Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
A buried bone that would bring handsome rewards
‘If I hear any more talk of a train to Bondi I’ll throw up,” said the young laptop-latte cycle-nerd to his dreadlocked companion, possibly female (gender distinction being so passe). He did not look old enough to remember the last Bondi-train bubble, much less the one before, or the one before that. Yet that was his reasoning. Not that a Bondi train is a bad idea. Just that you start to gag on the lies.
I feel the same about the “reclaim the city” rhetoric swilling about like mouthwash. What life form do they think the city now has? Armadillos? Cybermonkeys? Of the 300,000 city workers a little more than half drive, but even they – perhaps even the Lexus drivers – are still approximately human.
The reason for our childless city streets is that we no longer, as a culture, let the kids roam unleashed (this, no doubt, for the safety of unsuspecting tourists). The reason pedestrians feel underprivileged downtown is that they cannot have more space or crossing time without it stuffing up the traffic even more – without, that is, proper public transport. The reason Sydney will never be Copenhagen is that Sydney has form. Half a century ago Sydney could not wait to shed its Euro-style skin and explode into its new self, a 50-storey American-style CBD. The reason no one will ever demolish the Cahill Expressway is: what politician will donate the price of a new hospital for a civic welcome mat, however enchanting, with little economic upside and a launch-ribbon the enemy will probably get to slash?
Paul Keating offered a dollar-for-dollar $100 million in 1993 to put the dreaded Cahill underground. John Fahey told him to shove it. Nothing about the political dynamic has changed since. Which only gives perennial life to the feelgood rhetoric, and perennial five-figure consultancies to anyone prepared to keep saying it, every change of mayor.
The Cahill, or “Joe’s Road”, is not the only item on the interment list. Jan Gehl also wants to put the Western Distributor underground. You can see why. I’ve argued that way myself. But, like the Cahill, it is never going to happen because aerial roads occupy no real estate so can never fund their own burial.
But there is one little Sydney bone that would reward the burying, if bury we must. This interment, by decompressing the CBD, would probably give legs to some of Gehl’s projects (like closing George Street) that might otherwise stumble on legless. It is this: underground Central.
Yuval Fogelson is a young urban designer who, having lived and worked in Israel, Germany and the Netherlands has recently completed a Masters in Urban Design at Sydney. His “Making Central Central” project won him this year’s Planning Institute of Australia (NSW Division) student award. His argument is this:
Sydney has always been asymmetrical, with Parramatta flung out to one side like a pronounced scoliosis. But in public transport terms Central is still the centre, the point at which buses, trains, trams and major roads meet. However, within the pattern of inner-city activity Central has become more blockage than conduit. Literally, like the cemetery that previously occupied the site, the city’s dead centre.
It is a huge piece of land, about the size of the vast Barangaroo site, without the water but with the kind of connectivity that sends Barangaroo to Homebush. It’s as well as the (not) coming together of four city street grids; the main city grid with the Eddy Avenue, western CBD and Ultimo-Pyrmont grids. But in the middle of all this, hole-in-the-heart, sits Central.
It is an example of what Rem Koolhaas, now regarded as the world’s most influential architect, once called bigness. Only here it is exacerbated by the way the elevated concourse of the 1906 main building insists that incoming trains and trams have on-ground or viaduct access. This extends its massive blockage-effect north past Belmore Park and south to Cleveland Street. All up, two major north-south streets (George and Pitt) and nine or 10 east-west streets are blocked or broken.
Fogelson’s plan keeps the old building but puts all trains underground. This single gesture would allow Central Station to blossom, restoring a centrality more like Town Hall (or Leicester Square). Fogelson’s 60-page design report shows about 20 street-access points for the underground stations, a handful of new parks and dozens of new development sites. That is where the money comes from, as well as the amenity.
But perhaps most importantly, the torn street-pattern is patched and healed. At this point – and it is simultaneous or not at all – street closures are feasible, just as Park Street should have been closed when the Cross City Tunnel opened (but could not be, in equity, because of the toll).
So don’t even think about the Bondi train. Who is going to foot the real estate bill? Gehl’s points are reasonable, if a little tedious. It is reasonable to want comfort. But it is rather, well, deckchairs. Think Titanic.