Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Getting off the road to nowhere
Too many cars, too little space. Elizabeth Farrelly looks at the future for our busiest thoroughfare.
Le Corbusier’s “we must kill the street” rant of 1924 wasn’t anti-car. Au contraire. Speed was of the essence; the entire New World was predicated on it. No, the architect’s spleen was directed against all the traffic-fuddling paraphernalia pedestrians, shopping, parking, cross-streets (read, human life) that stop street being simply road and turn it into place. It isn’t just speed, either. Street is to road as room is to corridor. Roads are about getting there, streets about being there.
The problem for Parramatta Road in common with many of its arterial colleagues is one of identity. Is it Parramatta Road? Or is it Camperdown-Ashfield-Auburn High Street?
Simple, you say. As the main link between Sydney’s main CBDs, Parramatta Road has too much traffic in too little space. Kill the parking, permanent clearways both sides, traffic flows faster, problem solved. But there’s the rub. Because in killing parking, you kill retail; chambers of commerce are not happy. Problem just beginning. Not only that, but five minutes later the widened road is once again full to capacity; problem worse.
The dilemma is this: the high-speed arterial acts as both umbilical and garrotte in the city, strangling the very flesh it feeds. It is the paradox at the core of the Parramatta Road project, started by the Inner Metropolitan Regional Organisation of Councils (IMROC) in the early 1990s and now absorbed into the fathomless DIPNR (Craig Knowles’ uber-Department of Infrastructure, Planning, Natural Resources and everything). An international design competition held by IMROC in 2001 was won by SydneyCentral, a consortium of seven Sydney design firms including the architects Choi Ropiha and the landscape designers McGregor and Partners.
The winning scheme was engaging and energetic, a little unrealistic in parts, but then visions are unrealistic. That’s their job. SydneyCentral was commissioned to produce a master plan for the road. It submitted a draft, then a redraft, then was summarily sacked not by IMROC, but by the then DUAP (Department of Urban Affairs and Planning). That was in September 2002. Now, 18 months on, it is still awaiting a response and its initial prize money. “Doing nothing is not an option,” was the master plan’s core refrain; now SydneyCentral must be wondering whether that wasn’t just a tad optimistic.
Sandwiched between river and railway, Parramatta Road is Sydney’s oldest highway and, even now, its main organising device. The earliest Euro-track, following Koori footsteps, was cut within the first year of colony. In 1802 it was described by the French naturalist Francois Peron thus: “A charming freshness always prevails in this continuous bower, the silence of which is interrupted only by the singing and chirping of the richly plumed parroquet and other birds which inhabit it.”
Now, carrying up to 87,000 vehicles a day in some stretches, the road is one of the busiest, grubbiest and noisiest in the country, exceeding the decibel limit for speech intelligibility along much of its length and for much of the day and exhibiting, in consequence, rampant retail blight. Not nice and, with traffic volumes currently growing at 3 per cent a year, not getting nicer.
The SydneyCentral scheme was idealistic, being wholly dependent on the government building an alternative traffic artery (be it tunnel, open-cut or motorway). It was ironic, in that to liberate the road as a public transport corridor trams at grade, metro-rail under it needed yet more investment in Sydney’s vast road net. And it was optimistic, driven by the idea that the road’s dominant dynamics namely infinite traffic demand and relentless pressure towards so-called “ribbon-development” could become positives, not negatives, in public amenity terms.
How? Well, tax, in a word. The argument goes like this. If Sydney is acquiring 50,000 people a year adding two Canberras a decade consolidation is essential. The best place for it is along transport corridors, of which Parramatta Road is the prime candidate. This will happen anyway, but if we Sydney are smart, we can guide the development so as to recoup private profit for public benefit, and maximise environmental health. If we fail either to control the development or to capture a piece of its value, the moment will go and never return.
Plausible so far? SydneyCentral’s master plan worked up three sections of the road as demonstration sites: in the east, a square-based Smart Sector at Camperdown; in the centre, a major wetlands area at Powells Creek, Concord; and at the Church Street intersection, Parramatta, a clone of Sauerbruch and Hutton’s contemporary art museum, “M21A”.
In between, a central tramline runs the entire 23-kilometre length of the road above a tree-watering retention basin and an underground metro line. North-south tram branches link in suburban centres such as Lidcombe and Auburn, while the metro-rail diverts to collect in its embrace the lost and grieving Olympic Park. Development up to a Parisian eight storeys (two-thirds residential, one-third commercial) hugely enhances pedestrian flows, creating an environment in which street and retail and life flourish.
So what are we waiting for? Money what else? And a little political will. Or, rarer still, political courage. The two essential precursors to any Parramatta Road improvement are completion of the M4 East (this side of Strathfield) and capturing value through some form of betterment tax. The two are symbiotic. The M4 option eats money, but might generate political courage; the betterment tax generates money, but devours courage. And yet . . . can it be true? The Government is proposing both. Both, together.
Is it serious? Strategically, of course, the M4 East has to happen some time. But then so does straightening out the Pacific Highway and no one’s proposing that. Still, in unveiling its Metropolitan Planning Strategy the other week, the Government enunciated the three obvious options: a subterranean tunnel (expensive to build, easy on the eye, likely furore over stacks), an Eastern Distributor-type open-cut (cheaper construction, significant property costs, voter unrest), and an on-ground freeway (lowest construction costs but high on ugliness, noise and voter unrest).
They also talked about the tax. But not in so many words. What Knowles actually said was: “in simple terms this means that the developer pays for the benefit of a massive value boost as a consequence of rezoning . . . instead of pursuing super-profits, developers may have to settle for just substantial profits . . . the public interest will come first.”
Call it incentive zoning, call it section 94, call it capturing value, call it betterment tax. Same thing in the end, which is the establishment of a direct link between development allowed and moneys paid.
That way, everything from public transport to sustainability to public parks and wetlands can be funded from a tax revenue estimated by SydneyCentral at $4 billion.
Will it happen? Probably not. Tradition is against it, for one thing. Governor Phillip talked of wide, gracious streets downtown, but didn’t actually make them. The Cumberland council planned a green belt, post-World War II, but the minister flogged the land for housing before it could be implemented. Since then, Sydney planning has learned to follow development, rather than lead it, clutching meekly at the coat-tails of events as they happen. Providing roads, sewers, development capacity as required, rather than actually directing anything. It’s ineffectual, yes. But it’s safe.
Of course this Government could be different. Action is still a possibility, although after 10 years you’d think it would have made plans by now, if it was going to. It even had the numbers to make them stick. Even now, it hasn’t actually announced a metropolitan plan, so much as a plan to have plan, some time. Maybe later.
But the downside of making plans is you have to think more than four years out. Commit, even. The sad truth of it is, doing nothing is not just an option, but Sydney’s all-time option of choice.
ILLUS: Lack of road-sense .
Parramatta Road is the city’s umbilical cord and garrotte.
Photo: Peter Morris