Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Little sister, just do as the big city does
Convincing investors of Parramatta’s commercial viability won’t be easy, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Never mind Red Dragon. For a truly sinister cultural experience try that cuckoo in Parramatta’s nest, that maze of the living dead, its Westfield Shoppingtown. Even by capitalist standards, this is excess taken to excess. And even fully fitted with map, compass and water bottle you will wander for days daze before emerging, shaken and sobered, onto the malnourished street.
So serious has this starvation-of-the-streets become in Parramatta that the council is preparing to do battle for the life of the town, and sending its Civic Place master plan proposal onto that ultimate proving ground, the market.
The name Parramatta, anglicised from the local tribe name for it, means head of the river or, more poetically, where the eels lie down. Here, where all at once the water became fresh, the river bridgeable, the soil alluvial and the land arably flat, was an obvious point for settlement. Between 1788 and 1800 the famine years for Sydney town Parramatta provided the colony’s agricultural lifeblood. Its self-importance, as well as its (predominantly convict) population, flourished.
But since then? The past two centuries have not been gentle with Parramatta. From that 18th-century heyday, rivalling Sydney in both size and significance, Parramatta has come to epitomise J.K. Galbraith’s famous “private wealth, public squalor”. Sporadic government attempts to decentralise, or recentralise, by decanting government services there (the latest being Bates Smart McCutcheon’s $120 million police headquarters, in construction) have failed.
Why? Parramatta has a classic image problem, acquired at least in part from its dealings with transport. Transport is glaze-over material. Hard, technical, grey and afflicted with a paradoxical tendency to destroy the city fabric it feeds. But since for cities connectedness equals survival, the challenge is managing road, rail and water to maximise connection and minimise damage.
Church Street, running north-south, is now comparatively civilised. But the major east-west transectors (river, road, rail, in order of establishment) remain primitive. Saddest of all is the river. Sure, tidal flats are seldom enchanting. But while the Snowy and Murray-Darling grab water-restoring headlines, poor old Parramatta River remains clasped in concrete, weired and channelled to near extinction. And despite the council’s $1.4 million Riverside Art Walk, currently under way, there are no plans to restore the river proper to its natural eel-calming glory. This time next decade the clearest Parramatta-by-boat instruction will still be, “Disembark when the river turns to yuck.” In God’s shoes, this is what I’d fix first.
The council, though, sees the death-by-ennui in its streets and, perhaps rightly, regards the surest route to the revival touted in all the plans (50 per cent increase in working population by 2021, and the same in public transport usage) as a seed development on its own, station-side site. Catch is, it doesn’t own all the land and doesn’t have the money.
The Government’s $100 million improvement proposal for the station, turning it into an all-new retail-topped steel-and-glass transport interchange on the Edgecliff model, helps in this regard. It’s a mere ghost of the idea that, a year ago, had super-Brits Norman Foster (with Hassell Architects) and Terry Farrell (with Conybeare Morrison) competing for the design privilege. And just how this international government competition with the $400 million brief got to a shortlist-of-two stage without an official tick on the money box is a tantalising story in itself, which can only further detumesce our already limp reputation in the inter-comp scene.
Still the new station, snagged on the rebound by Hassell (sans Foster) after a high-gloss feasibility study by government architect Chris Johnson, is expected to open late 2006. Buses will not have to go underground like a proper, civilised, shop-bought interchange would. And it will not do much to improve things for pedestrians around Parramatta’s daggy rump, despite a plethora of rats-and-mice retailing. Nor will it, despite Johnson’s favourite allusion, resemble the QVB. But unlike so much of the Government’s ongoing transport fantasy it will, probably, happen.
Civic Place is right next door. The site, bounded by Argyle, Church, George and Smith streets, was originally part of the Wentworth empire. Even now it occupies heritage heartland, with the Town Hall (1883) and Leigh Memorial Church (1885) on site and St John’s Church (1852), Parramatta station (second-earliest, 1855) and the Lancer Barracks (oldest in continuous use, 1820) adjacent on three sides. The rest of the buildings, under 17 landowners including the council, Australia Post, the Uniting Church and Sydney Water are undistinguished.
The council’s proposal, therefore, as drawn up by Johnson, replaces the lot (excepting heritage) with a dozen new buildings of between two and 20 storeys and housing residential, retail or office space sometimes all three around a large central space. The idea is to establish the commercial core that Parramatta never had, pulling enough private investment to fund new council premises (including a library) and a big, sexy public space, so sexy it will ripple regeneration throughout the town.
Good idea. Will it work?
The first problem is technical non-compliance with the Sydney Regional Environment Plan (SREP 28, 1999) in terms of height (some lower, some higher), densities (ditto) and uses since the Property Council of Australia (PCA) contrived a last-minute deletion of city-centre residential from the REP.
However, David Collett, who spearheads the council project, points out that the proposal fully engages the spirit of the REP, which is all about promoting Parramatta City Centre as Sydney’s second CBD and encouraging public transport, while the detail is under amendment.
And in any case, the PCA supports the proposal as Parramatta’s best chance yet.
But this is unlikely to stop the likes of Peter Breen, editor of the tabloid freebie Sydney Business Review, predicting “tomorrow’s slums … sentinels clothed in yesterday’s washing”, or Nicholas Hogg, from Knight Frank Parramatta, arguing that residential development will squeeze out desperately needed offices. Even by Hogg’s calculation, though, there are at least 26 commercially zoned, development-capable sites in Parramatta CBD. And it’s not like there’s a queue of takers.
It is clear, as both Collett and Johnson argue, that city-centre residents encourage retail, enhance safety, increase after-hours vitality and reduce vandalism, news which can only be good for a CBD whose dearth is not of space but of charisma.
And the 35,000 square metres of retail, as proposed? Can it work, so close to the dreaded mother-of-all-Westies which, with roughly the same tenant-number as the rest of Church Street together, commands twice the floorspace, attracts twice the pedestrian flow, and reaps three times the turnover? Well, yes, if retail consultant Brian Haratsis of MacroPlan has done his sums properly. Having identified gaps in Church Street’s retail menu, Haratsis compared small, medium and large retail volumes, concluding that large (the 35,000 sqm, not including 6000 sqm in the interchange) would compete less with the Church Street retailers, increasing its catchment to compete instead with the Shoppingtown.
So the current proposal which could change, of course, according to developer interest offers a supermarket, furniture stores and a multiscreen cinema, given that more than 30 per cent of Sydney’s art-house movie regulars trek in from the west.
This stuff can do Parramatta nothing but good. The time is right, the demographic is changing, the demand is there. Sure, the architecture could be better, warmer, more varied. And sure, there are practical problems ahead, relating to ownership, car-parking and opportunities for staging this $800 million development.
But these are soluble problems; fingers crossed that they are no more than a blip.
Parramatta is our little-sister CBD and, God knows, she could do with a leg up.
MAP: PARRAMATTA RIVERSIDE WALKS.