Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Certainty is less than a guarantee
Clover Moore now oversees a project she has opposed for years, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Tricky game, planning. Especially in Sydney, where developers set their own rules, then vary them; so-called masterplans change with the wind and the market; “public benefits” morph, slip and mysteriously vanish; foes become allies, opposing principles become supportive and your pet political irritant can become your very own political boss.
For the politicians involved, heartfelt opposition can become helpless, hands-tied entrapment.
Scare the bejeebers out of you.
When Clover Moore and her team were pitched into Town Hall in March, they inherited three development nightmares; all big, complex and in progress, and all vehemently opposed by Clover Moore, member for Bligh. These were Westfield’s Centrepoint, Australand’s Carlton brewery site and St Margaret’s in Bourke Street. Of the three, St Margaret’s is probably the smallest but, although one half is virtually built and the other indefinitely deferred, it could become the stickiest: a case study, in fact, in the bejeebers factor.
This time last year Moore was engaged in full-scale epistolary hostilities with the council – South Sydney, as it was then – over its old-fashioned deal-doing approach to urban design, with particular reference to this site. Now it looks like she might be forced to wear it.
How could this happen? Especially to a Lord Mayor so known for her adherence to principle that every developer in town is quaking at the trough?
It’s like this. Planning-by-deal – or incentive zoning – has a long and not-too-respectable history. In essence, it trades floorspace for perceived public benefit, which sounds reasonable, except that the “benefits” are usually things – such as public open space – which developers should provide anyway, and which just as often fail to materialise. Lo! No park. No pedestrian way. No library. Sorry, typist’s error.
Incentive zoning is now known to transform any set of clear rules into a loose fondue of stretchy, sticky stuff made of cooked-up lunch culture, obligation and return favours; a short, steep skid from outright intellectual slimeballery. Now internationally discredited, incentive zoning is still practised by some Sydney councils, including the late, great South Sydney. Moore has opposed it vehemently for years. Still does. Her first council meeting resolved explicitly to take a “strict and careful” approach to “core planning controls” such as height and floor space ratio, especially in the old South Sydney area.
Meanwhile, for Michael Whittaker, the former general manager of South Sydney, the past few months must have been an extended “beam me up, Scotty”. The strange confluence of events that first merged councils and then put Moore on the mayoral throne shifted him from the receiving end of her letter barrage – long, technical, persuasive but still supplicant – to staff member; staff member in charge, for a while, of this particular project. She, meantime, morphed from ratbag irritant (I’m guessing here) to god almighty. Uncomfortable, yes?
For Moore, though, it’s worse. The revised masterplan which she repeatedly urged Whittaker and his council to reject (since it more than tripled development quotas on the St Margaret’s East site), was approved anyway. Now inherited by the City of Sydney, it may bind the Central Sydney Planning Committee (which chairs but does not control) to approve the development she has so strenuously opposed. Ugly.
It started in the late 1990s when the Sisters of St Joseph, wanting to sell the former hospital site, were required by South Sydney Council to prepare a “masterplan” to increase “certainty”. Thing about certainty, though: it isn’t certain.
The St Margaret’s West Masterplan recommended keeping only the old sanatorium-style public hospital with its curved-glass sunrooms, and the circular Ken Woolley chapel. It proposed a mixed-use zoning and a large central public space, linked to surrounding laneways. Its 20-metre height maximum was less than half that of the old buildings (but still bigger than the neighbours) and then only along Bourke Street, while its density (or floorspace ration) matched the existing 2:1. The land was sold on that basis.
Within months, Zone Developments (a combination of Rommark Corporation, owned by Michael Teplitsky and Boris Markovsky, with Isador Magid) had bought the site and persuaded South Sydney Council to approve a new masterplan, showing floorspace ratios of 3.25:1 and heights up to 55 metres – almost three times the original, and several storeys higher even than the old hospital buildings – and were holding a design competition. So much for certainty.
Zone’s argument focused on precedent, as set by the old hospital buildings (although it removed the entire benefit of a neighbourhood hospital) and public benefit; the central open space, public art and a community library in the basement. The first two have eventuated, although they weren’t exactly extra, but the library turned out to be one of those public benefits the public doesn’t want. More significantly, the public-benefit increment was supposed to max out at 0.25:1, not 1.25:1 as claimed by Zone. That’s a 7000-square metre freebie of saleable space. Not a bad windfall.
The competition produced a shotgun consortium of PTW and SJB architects. Old and tried with young and groovy. Their strategies are sound (openness to the street, ground-level retail, connections to laneways, public art) and their architecture engaging, if huge-ish. The Woolley chapel, designed in 1957 when Woolley (the brass plaque tells us) was “an exceptionally talented 22-year old trainee” in the government architect’s office, looks better than ever. Sensitively renovated by Sam Marshall, it makes an ideal home for the Crafts Council’s Object Gallery – assuming anyone makes it up the stairs.
The marketing strategy is a bit weird, but then weirdness is so in these days. Even the hugeness can be justified, in eco-terms, since cramming floorspace into the city centre is absolutely where it’s at, as far as air, water, transport and culture generation are concerned.
The library issue remains, though, and the basement sits empty. Will the council take up the empty basement offer? “No, absolutely not,” says Moore.
The bigger issues are stickier still. The St Margaret’s East site, involving the two blocks directly across Bourke Street (excluding the Wesley Mission) was bought by Zone, and subjected to a second masterplan process. The plan which, again, tripled heights and floorspace (from 15 to 53 metres and from 1.5:1 to 4.5:1) was opposed by Moore but approved by council, this time on the basis of precedent from St Margaret’s West, itself achieved for a public benefit that is slender indeed.
Now Moore has inherited not just the staff (and two councillors) who supported it, but the masterplan itself which, being developer-led, cannot be rescinded. A development application has been lodged, and although Zone says it won’t proceed, it hasn’t withdrawn it; the council must determine it, knowing that once approved, it too is cannot be down-zoned.
The Central Sydney Planning Committee will make this decision for the council and it, like the South Sydney council that approved the rest, is ALP-dominated. So Moore can either vote for a proposal she has vehemently opposed for years, or vote against it and hope her committee colleagues roll her; if they do, she looks weak, but if they don’t, the courts are likely to approve the development application on appeal. Maybe they’ll all go floppy and leave it to the courts. Moore sees this as a “real test” for the planning committee; you could argue it’s just as much a test for the Mayor.
PHOTO: Stairway to heaven … the gallery in the old St Margaret’s site in Surry Hills. Photo: by Natalie Boog