Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Point of contention
The battle to redevelop Centrepoint pits privilege against privilege, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
YOU know how life sometimes bowls you a real googly just when you don’t need it, but afterwards it all seems to have been unpredictably for the best? Well, that’s what the Centrepoint imbroglio may yet prove to be for Sydney. But right now it’s doing a very plausible impression of Cyclone Grace in a latte glass. A cyclone, moreover, that’s spinning a whole new meaning into the term “class war”.
The fuss may be major but the issues are really quite smallish. Nothing is being demolished, after all, or built on, or over, or even seriously obscured. Centrepoint (aka AMP, Westfield or Sydney Tower) may be Australia’s tallest, but it’s a long way from the best, and in any case the additions are less than half its height. The proponents may be the moneyed classes, as ever, but and this is where it gets interesting so are the objectors. They’re serious too, even though at first glance they may seem to be pulling the public leg. And it’s all happening at a time of mayoral change. A classic test case.
The proposal is simple but the objections complex (heritage, views, height, floor space, disruption, setbacks, wind, traffic) and the ironies sweet.
Centrepoint is a Sydney icon. Not for its beauty (Darling, the anodising!) and not for the symbolism, since there is none, but for its elegant stringy structure and its inordinate height which, at 300 metres, sets Sydney’s legal limit.
Completed in 1981, Centrepoint was a 1968 design from the architect Donald Crone and, perhaps more significantly, engineer Alexander Wargon, of Wargon Chapman Associates. One of only 14 cable-stayed towers in the world, and the sole Australian example, it is probably after the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House Sydney’s most postcarded edifice. But it’s no Eiffel Tower, and has no formal heritage status.
The icon sits, financially as well as physically, on a base of mixed office space (including the tax office, on Market Street), convention centre (on Castlereagh Street) and dog-tired retail. Actually it’s all pretty tired, but the retail, designed on 1960s cram-it-in principles that backfired every time, is positively somnambulant.
Retail lives on pedestrian flow and dies, traditionally, on change-of-level. But modernism was, of course, immune to tradition. At Centrepoint, as at the Hilton and Mid City arcades, the desire was to sustain not just one but a number of retail levels by sloping the floors and linking to every possible thing department stores, other arcades, streets. The result was a plan like some sort of malformed neural ganglion, synapses in all directions, and a retail centre that was never really more than a thoroughfare.
Centrepoint was acquired by Westfield after its starring role in the 2000 Olympic Games (and let us thank, in passing, whoever snipped the dreaded wire athletes from their perch). Now, recognising abject exhaustion, Westfield wants to refurbish. The neighbours should be thrilled. But no.
The first proposal, in February 2003, placed three new residential slab-blocks around the tower proper, revamped the retail podium and tarted up the existing pedestrian links into surrounding stores, doubling their height. There was also talk of a parking tunnel from King Street under Pitt Street Mall, with it a long-standing council wish to end the mall’s proliferation of service vans and trucks.
But there were objectors, significant in kind if not quantum. By December 2003, after discussions with council, the proposal had shrunk to two higher residential slabs, roughly 42 storeys on Castlereagh and 35 on Pitt. The pedestrian-bridge improvements had vanished, as had the parking tunnel.
The first is a shame, the second a minor catastrophe, since Pitt Street Mall, one of the few street closures ever to be tolerable, let alone bustling, cannot be totally closed to vehicles while adjoining properties need it for access.
This new proposal complied with the city rules in virtually all respects. Height: tick. Uses: tick. Heritage: tick. Car-parking: tick. Overshadowing: tick (there is some new shadow on Hyde Park, but not until after the specified midwinter lunchtime slot). Floor-space: well, probably (there is a slight sleight in not counting the 5500 square metre underground supermarket, but even so the result sits well within the 14:1 limit). Setbacks: well, no, not on Pitt Street Mall.
This is the only significant non-compliance. A 15-metre setback is required on the mall, but the proposal averages only 10 metres. (Westfield argues this as a “technical” non-compliance, since the proposal adds no lunchtime shadow, and argues that compliance would narrow the floor plate beyond use.)
Still, the objections did not go away. They became, if anything, worse; louder, though still perfectly formed.
The criticisms were many, if often spurious, covering heritage listings that should exist (but don’t), views of Centrepoint Tower that might be partly obscured (but mostly won’t), traffic jams that might eventuate (well, yes, and . . . ?), and some vague idea of injuring the “public interest” by building near the heritage-listed Myer building though it was quite happy with its own massive erection, now the objectors’ nest.
Of the entire array, two points have some probable validity: the setback question, even though there’s no new shadow; and the partial obscuring, from some close-in viewpoints, not of the tower’s head, but of its strings.
Mainly, though, the criticisms point to who their authors are, and where they sit. Location, location, location.
Before the Olympics, when the streets were in chaos from the city’s stone-paving program, AMP was a vociferous complainant especially after one George Trumbull strutted from his front door, Centrepoint on Market, into a pothole left by some tactless
lackey. Nice irony, then, that by far the purple-lettered objections to its own development proposal (albeit Westfield now, not AMP) relate not to the proposal itself but to disruption during construction. Fellow retailers like David Jones fear it, as do the rich and powerful denizens of the Tower Apartments, led by Macquarie Bank’s Bill Moss.
For the past decade or more, the council has been hell-bent on encouraging downtown residential. The reasoning is sound: residents enliven cities after dark, care for the streets and promote vibrancy, diversity and pedestrian friendliness. All good stuff for CBDs.
Some, like the Property Council (then BOMA), argued all along that parts of the city should be quarantined, keeping the inevitable conflicts over noise, view and general amenity south of Market Street. But the lord mayor wasn’t in a listening mood ever, arguably. And although by then the residential boom was clearly underway and scarcely needed nurturing, the 1996 City Plan wadded fat incentives onto it. Especially downtown.
So, surprise. We have a CBD now dotted with rich people’s towers, replete with suburban expectations and suburban nimbyism. In a city, every building causes chaos during construction. The bigger the city, the greater the disruption. But privileged persons paying exorbitantly to live as well as work downtown do not find it reasonable that their sleeping or waking hours or both should be disturbed by Kango hammers. A not exactly unforeseeable problem, wouldn’t you say?
So for the new lord mayor, and for the city, this will be a test case. Clover Moore has promised that complying development will be approved, no problem. But she has also said this particular proposal “should not have been allowed up the Town Hall steps”.
Still, unless Moore is prepared to rely on the relatively minor setback issue (and risk it in the courts), she can’t refuse the proposal without rezoning and can’t rezone without ministerial approval. In any case, the Central Sydney Planning Committee, which has jurisdiction, is chaired by Moore but controlled by the State Government.
A pretty pass. Fully braced for the usual post-gerrymander struggle between well-heeled city business and the dug-in heels of the south’s residents, Moore will confront first-up this pitting of privilege against itself, consultants drawn at 50 paces. Good sport, I say. May the best vowels win.
ILLUS: Photo: Sahlan Hayes