Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Only so many ways to pack them in
A competition over a city site has thrown up alarmingly similar designs, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
In cities, density is king of beasts. Talk all you will of design excellence, sustainability . . . blah, blah. In the end everything comes down to rats per cage, cages per slot, slots per lab.
When Australand’s Brendan Crotty bid $203 million last year for the old Kent/Carlton Brewery site on Broadway, he made the offer conditional. On what, he’s not saying, but you can bet your sharp white teeth it was a numbers thing. Usually measured as floor area per site area (or floor space ratio, FSR), density translates directly into yield. Dollars. So while it may not exactly stiffen your tail as a dinner topic, density is of the essence in the city-making game.
And there’s no getting past it: density-as-planned on the brewery site (now renamed Balfour Park after some low-rent soapie) is high. High for residential, very high for Sydney, way, way too high for the urban village rhetoric that shrouds it even if it’s Village comma Greenwich. Too high, period? Well, that depends on what kind of design we eventually get, and what kind of city south we eventually want.
Crotty is relaxed. You would be too, with nothing to lose and every opportunity to oblige the system to your wishes. “Fortunately we have the rest of Australia to play in,” he says. If they don’t get their way, “we’d just shrug our shoulders and move on . . . ” You might call it playground-protocol. He calls it professionalism. I can’t see why he wouldn’t just reduce the offer, develop accordingly and lie back for the fruit to fall.
He’s just as relaxed on the design front. Crotty is not on the jury but he has “no doubt” that a design competition will produce the best solution, especially “if you take the best elements of each [to] end up a best-of-the-best amalgam”. Which wouldn’t suit the Institute of Architects very well, protective as they are of design integrity, but in this case mightn’t make much difference to the product. The brewery site may cry out for a gutsy, imaginative, city-end plan, but what it’s got from this exercise is five design schemes that are reasonably interesting, probably over-developed and virtually identical. Premature architecture.
It’s a long story. When the brewery came to the site, some 168 years ago, Broadway pretty much ended the known world. Now, along with Prince Alfred Park, the bus depot and Central Station, the brewery’s 5.7 walled hectares have become a major clot in the city’s vital flow, with big institutions like UTS, SIT and the ABC on one face, tiny-terrace-land on the other.
For years, although the massive site was keenly eyed by the development fraternity, it was under-scrutinised and underplanned at an official level, its controls embarrassingly inept. So the brewery’s departure, when it came, was always likely to generate a modicum of mayhem for the city, the neighbours and just about every developer in town. Yet on they slept.
Only when Fosters finally left, and Australand got the gig, did the State Government’s Central Sydney Planning Committee (CSPC) wake up to the fact that its planning controls were internally contradictory (with an FSR max of 5:1 and a 45-metre height
limit that made it unachievable), and that the controls were big incentives to residential use a decade after this had stopped being a good idea.
Moments like these, a wee vision thing is called for. The CSPC, caught shortish, did what committees do when they need ideas in a hurry: hold a competition. Not an ideas competition, which might have done the trick (with developer’s money on the table and expectant breath down the civic neck, who’s got the time for ideas, excuse me) but a design excellence competition, which was kind of silly really, since the design excellence competitions are meant, obviously, to generate excellence in design. Not masterplans.
The invited architects were known as designers: Melbourne’s ARM (of National Museum of Australia fame); Bates Smart, designers of the award-winning barracks building on Moore Park Road; Cox Richardson with Alexander Tzannes; Hassell (Olympic Park station) and Richard Francis-Jones (UNSW’s Scientia building).
And there are the tell-tale signatures: ARM’s hammerhead towers in lurid soap-bubble hues with undulating shade structure; Francis-Jones’s sinuous-continuous facade as primary ordering device; Bates Smart’s sensible-shoes office-park look; and the Tzannes-Cox combo’s mix of intelligent restraint and picturesque charm. Beyond that, though, and despite the brief’s explicit invitation to submit a “non-complying” scheme, within limits, of course the proposals are alarmingly obedient, and alarmingly similar.
All show a 70-30 mix of residential-to-commercial, most of it in two and three-bed apartments. All smash the previous 45-metre height limit with two or three 100-metre towers (just marginally lower than UTS’s) on the north-east part of the site. All offer a fairly large central park, plus one or two other pocket parks. All talk heroically of water recycling and energy efficiency (Crotty being Green Building Council chairman) and all cram the site to within an inch of its life with an array of four-, eight- and 12-storey buildings, surrounding the towers and interspersed with gridded streets and trees. Why? Because it’s what’s in the brief.
And an excellent brief it is, in many ways. Minutely researched by the architect Philip Thalis and intelligently analytical, it provides so much detail, down to the placement of towers and “preferred location of roads”, that the architects had little more to do than just add water. And on the whole, it is unexceptionable except for the density thing. Overall density is pegged at a massive 4.5:1 and height limits set by the UTS tower across the road.
How did such planning controls come about, so far uptown? Well, by accident really, true Sydney fashion. The CSPC’s 1996 City Plan put a 3:1 control on the site for commercial development. Then, although residential was already booming and blind Freddie could see this was a God-given site for it, the committee offered a whopping 5:1 for residential. The Thalis brief couldn’t reduce this, since “never downzone” is Sydney’s sole planning principle, so it required a 30 per cent admixture of office/retail space, shrinking the effective total to 4.4:1.
The heights story is just as ad hoc, drawing on the same principle. Loathed and reviled it may be, but the UTS tower is there (unlike the old power station chimneys that form the basis even now for Pyrmont heights) and precedent is precedent. Planning can only ever go up.
Comic process, though, may not lead to catastrophic product. And it certainly is arguable, on the environmental front, that all green fingers (shrinking planet, air quality, biodiversity, transport, energy use and so on) point to higher density living as a clear future imperative. Arguable that this site, sitting virtually atop the megalopolitan transport hub, is ripe nay, perfect for a green exemplar.
And sure, all the schemes pay lip service to green ideals. On the other hand, most show large grass areas (grass being definitely not green) and all have more than one car per unit. The Cox-Tzannes proposal is the stand-out winner in the green scene, calculating a 75 per cent reduction in stormwater run-off to the harbour, 83 per cent reduction in sewage overflow to Blackwattle and 50 per cent reduction in potable water use. If the CSIRO is right, and we are a mere seven years in on a 40-year drought, this stuff should be the deciding factor.
But virtue is all very well: in a market, people vote with their dollars, and if high-density living is going to happen, really happen, in this town, it’ll also need to be desirable. At this point you have to wonder whether an FSR of 4.4:1 (which becomes more like 6:1 taking its inclusion of road-space into account) is something Sydneysiders are really ready for. Even the nominal 4.4:1 puts something like 4500 humans on site not counting the 30 per cent commercial space. Extrapolated, it gives 78,000 residents per square km: not Singapore, quite, but easily into Manhattan densities.
It’s a new adventure for Sydney, and one that’s potentially exciting. However excellent the design, though, you’d want to like your neighbour a lot.
ILLUS: Change in the cityscape .
a view past the Australia Hotel, above left, and one looking west from Broadway, from one of the entrants’ designs for the old Carlton Brewery site; and the site now, left.
Photo below: Marco Del Grande