Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Ride of a lifetime
ARCHITECTURE & DESIGN
The changing face of Luna Park is no laughing matter, writes ELIZABETH FARRELLY.
Why is Luna Park laughing? You might think it’s the sheer joy of amusing people. But look again. That’s no smile of innocent pleasure, but the hysterical laughter of regrettable knowledge.
There are several noirish jokes circulating around the harbour these days that might explain the grim hysteria. Take, for example, the irony of a right-wing Federal Government proposing small, heritage-conscious, enviro-sensitive uses across its harbour territories, from Cockatoo Island to Middle Head, while the supposedly left-wing State Government raps to the tune of the highest bidder.
Or it could be irresistible hilarity at the contrast between the State Government’s working-harbour rhetoric and its determination to ensure that this comprises nothing but cafes and cruise ships. But the most likely explanation for the Luna Park face’s hysteria lies hidden in the park itself – in the way this worthy use of the old bridge construction site, this fillip for North Sydney, this 1990s heritage crusade, has morphed into a free-for-all for one of the ALP’s most energetic donors.
It’s quite a story, combining the secretiveness of the Cross City Tunnel deal with the anti-democratism of the terrorism laws. The Government’s Luna Park manoeuvres have been attacked by the Greens, the Independents, the Christian Democrats and the Law Society. They revolve around Luna Park’s northern tip (behind Coney Island), the noise issue and the relentless drive for commercialism, masked as public interest.
During the 1990s, the Liberal government tried and failed to get Luna Park operating again. The incoming Carr government, also having resolved to raise Luna Park from the ashes, eventually produced the Luna Park Site (Amendment) Act 1997, broadening allowable uses to include commercial ones, and a Plan of Management in 1998. This plan corralled all scream-generating thrill-rides within the central area, left the northern tip as open space, heritage-listed five clifftop trees and promised compliance with noise limits of 65 decibels.
Expressions of interest in 1999 produced a winning tenderer, Metro-Edgley, whose master plan showed the northern tip as an innocuous children’s playground. Residents were reassured, with some of them checking the plans and interrogating Metro-Edgley before buying nearby apartments.
Over the next three years a half-dozen developments were approved; first by North Sydney Council, then, when the council demurred over car parking, the Planning Minister. Until late 2002, though, all plans and approvals retained the northern tip as a playground and imposed a limit of 65 decibels on noise from buildings. There was no noise limit on external activity, but all thrill rides remained in the main precinct, buffered by the cliff. Plus, there were legal operating hours, as in any neighbourhood, ensuring at least some sleep was possible.
Then, in late 2002, Multiplex bought Metro-Edgley. Everything started to change. Several peppercorn leases were granted by the Government. The first two gave Multiplex the Milsons Landing cliff site and the car park site, each for 99 years, each for $1. The resulting buildings – a 500-space car park and a $45 million strata-titled office building – are now yielding nicely. Then a third 99-year lease, also clifftop, was leased to Multiplex while a fourth, 40-year lease gave the boardwalk to Luna Park Sydney, a Multiplex-controlled company, again for $1.
Thus, for virtually nothing, Multiplex acquired not just the foreshore, but three commercial waterfront sites for 99 years. The Government’s rationale is that these favours were essential to ensure the future of the park. But there is no evidence of any obligation, in fact, for Multiplex to tip any of that revenue back into the amusement park, and no penalty should the amusement park accidentally die, leaving Multiplex’s five commercial buildings intact. This beneficence came from the Government that has recently increased peppercorn rentals for community groups all over the state to market value, so that the Country Women’s Association, for instance, must now pay $13,000 a year for use of the Bellingen church hall. Still, the association probably didn’t give the ALP $204,000 in 2002-03. Plus they don’t have Premier Morris Iemma’s mate from the Richo days, David Tierney, as on-site project manager, as Luna Park does.
When contacted, Planning Minister Frank Sartor’s office referred us to Tourism Minister Sandra Nori, whose spokesman denied any special relationship regarding Luna Park between the Government and Multiplex. Tierney’s office at Multiplex referred us to Peter Hearne, managing director of Luna Park Sydney, who also denied any special relationship between the two bodies.
Luna Park Sydney must pay 5 per cent of its revenue as property rental and heritage funding to the Government’s Luna Park Reserve Trust, which is chaired and serviced by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. Last financial year, this 5 per cent rental came to $1.14 million, implying a Luna Park revenue of about $23 million. But what did the trust do? It paid $1.15 million back to Luna Park Sydney, for heritage and infrastructure works. Not only that, but the trust also accepted a further $4.6 million debt for future payment.
And yet, as Sartor said last month in approving another two clifftop buildings (most of the listed trees up there have been chainsawed by Multiplex after emergency permission was granted during a storm) and a five-cinema complex for the site, all these special benefits – development consents, commercial buildings, free public land, $5 million subsidies – are necessary “to ensure that Luna Park remains viable at no cost to the taxpayer”.
Of course, car parks and function centres occupy space. To fit them in, Luna Park Sydney has shoved two major thrill-rides (Ranger and Octopus) onto the northern tip. Two more arrive each school holidays, and yet more will follow as the cinema complex takes further fun park space.
This, in breaching all those early plans and promises, and sending intolerable noise into living rooms day and night, upset the residents. They prepared court action. Then, over one week in October, the Government legislated away their right to appeal.
You might not think this is a big problem. Luna Park residents are not a favourite lobby group after their successful court action against the Big Dipper in the 1990s. But consider this. If it happens here, it can happen anywhere. You complain, you have your right to complain removed by law.
The Luna Park Site Amendment (Noise Control) Act 2005 flew through both houses days before Supreme Court action over nuisance noise. It imposes a maximum noise level of 85 decibels. (Decibels are an exponential measure, so that’s four times the previous 65-decibel limit: about the level of someone yelling in anger a metre from your face; equal to the aircraft noise that forced the Federal Government to declare all those houses at Tempe uninhabitable.) There are no time limits and the 85 decibels can be exceeded to infinity – for 10 per cent of any 15-minute period. “The emission of noise from the Luna Park site,” says the act, “does not constitute a public or private nuisance.” There are no rights of appeal.
And that’s what makes Luna Park laugh. To keep from crying.
PHOTO: ROBERT PEARCE