Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Subsection: The Culture
Under lock and key
Australand says the city’s strict development rules all but barricaded it out of the CUB site, but the reality is more complex, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Ain’t that just like a boy? Let everyone slag off the Lord Mayor as anti-development then, soon as it starts to seem a popular stance, fall in behind like an eager puppy. Pant, pant, woof, been here all the time.
The Premier, Bob Carr’s support for Clover Moore’s ruthless and unrepentant fairness regarding the Carlton & United brewery site on Broadway is as touching as it is unexpected. The 5.7-hectare site always had a shaggy dog kind of look, speaking of canines – and there was that change of city government, although this, as you will see, is probably little more than a handy excuse.
“It’s got absolutely zip to do with the apartment market,” said Australand’s Brendan Crotty, having trashed his $203 million option on the site. Crotty blames “delay and uncertainty” for his decision to walk, and the City of Sydney Council’s supposedly unreasonable planning constraints – restricted car parking, requirements for child care, open space etc. But it’s a leaky old story. The delay has been principally Australand’s, with the council sitting on its hands for more than a year while Australand laboured over its promised conservation management plan, unavailable even now. As for uncertainty, Australand’s disgruntlement seems to be more about the opposite, namely Clover’s insistence on not bending the rules to suit.
Back under the old regime, when city development rules behaved like bits of old knicker-elastic, Crotty sounded positively relaxed. “We’re happy with the process,” he said in late 2003. “I have no doubt that a design competition will produce the best solution. If you have three first-class architects, and take the best elements of all three, you’ll end up with a best-of-the-best amalgam.” That was then, despite the contradictory limits on the site, (a 5:1 floor-space ratio versus a 15-storey height maximum) and the propensity of Sydney competition winners to flout such rules in any case. Hardly what you’d call a model of certainty.
So you’d have to say Clover’s explanation is the more plausible. That is, Australand’s walk-out owes more to a pre-planned market-downtown exit-strategy than any cruel or unusual planning discipline. And what of the Premier’s uncharacteristic support, just when it seemed he had the perfect excuse for flicking the site over to his new Redfern-Waterloo development as part of its airport-to-CBD gentri-push?
Well, he could hardly do anything else, for one thing, after his very public anti-ugly drive. Then there’s the fact that unbendiness of rule is precisely his Government’s defence of choice in the continuing Orange Grove comedy. Of course, he’s reading the mood of the moment: “I think,” said Carr on air, “[that] the public wants to have very tight design and heritage and planning and environmental guidelines applied to the development sector. There was too much shoddy, lousy development thrown up in the past without those guidelines, and the industry should be mature enough to work with the regulations.”
Even more to the point, though, is this. The entire planning and consent process for the brewery site has actually been government-controlled, managed as it is by the Central Sydney Planning Committee. The committee undertakes all strategic planning in the city and makes all consent decisions over $50 million; despite a majority of government appointees, its decisions – get this – are legally council’s. Handy, since it means the Lord Mayor, as chairwoman, can be rolled any time and still legally wears the decision. But it also means Government criticism of the brewery-site process would blow straight back home to Government.
While Carr, in puppy-behind-the-throne mode, exhorted councils “not to change the goalposts”, his Government continued its practice of talking green while making distinctly brown decisions. Promising natural gas buses then canning them; promising rail but delivering roads; promising a metropolitan plan – indeed, tossing the entire planning system into disarray for that purpose – and delivering, uh, press releases. The latest of which tells us not even to expect a metro strategy, after all this palaver; just dribs and drabs – a road here, a press release there. Maybe even a whole set, stapled together and called policy.
Same goes for the long-promised freight strategy. In anticipation of which the Government refuses to make any decision on the proposed road-rail freight interchange at Ingleburn – then tells the ports expansion inquiry that no such strategy will actually eventuate.
Hmph, you might shrug. What’s new? Well the admission is new. The public recognition that producing plans is not something the vast Department of Planning, Infrastructure and Natural Resources can be expected to do. No planning. No infrastructure. And on the natural resources front, you’d have to say, they had help.
Still, the do-nothingness of it all sits comfortably with the department’s age-old proclivity for planning after the event. Indeed it’s a disease that’s starting to look infectious, if the city’s long-awaited city pools strategy is anything to go by. While the strategy itself, or Draft Aquatic Leisure Study, is still weeks or maybe months from publication, three of the city’s four existing pools are already in the throes of makeover madness. Victoria Park is having a total-refit mode (months of mud and mess to produce a new pump, boilers and filtration system, and toddlers’ pool); contracts have been let on the proposed Seidler-designed, wave-roofed Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre in Ultimo, completion late ’06; and Prince Alfred Park is having the protracted community-workshop treatment. The question? To move or not to move the pool – out of the way, onto the tennis courts. But at least, it seems, the best pool in town (personal view) will stay.
Back in the bad days, when the council was trying to close the pool by stealth because none of the users lived in the city area, public meetings were secret affairs, and you had to register before being told the venue. That’s one way of keeping the ratbags out. At least the current council’s public meetings are actually public, unlike previously; and at least they actually act, unlike the Government. Consensus on Prince Alfred is unclear, except that people want it open-air, unyuppified and open year-round. Seems good to me.
Over at Glebe, a further controversy is cooking that should test the Government’s tram-shed-destruction policy, as noted in recent weeks (Tempe, Cremorne and now Harold Park) and the planning committee’s resolve. The NSW Harness Racing Club bought the Maxwell Road site for a dollar some years ago from – yep – the Government. Now they want to replace the heritage-listed sheds, on land zoned open-space reserve, with 122 apartments and 222 car spaces. I’d say apply the brewery-site restrictions without fear or favour – half a car space per flat – but the worry for the planning committee is legal advice: that rejecting the proposal, on that particular zoning, could render them (the council, that is, not the committee ) liable for compensation. Icky business.
If all that hasn’t depressed you enough as to even the possibility of serious decision-making in this town, cop this. In 2002 Sydney Airport was sold by the Federal Government to Southern Cross Airports Corporation Holdings (aka Macquarie Bank) on a 99-year lease. Macquarie Bank, being what they are, want to develop; tripling passenger numbers and adding a small CBD’s worth of office space with 8000 cars. This amounts to a serious Edge City proposal – with the potential to destroy Green Square and the recovering downtown commercial market for years to come. But the site, being federal land, is exempt from all planning control. So even if the state were decision-capable, it’d be helpless to act. It’s exactly the loophole that lobbed the Horizon into two-storeyed Darlinghurst.
In an exact analogy of playground bully syndrome, the state undermines the city and is undermined in turn by the feds. No wonder they can’t take planning Sydney seriously.
PHOTO: The chains will stay on, for now, at the Carlton & United brewery site on Broadway – but it might be a different story in Glebe. Photo: Peter Rae