Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Putting the home into Homebush
It’s a brave plan they’ve hatched for Olympic Park, but will people want to live there?
It’s not often you find a McDonald’s closed in the afternoon. But then you don’t often find places quite as lonesome as Sydney Olympic Park (SOP), 18 months post-partum.
The lights may be on, but at SOP these days ain’t nobody home. Fountains play unseen. Trains roll empty into a station meant for thousands, and plastic music pumps exuberance over the desert sportscape. Nothing moves but a pair of giant jackhammers smithereening each end of Stadium Australia into pastiche ground-zero.
The latest draft post-Olympic masterplan paints a “vibrant town centre” future for SOP, supported by improved rail services to keep its 10,000 office workers and 3,000 residents clean, green and investing. Then, 24 hours later, CityRail announces its intention to cancel the Homebush service: no more trains, period.
Government is a curious thing. Especially since Homebush station is also SOP’s closest approach to a genuinely public building and the only possible focus for its town-centre-to-be, unless you count McDonald’s.
Presumably, though, the Government cephalopod will get its arms and legs unglued in time, those cheeky rail people will be thwocked into shape, again, and the masterplan will proceed.
I hazard this guess on the basis that few things concentrate the Treasury’s mind like a bleeding wound, and second-round bids from a number of developers are in preparation.
This explains the palpable urgency in the masterplan document, which uses words like “quickly” little known as a planning term and offers guidelines for only three of its eight designated precincts, those with serious development potential, natch.
Really bleeping red are Precinct A, the town centre, encompassing the station and Novotel tower, and Precinct B, the Australia Centre business park. The proposal puts six- to eight-storey office buildings along both sides of the station, with a 30-storey residential tower at the end and three 20-storey residential towers along Australia Avenue, opposite the Australia Centre. The four towers form the kernel of the current bid process.
The rest is modest two to four-storey street-defining stuff around the office park itself and along the other half of Dawn Fraser Avenue, beside the stadium. Otherwise, the heroics of the SOP are largely untouched, in contrast with earlier proposals which showed development hugging the stadium.
This may turn out to be a wise move, in a conservative marketplace. After all, who wants to live with occasional multitudes on their doorstep, even if Paddington prices don’t seem conspicuously depressed by same? And how can you put the home into Homebush without seriously compromising the heroic thing that makes it special?
On the other hand, the hands-off approach to the SOP-proper lends a slightly distant, bureaucratic flavour to the whole just where we could use a bit of excitement.
Which brings us to the heart of the matter; the scale thing. In Olympic design there are two basic strategies. The main buildings are essentially oversized poached eggs, huge nuclei with spreading aprons that make them geometrically and operationally unapproachable. You can scatter them, hoping to engage and enhance existing city fabric, accepting the nightmare politics that go with that. Or you can flop them onto a single, disused, out-of-town plate and hope for the best.
Barcelona chose the former approach, knitting the village into inner-city dockland, with the stadium on Montjuic. Atlanta and Sydney went for the plate. No prizes though for guessing why Syd-en-y took the path of instant gratification. We always did a good party.
Morning after, though, is a far, far bleaker thing.
SOP is Canberra without the green. Or Darling Harbour without the proximity.
So, will the new masterplan do the trick? Yes, probably, up to a point. If, as it seems, developer interest is keen and the buildings happen as planned, Homebush II will be a less moribund place. Whether 3,000 residents and 10,000 workers in an area the size of the CBD (with its 25,000 residents and 200,000 workers) will form enough of a critical mass remains to be seen, but numbers are easy to grow. Assuming people want to live there.
Will they? Sure, residents can join the nation’s best aquatic centre, for a tidy sum. True, too, SOP is only 15 kilometres from the Sydney CBD and fewer from Parramatta. Undeniably, too, other local developments are proving their appeal. Lend Lease/Mirvacs Newington is expanding to 2,074 units, complete with shopping centre and even a primary school, by Clare Design, which opened last week. Then there are Payce Developments’ The Waterfront (designed by Architectus and Clare Design) , and Australand’s Rhodes Peninsula (4,700 units), both under way. As well as development proposals for the Carter Street precinct (80,000 square metres of office space immediately west of SOP) and the old Ford factory at Auburn.
But collecting it all into one breath like this is mildly deceptive. In fact, people from the SOP will drive to Newington’s Woolies, and drive their kids to its school. Green rhetoric notwithstanding, Homebush is not a walking proposition, not unless you’ve got all day and a broad-brimmed hat. Generating neighbourhood is hard in any new town, worse when you need a telescope to see the next-doors.
And then there’s the question of connecting back to Sydney, as it roars blithely by on the M4.
Of course we don’t yet know the contents of the developers’ bids. Much will turn on their financial offerings that is, their demands by way of freebies. We do know that, in a risky business, developers are notably risk- averse. And it’s a bold spirit that backs a 30-storey tower in a desert.
None of this was unforeseen. Pre-Olympic plans had pencilled-in post-urbanisation strategies, but the Government Architect’s insistence in 1996 that SOP was not a “town centre or city”, and his appointment of star American landscaper George Hargreaves (instead, for instance, of serious urban design input), seemed to cast such concerns aside. That was then.
About the same time, the Government’s so-called Centres Policy was rebadged as Cities for the 21st Century (which, while still current, is not actually available from the department, all resources having been diverted into its make-over as PlanningNSW). Cities nominates the State’s four primary centres (Sydney, Parramatta, Newcastle, Wollongong) and nine secondary centres. Homebush doesn’t figure.
This might explain the Government’s insistence on treating Homebush as more sub- than urb; even in the new plan there is a reluctance to compete with Parramatta or even Burwood. But it doesn’t explain the towers.
You have to admire the audacity. Not every government could comfortably adapt its vision to allow 30 storeys on its own land in no kind of centre while agonising for months, even years, over (lower) residential towers on private land at Pyrmont, a nominated part of the nation’s primary urban centre. It’s breathtaking.
Could it have anything to do with ownership?
TWO ILLUS: A lonesome place …
bulldozers, above, move in on a deserted Olympic Park yesterday.
The present site, left, is to undergo major changes.
Photo: Quentin Jones.