Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The quality of mercy is likely to be severely strained
Elizabeth Farrelly Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald.
IT’S a belt-and-braces thing. The only reason we need laws and governments is so when governments stumble into delinquency, there’s some chance of keeping our collective pants up. But when the laws are designed to give government a full stretch of the elastic, there’s nothing, when the delinquency hits, ‘tween them and knee-deep do-do.
The St Vincent’s Hospital Caritas property and the Foster’s brewery are two city sites that tell a single planning story. Caritas is Latin for charity, or love, or even mercy. But there’s not a lot of it about in Darlo at the moment, where St Vincent’s is proposing to flog heritage-listed, sandstone district Crown land for a 12-storey development. Not in Chippendale either, where Foster’s is still chasing 40 storeys on its vast Broadway site.
In both cases there are compelling arguments in the affirmative. Each, though, is undone by the fleshy government snout that keeps nudging into the picture. “Conflict?” it snuffles. “What conflict? This is our trough we’re schlurping from.” Government trough, yes, which is our trough, too.
Here’s how it works. The Caritas site adjoins the Darlinghurst cop shop and faces the old jail across Forbes Street. It houses the hospital’s mental health activities, which it wisely proposes to consolidate on the main hospital campus. This is a good, desperately needed thing; should have happened years ago. Caritas, further, is in many ways made for relatively dense housing, and 12 storeys could be fine.
But the deal. Ah, the deal. The Government foots half the $41million for the new psych-hospital. Rather than cough up the rest, though, it offers to rezone Caritas, as Crown land, for private sale. That’s bad, for a start. Plus, it being hospital, no height controls pertain. Only now, with temptation on the table, does the Government get around to sizing what amounts to its own pay-off. It’s irresistible; the higher, the yummier.
Dodgier still is the way Caritas qualifies as a “major project”, so coming under ministerial, not council, jurisdiction. The legal definition stipulates any building exceeding $15 million “for the purpose of providing professional health-care services”. That the new “integrated service cluster” will cost $41 million flips the entire shebang into the minister’s lap; notwithstanding that Caritas is no health-care building but a straight residential rezoning, only indirectly “for the purpose of” (funding) health care. This means any development whose owner gives government money (or even taxes) will qualify for the minister’s conflicted purview, provided the proposal is sufficiently gross.
That’s one murky moral game. And yet,objectors are caught. Since x-fewer floors on the Caritas site means y-fewer beds for St Vincent’s, they end up looking not just nimby-esque but downright, well, uncharitable.
The conflict on the brewery site, meanwhile, though differently flavoured, is comparably piquant. Foster’s argues, rightly, that this is the site for density. Here, in Sydney’s public transport hub (rump might be more apt), people drive six times less than standard Sydney suburbanites. And it’s a brownfield site. Every dwelling here will save perhaps 10 times its own area in needless greenfield sprawl. That’s all true.
Again, however, government determination to duck and weave, to slide through the Part 3A slip lane and to pass off conflict of interest as public interest has generated bitter opposition from usually thoughtful and measured locals.
After years of dispute, a Government-appointed “expert advisory panel” will mould the minister’s decision. This panel, comprising a planning staffer, Chris Johnson, the Landcom deputy chairman, Neil Bird, Lucy Turnbull and an estate agent, Mike Collins, has such respect for public opinion that its interim report went to the minister, and the press, before public submissions even closed.
Further, while Johnson and Bird are in government employ and rhythmicallyappointed to government quasi-boards, their colleagues Turnbull and Collins sit on the Redfern-Waterloo Authority. It’s an arrangement that might be merely cosy, except that the authority – under the same minister – will gain handsomely from maximising the brewery development. Why? Because the minister used the same legal device, Part 3A, to glom CUB artificially to Redfern-Waterloo, thus funnelling its maybe $25 million of affordable housing levy into the cash-strapped authority’s coffers. Calculated as a sliding percentage it gives the minister and his board a direct incentive for massive overdevelopment.
Sure, it’ll mean demolishing the odd heritage item, but maybe that’s cool. Collins also chairs the Heritage Council. It’ll put 15-storey buildings on six-metre-wide laneways (think Melbourne, only five times higher). With an extra 2800 residents and 4800 workers, it’ll more than double Chippendale’s population.
This divides the site’s much-vaunted 5000 sqm park at 0.5 sqm each. Imagine it. Like Christmas at Bondi, only whole a lot drier. And exacerbated by the fact that Foster’s says it’ll sell the site, all 14 blocks of it, in one line. Meaning this last opportunity for a model eco-urban project will become just another satellite of midtown Meritonville.
Both projects are on the boil just when you’d think anyone in the Government’s position would want to keep their pants pulled up nice’n’tight.
PHOTO: Aiming high … the Caritas site. Photo: Paul Miller