Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Think big but make it exciting
All right fine. I eat muesli. Worse, I like it. I also ride a bike and walk a lot. In fact the only habit on Paul Keating’s to-loathe list that I don’t have is sandal-wearing – and only because I prefer thongs. Then again, maybe if Paul got a bit more fibre and a lot more exercise, he wouldn’t behave quite so much like an ageing monarch.
Last week’s little spat between Keating and the Planning Minister, Brad Hazzard, was mysterious, at the time. Was “sandal-wearing, muesli-chewing, bike-riding pedestrians” really the best invective Keating could summon? Was he unwell?
And why was this long-chain insult aimed not at Hazzard, as new Barangaroo boss and natural political foe, but at Clover Moore, who, having spat her own Barangaroo dummy months back, was already grazing well outside the tent?
None of it made sense, especially since all Clover had done was table an 11,000-signature petition to generate parliamentary debate. I mean, so what, actually? It’s not like Parliament has jurisdiction here. Even if it did, even if Parliament could pass a Barangaroo Act that miraculously rewrought the last decade, has anything in NSW, ever, been improved by parliamentary debate?
And in any case, Clover’s petition attacked one end of the development – the bristling Lend Lease towers on Barangaroo South – while Keating’s baby was the faux-natural headland at the far, other end of the site.
Now, though, we see the real puppet play, or at least its real shadows. The government has presumably received legal advice that the rabble’s next Barangaroo court case, scheduled to open on Monday, won’t be as easily foiled as the last (which fell foul – oops! – of a lightning-quick change of law). In inviting the parties to parlay, Hazzard is hoping to look nice while pre-empting the huge compensation liability of having its approvals found invalid.
Approvals? Barangaroo now boasts a line of them, longer than the longest string of Keating-type invective.
The latest batch was issued on March 9 in a sudden pre-poll convulsion. Intended to proof Barangaroo against post-electoral unravelling (much as Keating himself moved to hemstitch East Circular Quay before the 1993 election) the March batch included Keating’s headland, Lend Lease’s first commercial building and assorted remediations and excavations.
Those are pretty serious commitments. But in truth, the die was already cast. The two most significant Barangaroo approvals are the original Concept Plan (February 9, 2007) and its (fourth) amendment, December 19, 2010. The ’07 approval, almost three years before Lend Lease was appointed in December 2009, gave 388,300 square metres of floor space. The amendment raised it by 26 per cent, afforded by a number of height increases, the largest of which took a 112-metre block up to 209 metres (still significantly lower than many Sydney buildings).
The court case turns on whether these increases were significant enough to have warranted a separate development application, rather than an amendment.
If so, the approvals may be found to be invalid, and Lend Lease would be entitled to claim compensation.
But that, of course, isn’t what would happen. More probably, Lend Lease would rebadge last year’s three-volume amendment application and resubmit it as a new application, possibly with further increases. Then the government, always mindful of the compensation bogy, would approve it.
So Australians for Sustainable Development versus Minister 2 still turns on a legal technicality and still amounts to a delaying tactic at best.
In the first court case, Australians for Sustainable Development alleged failure to document a remediation strategy and were very cross at being tricked out of their win.
Equally disingenuous, though, was the case itself, which pretended to be about sustainability when its real driver – and the only common ground between the opposition – was the belief that the proposed buildings are, simply, too big. This new litigation is the same.
But what, in this downtown heart of our nearest approximation to a global city, could “too big” possibly mean? The government has made many mistakes, but the worst is committing to a given bulk and so relinquishing all real control over design. Why waste this god-given opportunity to remedy this on making the buildings smaller, when we could make them wild world-leaders, more like the initial plan of Richard Rogers?
By all means return the overseas passenger terminal to Barangaroo. White Bay could not be stupider as a place to dump thousands of lost tourists. But don’t tell me Barangaroo should be a village. By all means argue for mind-blowing architecture on Barangaroo, but don’t tell me people in Balmain shouldn’t have to look at towers. That’s just plain silly.
Cities are economic entities. That’s their primary raison d’etre, but not their only one. High-density downtowns – Manhattan, say – are demonstrably and emphatically the greenest way of accommodating humans at work and play. They reduce energy, save infrastructure, combat sprawl, protect heritage and, at their best, intensify culture, weaving it into the stuff of dreams.
We have the skills. Right here in Surry Hills are LAVA, the competition-winning designers of a 60-storey ecotower in Abu Dhabi and the city-centre for Masdar, the world’s first zero-carbon, waste-free town.
Masdar has rooftop agriculture, underground water reservoirs, building facades that shift with the sun, total waste recycling and driverless, personal transport pods.
A hundred years ago, New York’s height-of-buildings debate produced the design code that gave us the Chrysler Building and the Empire State. The exact same debate here produced nothing but a half-century ban that left us all the more vulnerable to slash-and-burn modernism when it came.
Now, the same determination to snatch mediocrity from the
jaws of excellence is driving our most significant development
Barangaroo’s problem is not that it’s too big, but that it’s too boring. The site demands Opera House-type audacity. If Australians for Sustainable Development were true to their name they would stop snipping our tall poppies and nurture them instead, if only to harvest their seeds for the dreamtime.
Now’s their chance.
ILLUSTRATION: EDD ARAGON