Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Open land, but it’s closed discussion
More public debate is needed about a prime Pyrmont site, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
It’s the oldest trick in democracy’s book. Lesson one in the fresher’s guide to democratic governance: cloaking your dagger in transparency.
The principle is simple and although the tricks may take some learning, practice perfects. Until at last just about any government with a term or two of absolute majority under its cape can do the magic pulling from sleeve’s-end development authorities that maximise government profit while seeming to pursue the public good.
Rich comic turf, this, but with serious physical effects. Pyrmont’s Elizabeth Macarthur Bay, the ex-Water Police site that is also the peninsula’s last open-space opportunity, is the latest in a long line of casualties (think Birkenhead, Balmain, Glebe, Pyrmont) or maybe not?
Sydney has never been terribly OK with democracy, in any case. We like the idea, but when the going gets tough democracy is tossed from the knapsack, toot sweet. In the 1950s, for example, under pressure from Harry Seidler and Graham Thorp to lift the lid on skyscrapers, the government hunkered down behind the Height of Buildings Advisory Committee, or HOBAC, a non-elected body that met secretly and published
neither decisions nor reasoning. The city sprouted wildly but no one ever really knew just why or how it happened.
Now, in similar mould, we have the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, or SHFA (pronounced “schiffer”). It was sleeve-ended by the Carr Government in 1998 to “protect and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the foreshore” and, simultaneously, “promote [its] orderly and economic development” (plus whacking the working harbour, as’n’when).
You or I might see a conflict here, might mutter darkly of draculas and bloodbanks. But for SHFA, it’s what conflict, where?
Under a non-elected board chaired by Gerry Gleeson, SHFA scarcely bothers with even the pretence of transparency. And although a quick glance around the last five years’ foreshore development might suggest to a normal person that SHFA have its lips stitched in punishment, the authority was recently rewarded with enhanced powers: a third hat for its none-too-huge
cranium. No longer simply guardian-and-developer in one, dependent for approval on that pesky planning department, SHFA is now its own consent authority, complete with auto-approval. Something most developers can only drool over.
Funny, but the change was perfectly timed for Elizabeth Macarthur Bay (EMB), which has been coloured as a development site since the first (Cox/Lend Lease) masterplan of 1991, so we can’t plead surprise. But after the unholy rate of change on the peninsula over the intervening decade, this one was always likely to wake the hornets. Last thing the Government needed, therefore, was information actual facts, as opposed to “consultation” escaping into the public domain.
So SHFA, which compels staff to “maintain the integrity and security of all corporate information”, was perfect for the job.
Starting in late 2002, a two-stage design competition was held. The brief emphasised the need for “commercially viable solutions to market demand”, and the Government’s expectation of a $30 million return. Declining assistance from the Architects’ Institute, SHFA chose to run the competition in-house, with competitors anonymous throughout. Designs were exhibited, but only locally. With no names, no winners and no take-out copies, there was no story. Public meetings, sure. But no information, no publicity, no debate. Just how we like it.
The locals preferred scheme A ( “Our scheme is about love,” it gushed, “love of the pure uncluttered joy architecture can bring when teased into dance with an intriguing, beguiling landscape.”) Hardly surprising, since as well as the love, and 116 residential units, it proposed a public waterfront pool. What the community wasn’t told, though, was that the intriguing, beguiling foreshore-scape was well outside the brief and essentially unachievable. The Waterways Authority, nominated as a principle stakeholder, hadn’t even been consulted by SHFA. That was February last year.
Stage Two took shortlisted schemes A, B and D still anonymous forward to a second brief. Scheme B won, with 84 apartments in five buildings between three and 13 storeys (despite a nine-storey masterplan limit). Lacking the panache of Philip Cox’s old semicircular bay that so satisfyingly finished Harris Street, it was nevertheless elegant, in a super-chilled retro-chic way. In fact, it looked just like the work of Engelen flavour-of-the-month Moore, designers of those vogue coops, The Grid and The Altair. And so, by golly, it was.
Many locals are convinced still that SHFA favoured Engelen Moore from the start; so convinced they have referred the matter to ICAC, though I say smoke happens without fire all the time, especially where mirrors are involved. Just because the competition was chaired by Greg Robinson, then-SHFA CEO, recently ICAC-ed for murkiness of architectural commissioning all firmly denied is no reason to suspect similar foul play here. No, sir.
Unnecessary, in any case, since within a month SHFA had its own bloodbank. By the throat, so to speak. But there’s nothing like secrecy to get people all het up. Since August, change-fatigued residents have moved from preferring scheme A to preferring no scheme at all; the CFMEU has green-banned the site; the City Council, a minor landowner in the deal, has voiced explicit opposition and commissioned an infrastructure study designed to demonstrate overdevelopment; and the minister has put the whole thing on pause. Just as it was about to go public, too.
So, who’s right? Strategically, and environmentally, the Government is surely right to limit sprawl by densifying the core. And although the rate of change has been enormous, population numbers in Ultimo-Pyrmont are less than half those 1991 projections. Plus Pyrmont is already spoiled for parks, compared with Ultimo, Chippendale, Potts Point, Redfern, Darlo; why, Jacksons Landing alone has dedicated two hectares of public waterfront park, over and above the original requirement. Plus there are all those water views. And while the City Council argues regional significance for the site, justifying the green ban, it is careful not to call the park itself regional, since this would generate traffic and parking requirements just like the development they want to kill. But this means they’re calling on Sydneysiders to forgo $30 million for hospitals and schools in the burbs in favour of yet another park for the lifestylers of Pyrmont. Hmmm. Tricky business, politics.
On the other hand, Michael Leunig is right, too, to argue that beautiful towns and cities, like those of the Ticino, grow slowly, organically over time: while change in Ultimo-Pyrmont has been flat out for a decade. The residents are exhausted, and the place feels raw, unsettled.
And it’s hard to disagree with Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull’s insistence that “foreshore land is not a development bank, but a transgenerational asset. You can’t just treat it like adding an extra room to your cottage in Rosebery.”
Except this principle, as Tom Uren and the boys would have it, would concentrate parkland in the realm of the silvertail shore-dwellers and further deprive the hinterland. Is this right?
Point is, these are public questions. If democracy means anything, these basic value judgements are the ones democracy must be called upon to make. Publicly.
Won’t be, of course. But anyone bemused or bewildered by our leonine leaders’ predilection for preserving the public interest by precluding public knowledge should thank providence that at least SHFA, with its blind mask and occult habits, is both obliged and equipped to
develop our foreshores in an “economic and orderly” manner. Pshaw!
TWO ILLUS: Site of contention .
the ex-Water Police land at Elizabeth Macarthur Bay and, below, the new Water Police building at Balmain East.
Photos: Domino Postiglione