waterfront. For Spurbest that would mean, say, eight or 10, max, compared with its 18-storey minimum; how will it place McInerney with his champions, Louise “miracle man” de Martin and Bob “Spurbest would be a huge boon for the city” Carr?
McInerney is sanguine, claiming innocence of Carr’s election-support for Spurbest and believing a satisfactory outcome to be negotiable. And while the line between site-by-site negotiation and spot rezoning may be fine, it’s a line McInerny is confident of maintaining. In any case, it is one of the joys of planning that, by the time a solution can be tested, McInerney, plus charger, will be long gone.
For Gosford, since car dominance shows no sign of abating, Perth is still likelier than Paris. Ten years on, Gosford may exist mainly as a commute-urb along the Sydney megalopolis, one where the kids can surf before school. There are worse fates. But let us note. Cities are like marriages. Easy to stuff up. Hard to fix.
TWO ILLUS: Ambient argument .
favoured models are the light and airy Perth or Paris in all its quaintness.
Photo above: David McDonough