Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Lost: another opportunity for excitement
Elizabeth Farrelly; Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning, architecture and aesthetic issues for the Herald.
GOVERNMENT is like shampoo. You have to use it, but the less you can get away with, the healthier. What’s worse than one shampoo, therefore, is two. The Carlton and United Brewery site on Broadway offers a fine exemplar of this maxim: the only thing more ruinous than one level of government is two.
Developers don’t see it. They think that using the state to undermine a firm-minded council will add shine and volume. Indeed, the new planning act is designed to nurture such silliness. But when the game turns to state-on-local gel wrestling, it’s bad for everyone.
We don’t like local government. Don’t like it, don’t trust it. This is how we’re meant to feel. Local government in Australia did not evolve from the grassroots but was state-made to be underpowered, overexposed and abuse-ready. Once again, CUB shows the bruises, and its ordeal continues.
CUB is a big site. At six hectares, it’ll set a precedent for the city’s south. And yet, after years of competitions, threats, wrangling and coercion, there’s still no plan, no controls, no proposed scheme. Instead, there’s a possible legal challenge, a site that can’t be valued, an offhand pretence at consultation and some disgruntled locals.
Foster’s Group, as the site owner, has a right to develop. And Broadway is an obvious location for city expansion. But the five-year process is a case study in how political posturing, chest thumping and general acting out can destroy what little public trust remains in democratic city-making. Worse, it looks like yet another lost opportunity for excitement; yet another triumph of expedience over imagination.
It’s a long and honourable line, this one: Canberra, the Opera House. Then there’s the empty headdress atop 126 Phillip Street, designed to house an urban, air-cycling rainforest until it was gutted by the developer. And the fabulous opportunity for audacity at east Darling Harbour – all lost under the dead hand of narrowness, bureaucracy and fear. Now it’s CUB.
In 1997 the council – under the then lord mayor Frank Sartor – exempted the site from its city plan. When, in 2003, it finally started thinking about controls, under the then lord mayor Lucy Turnbull, development pressure was already on, in the form of Australand’s Brendan Crotty and a $203 million option to purchase.
The controls were supposed to emerge from a competition, overseen by a subcommittee of the Central Sydney Planning Committee that included Turnbull and the then government architect, Chris Johnson. The brief, though, perched a lowish, 15-storey height limit atop a relatively high residential height-to-floorspace density of five to one. It was a fairy riding a mammoth, headed for trouble.
And trouble it found. The competition demonstrated no more than the incompatibility of the controls: the only way to build 30 hectares of floorspace (or a density of five to one) and keep any amenity at all is with towers. Big ones. Australand made blithe noises but in March 2004, when Clover Moore took the mayoralty, Crotty took a walk.
Within months Sartor, now the Minister for Science, Energy, Cancer and the Arts, drove the Redfern-Waterloo Authority Bill through Parliament, creating an unfunded authority and nominating CUB as a source of developer levies. Never mind that the CUB site isn’t in Redfern-Waterloo. Or that neither Redfern-Waterloo nor Planning was in the minister’s portfolio at the time.
The threat to the council was clear. Shape up, or else.
For two years the council and Foster’s negotiated beneath this dangling sword. Negotiating controls with a developer is like debating bedtime with a toddler when what they need is limits. Still, by the end of 2005, a plan was drafted.
Then the catch. Sartor, now the Planning Minister, refused permission to publish the plan until developer contributions were also agreed. Foster’s wouldn’t do this – naturally – without knowing its levy to the Redfern-Waterloo Authority, which Sartor wasn’t telling.
So the council was screwed. On June 21, Sartor formally declared the site a major project, making himself the consent authority and the Redfern-Waterloo Authority sole beneficiary of its substantial levies. Hardly unpremeditated, the move was gazetted the same day. Sartor appointed an expert panel including Johnson, now a departmental staffer, and two members of the Redfern-Waterloo Authority board, Turnbull and Mike Collins.
The panel held one – one – public meeting, which scared the pants off locals with a gaggle of 36-storey towers. Then sent its recommendations to the minister before public responses even closed.
Why so eager? CUB levies could amount to $30 million, giving the Redfern-Waterloo Authority a direct incentive to maximise development. Meanwhile, the council, on legal advice, queries whether the minister needs reasons, rather than whim, to declare a project “major”. Arguably, though, he has reasons. About 30 million of them.
But from the public side, reason pushes the other way. Chippendale residents, having spent time and passion on lengthy submissions, rightly feel insulted by a farcical process. More enduringly, they fear the product.
So consider this. Many argue that density is an enemy of nature; especially of permaculture, in which we all grow our own, clean food. But imagine if the CUB development, rather than another dollar-munching mediocrity, became an exemplar of what Tom Kvan, Dean of Architecture at the University of Sydney, calls “naturbia”, or the linear city. Imagine if every built surface were explorable, traversable, climbable or fertile. Imagine a world-famous eco hood at CUB. It’s do-able. Just plant the seeds, and add courage.
Course it won’t happen. Government will see to that. Which goes to our initial premise: government may be necessary, but too much ruins your bounce.
TWO PHOTOS: Potential … the brewery site on Broadway. Photo: Marco Del Grande