Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
No smell and no character in a plasticised fish market
A unique piece of Sydney will look like any other foreshore development if the masterplan goes ahead, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
There is a man who slices human cadavers then shrink-wraps the exposed sections in clear polymer sheeting before exhibiting them to a vast, mesmerised public. Plastination, he calls it. Preserving the visuals with no threat of smell, taste or texture above all, no decay it looks the part, it makes money. And now it’s happening to Sydney: Balmain, Redfern, Kings Cross . . . and the Sydney Fish Market.
The draft fish market masterplan, now on the minister’s desk, focuses first on being “commercially viable to the interests of SHFA [Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority] and the SFMPL [Sydney Fish Market Pty Ltd].” Drearily familiar, huh. But wait up. The SFMPL is a business, pure and simple; but the SHFA is government. Government as in public sector (remember?).
Public, and then again, not public. Meeting and deciding in secret, with no requirement to publicise its decisions (the fish market plan is available only as a 5.6Mb PDF eat that), the SHFA is planner, consent authority, landowner and developer in one. Now that’s creative.
So creative, in fact, that the SHFA is now the subject of a special upper house inquiry, charged with scrutinising its management, motives, methodologies and “potential conflicts of interest in . . . commercial relationships”. Meantime, though, the SHFA has fingers everywhere Balmain, White Bay, Luna Park, the Pyrmont water police site, Redfern Technology Park (no, really Redfern is so very foreshore these days) and now it owns the fish market site outright, too. Be afraid.
So, trick question: when is a maximum not a maximum? Answer: when it is set by the SHFA, especially on its own land. The previous rules for the site set a height limit of 21 metres (seven storeys) above ground and a car-parking limit of 425 spaces. The proposed masterplan balloons those parameters to 35 metres (12 storeys) and 993 car spaces.
Otherwise, the plan is broadly as you’d expect. Retail (twice the existing area of shops, cafes, restaurants) flanks the waterfront, with auction rooms behind. An 18-metre “view corridor” links Bank Street to an ungenerous harbourfront “square” and a narrow (10-metre) water’s-edge boardwalk. The five-storey car park flanks the Western Distributor and there’s an office tower on the Wattle Street intersection. This is what the proponents describe as a “gateway” to Pyrmont, notwithstanding that gates usually offer both symmetry and welcome, neither of which is especially discernible here.
You might argue that’s all absolutely fine. That a retail business needs car parking and that the fish market, with its 2 million annual customers, most of whom drive, needs more than most. That a business has a right to make money, and a landholder a right to develop. This is Sydney, after all, where any waterfront property owner knows the daily exchange rate between height and dollars.
Or you could see it slightly differently. You could note that parking demand in a global city is essentially limitless, that this is already a bottleneck intersection with two light rail stops within spitting distance. You might remember this is government land, recall all those eloquent environmental promises and the guff about improved foreshore access, and wonder. You could listen to the Premier’s “design-excellence” rhetoric, and ask the obvious in-principle question. Why wouldn’t the Government see this as an opportunity for a model development?
Why shouldn’t the fish-buying hordes hop on the tram isn’t that why we bent over backwards to encourage the thing, donating public land to private enterprise specifically so that poor old traffic-sodden Pyrmont could be spared further pollution? Isn’t that why all those Better Cities millions were thrown at it? You do remember that? And now that the entire peninsula has been overdeveloped to buggery and everyone (but especially the Government) has made a killing out of it, isn’t this an ideal location, and an ideal moment, to show us all how architecture, environmentalism and genuine eco-tourism can work together and still rake it in after all?
Because it would work, commercially. Sydney is a city of surprises, thank goodness, but one of the biggest is the extraordinary absence of places to grab a quick fish and chips, or a decent latte, by the water. There’s the odd haute-eatery, of course, and the occasional blade of grass. But in between the extremes is a remarkable dearth. Doyles, the Boy Charlton Pool and Rose Bay marina are about it in the coffee department. The fish market ought to be a perfect fourth option but isn’t because it’s always full which is especially surprising in view of the other reason, the smell.
Smell figures prominently in the draft masterplan. Officially, it goes like this. The seagulls drag rotting fish carcasses from the bins, and out onto the asphalt, whence the juices can’t be hosed off (into the harbour) for environmental reasons and so become irretrievably baked into the asphalt before the next rains. Hence the smell necessitating better servicing systems, enclosed waste areas and, oh yes, massive commercial development.
But it isn’t just fish. From Lisbon to Terengganu, fish markets smell like fish. A fish market that didn’t smell like fish now that would be a worry. No, the truly up-yer-nose ingredient in Sydney Fish Market’s signature aroma is chlorine, used to sterilise both the prawns and the premises. And it’s that especially putrid animal-mineral mix the fish-rot and the chlorine that’s meant to kill it that makes Sunday breakfast at the fish market such a deeply disappointing experience.
So the answer is not to enclose more space, or use more chlorine. If it’s the tourism market that is sought, the key is to make the experience more, not less, real; more particular and idiosyncratic. More intensively the authentic fish market experience. To some extent, this is the working harbour dilemma in microcosm: how to make the place explorable, accessible and irresistible without sanitising it to living death. Without plastinating it into Darling Harbourdom.
The new plan recognises the need for an enhanced sense of realness at the fish market, and attempts to sustain the visibility of its working parts while improving efficiency, amenity and smell.
It even seems to understand, in a general sort of way, that tourists themselves like to see life-in-the-real, not behind plastic. And the Waterways Authority’s plan for a marine precinct on the adjoining Blackwattle Bay site could assist in this regard. But realness goes vague when pitted against immediate commercial yield.
There is little chance that a large commercial precinct along the back half of the site will do anything other than detract from both the market and the street.
A couple of years and the fish market will feel just like a bit of King Street Wharf has broken off and floated around into Blackwattle Bay. But the Government is just so-o-o tempted to believe in having and eating that cake. Maybe it’s not the fish market but the SHFA itself which needs plastination to kill the ooey smell.
ILLUS: Soon to be sanitised, if plans are approved .
the Sydney Fish Market on Blackwattle Bay.
Photo: Domino Postiglione