Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The reality behind the Redfern plan: a boon for the big end of town
Elizabeth Farrelly Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architectural and planning issues for the Herald. Her column will appear on Wednesdays.
‘JOBS, jobs, jobs,” boomed the minister. “This plan is about jobs and opportunity, opportunity and jobs, jobs and opportunity.” The only job on offer at this particular sun-baked news conference was a consummate snow job. It was a small, select news conference, with a handful of the hand-picked standing around in the sun waiting for the Minister, who was a half-hour late taking up his spot in the shade.
But that was OK. This was news conference redefined; news conference as closely kept secret, with potential dissenters filtered out beforehand and the select grateful just to be there.
Where ministerial staffers brusquely hush anyone tedious enough to ask hard questions (“Quiet there. This is a press conference.”) and the local MP, blonde and stiletto-heeled, bobs in the background like the Minister’s nodding dog, should anyone query his veracity.
It’s a new kind of language, too, where, for instance, the much-abused “sustainable” has come full circle to mean something like comfortable, or acceptable, or expedient.
Last year the Redfern Waterloo Minister, Frank Sartor, said the Aboriginal Housing Company’s plan to rebuild its original 62 houses on The Block (which it owns, freehold) was “not sustainable”. No reason given. This year he insists that the big issue for The Block is “self-sustainability”, which entails replacing virtually all its housing with commercial development.
For the locals, this is the opposite of sustainability. If The Block is no longer a living community, it won’t matter how many government-endorsed indigenous cultural centres you build there, it’ll still be just another faked-up bit of white-flight conscience-salve.
It’s a David v Goliath scene, really, set up in last year’s Metropolitan Strategy with its “global economic corridor” arcing from the airport, through the central business district to Chatswood and Macquarie Park, with Redfern slap-bang in the middle.
Now, globalism may taste and smell like cultural puree, but it has its defenders, even now. And annexing Redfern to the CBD might make an abstract kind of sense – except for two minor technicalities. One, office vacancy rates are still high throughout the global arc, even without the huge influx to come from both East Darling Harbour and Parramatta, so, as the former city planner Councillor John McInerney notes, “there is no real argument for office space at Redfern”.
Still less palatable, though, is the calculated removal of the city’s oldest continuous Aboriginal population from its own land. This is technicality No. 2: The Block. Right in the centre of Redfern, a veritable fly in the global ointment, sits The Block. Recognising this, and recalling the international eyebrows raised by the Minister’s last move on Redfern, when the attempt to de-black The Block made the pages of Britain’s Guardian, this plan is quite as dastardly, but much, much more Machiavellian, hoisting the indigenous owners on their own economic petard.
Here’s how it’s done. Make a plan that appears to affect only government property. Into it slip a piece of private land – The Block – but call it, innocuously, Eveleigh Street. Couch the plan in abstractions like heights, zonings and floor-space ratios so no one will get it anyway. Then devise a mechanism for so dramatically increasing the value of “Eveleigh Street”, all the while sterilising it for residential development, that the incumbents will be more or less forced to sell – if not voluntarily, then by internal community pressure.
That way a government can zone its own land high and loose, flog it, rake in the cash, then simply wait for the Aboriginal community to unstitch itself while insisting that it was entirely self-determined.
The plan proposes about 18,000 new jobs in a clutch of five 18-storey towers, and 2000 new dwellings – no more than 30 of them on Aboriginal land. This halves the 62 houses proposed in the Aboriginal Housing Company’s long-planned Pemulwuy Project, intended to provide genuine self-determination and affordable home ownership for its people plus an array of performance, cultural and commercial centres around a central “Red Square”.
“We’ve made dozens of efforts to consult with the Aboriginal Housing Company,” said the Minister. “I even had a coffee with [Aboriginal elder] Mick Mundine, I think about last November,” (the Minister was no doubt referring to the close relationship that followed his elegant “black arse” invitation in September) without actually inviting the housing company, mere landowners, to the launch.
Mundine’s view was less personal: “The … zoning changes dash any hopes,” he said, “for affordable home ownership for Aboriginal families on The Block.”.
The new plan halved The Block’s residential capacity but near-trebled its commercial yield. It also raised heights, changed zonings from residential mixed-use to commercial mixed-use, and rendered the blanket heritage listing null and void. Theeffect is to explode the land value and shift its highest and best use immediately to commercial. Jobs, like the man said, and opportunity.
But opportunity for whom? Well, for locals, obviously. The Minister assured his audience that developers would be required to provide “a certain percentage of the employment on the site for local people”. This is nothing more than blackwash, of course. Unachievable, unenforceable.
Still, the Minister was pleased. “I think we’ve done pretty well,” he said. Nod, nod, went the blonde, right on cue.