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planning 15

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 26-Apr-2006

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 928

Clash of the titans? More like a muddy ruck and mall

Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on planning and architecture issues for the Herald.

‘DISTANCED by vast oceans from the rest of the developed world, as devoid of culture as of history, Australia’s sole method of establishing a global identity,” wrote The Spectator’s Matthew Norman recently, “is winning at sport.” Transcend the envy, ignore the grammar. What Norman wasn’t seeing (and could hardly be expected to, from so vast a height) is that what we have here is virtual culture.

Culture is humanity’s way of dealing with nature. What nature fails to provide, we naturally invent. It’s a creative approach and mostly it’s in the naming. Thus we have “mountains” (Blue, Black, Snowy) the size of ant hills; mighty “rivers” (the Namoi, the Castlereagh) that seldom see water, much less movement; towns that are little more than disused stockyards and winters that never get past short sleeves. Terra nullius may be the look but, in fact, this is a continent teeming with nomenclature.

Cities, too. In Sydney, for instance, “heritage” means “may be replaced with a plaque then demolished”; a “tour” of Busby’s Bore, Sydney’s second underground water supply, involves staring at patches of Centennial Park asphalt trying to imagine what was once under it (this is why it’s called “bore”); our public “squares” (Whitlam, Taylor, Oxford) are really traffic roundabouts and our “places” (Martin) are half-baked road closures. The culture may be virtual, but the creative naming is 100 per cent genuine. It’s fun and, by golly, it’s cheap.

Pitt Street Mall is an instance, which is what makes it so Australian. It may look like a pedestrian mall during the lunch-hour retail frenzy, but it’s a road. Thirty years on and it has never been legally closed. Which is why, if you stray there hoping for an early coffee (as if it were a real city square), you’ll find the mall doing a fair imitation of a suburban parking lot.

This is the basis of the stoush, Westfield versus David Jones and others, over redeveloping Centrepoint. Even here, virtuality is at work. It may look like a battle of titans, rattling the earth itself in its heroic clash of weaponry. In fact, it’s just a sad little squabble on muddy moral ground over money, territory and self-interest.

“The saga of the Centrepoint site,” said the Planning Minister, Frank Sartor, in State Parliament last month, shears poised to prune council’s planning powers, “is interminable.” Snip. And it’s true. The Centrepoint saga is one of Icelandic proportions. Not, however, through council obstruction or incompetence. Indeed, successive city councils’ efforts to remove mall traffic into a shared-access tunnel have been undone by their powerlessness to curb private pettiness.

Westfield bought Centrepoint during the post-Olympic euphoria. It has been trying to revamp it ever since: lodging an application in 2003 to build first three, then two residential towers; withdrawing it; expanding the site (by adding the Imperial Arcade and Skygarden); then, in December last year, lodging the present scheme for a single commercial tower, a seven-level retail podium, a refurbished Tax Office building and underground space for 258 vehicles.

What’s not in the package, embarrassingly, is a driveway. And it’s here the saga reaches back to 1986, when the Glasshouse development was approved – with the so-called “Condition 56” requiring it to provide “right-of-way to the ‘Imperial Arcade’ site and the ‘Centrepoint’ site … in perpetuity, except with the consent of the council”.

It was council’s attempt to clear the mall of traffic and it sounds simple enough. In the event, though, Glasshouse’s owner, Perpetual Trustees, contested the condition in court, and won. Westfield will appeal but, meanwhile, has lodged the development proposal, sans driveway.

That’s weird enough. But consider this. The main formal objection to Westfield’s Centrepoint proposal comes, at great length and with QCs drawn, not from Glasshouse’s latest owner, Stockland (which still opposes the condition, despite having sold the Imperial Arcade to Westfield), but from David Jones, a major Westfield tenant and umbilically linked, you recall, to the Imperial and Centrepoint arcades.

DJs’ inch-thick objection is diverse, intricate and technical; so close an approximation, in fact, to a wild ambit claim as to obscure the real motive. The arguments cover size, views, equity, access, traffic, design excellence (uh, excuse me?), urban grain and disruption, to name a few. DJs points out there are problems with through-site links and that Westfield should have held a design competition to improve the proposed no-name Bondi Junction look.

Its foremost objection, though, is that Westfield should have had Stockland’s consent before lodgment. Thing is though, why does it care?

Could be altruism. Could be public interest. Could even be aesthetics. In the end, though, whatever the question, the answer is quite simple: money. In the long term, as DJs’ report notes, so vast a retail-core investment can only benefit the city, DJs in particular. And it is a city, remember, not a nature reserve; buildings must be built. But access is essential, and construction is messy, so negotiations are under way and, eventually, money will change hands. Access will materialise, objections will melt and the posturing will finally end.

How much money? Somewhere, presumably, between DJs’ $105 million estimate of disruption costs and what it’s fed its QCs over the years. And what does it prove, all this sound and fury? Simply this. We may, in this far-flung continent, be satisfied with virtual culture but when it comes to dollars, we like ’em hard, fast and real.


PHOTO: Photo: Robert Pearce


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