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Issue #1650      August 6, 2014

Another monstrous development threatens Sydney Harbour

The NSW conservative coalition government has announced plans to redevelop 20 hectares of government-owned harbour foreshore land around Blackwattle Bay, Wentworth Park, Rozelle and White Bay west of the city centre.

The vast, brooding White Bay Power Station, which dominates White Bay and Rozelle Bay, is disused, but has wonderful potential for other purposes.

The scheme, known as the Bays Urban Renewal Program (BURP, for short!) was developed by the Urban Growth Agency, a government-run organisation established to “address the barriers to private sector investment in development projects in NSW”.

Parts of the area, including the Sydney Fish Markets on the eastern side of Blackwattle Bay, are still being productively used. In the vintage ship repair yards on the northern shore of Rozelle Bay many early vessels have been repaired or refitted, including the steam pilot ship the John Oxley.

The vast, brooding White Bay Power Station, which dominates White Bay and Rozelle Bay, is disused, but has wonderful potential for other purposes.

According to the Fairfax media, the Blackwattle Bay and Wentworth Park area would be used for a “fresh food marketplace, mixed development” and “potential Fishmarket development”, and the Rozelle Bay area for “mixed development, residential focus, community use pool, harbour walkways” and “lightrail connectivity”.

The scheme would “transform [the Power Station] into a cultural landmark” and “connect [the] water [and] rail yards”, which would be used for “mixed use residential, links to existing parks and harbour foreshore”. The White Bay area and Glebe Island (actually a peninsular between White Bay and Rozelle Bay) would be dedicated to port uses.

However, the results of the government’s approach to developing prime publicly-owned harbour sites can be seen in its appalling decision to forcibly eject Millers Point tenants from homes which some families have occupied since the early 19th century and sell them to wealthy buyers, and also in the grossly excessive and inappropriate development of Barangaroo.

A development battle site

The BURP area is included in the 94-hectare “Bays Precinct” of waterfront land that stretches along several bays from Darling Harbour west of the Harbour Bridge. In 1997 the then state Labor government reserved the Precinct for recreation and port uses and banned construction of apartments and hotels there.

In 2011 the government pressured the managers of the colourful Sydney Fish Market to redevelop their site, but they resisted fiercely and the government backed off. In 2012 an inquiry into the Precinct concluded that: “publicly-owned foreshore lands and harbour waters [should] be retained in public ownership”.

The Urban Task Force, a developer lobby group, has pressured the government to release White Bay and Glebe Island for maximum 60 storey residential and commercial development. The group enthusiastically welcomed the government decision regarding the BURP scheme, declaring that it should include high and medium rise apartments and offices.

The government asserted it would allow some maritime industries to remain, but didn’t say which, and indicated that others would be relocated, but didn’t say where.

The Power Station has been used in recent years for guided tours, but otherwise has remained unoccupied. The government hasn’t explained what sort of “cultural landmark” would occupy the Station, or even whether it would be preserved.

The government has proudly pointed out that the BURP area is four times bigger than Barangaroo, the former stevedoring area on the eastern side of Darling Harbour. But Barangaroo is now being shockingly overdeveloped, with gambling magnate James Packer pressuring the government to agree to his obscene proposal to construct a 270 metre high hotel/casino there.

Development of the BURP area would set a precedent for overturning the Bays Precinct development constraints. Like Barangaroo, the BURP project would doubtless be classified as “state-significant”, i.e. not subject to normal local government controls, and with the government directly responsible for development consent.

The end result for the BURP area would almost certainly be the same as for Barangaroo.

A case for redevelopment

Massive housing complexes with tiny apartments are now being constructed in some inner city suburbs of Sydney. Rising council rates and the high cost of living are forcing ordinary working people out of the older harbour suburbs, which are being cleared and redeveloped for luxury apartments in high or medium density buildings. The stock of public housing is rapidly diminishing.

Redevelopment of the BURP area is certainly justifiable, but not as dictated by the government, which is clearly acting at the behest of big property developers.

The principal use of the area should be for recreation and cultural purposes. The foreshores should be opened up as public parks with walkways that connect with the existing “Bay run” paths west of the BURP area.

The existing uses, including the boat repair yards and the fish market, should remain and should be supported. Their character contributes to the area’s unique sense of place and is highly evocative of its history.

The former guided tours of the Power Station were fascinating and drew big crowds. The Station’s built fabric and remnant equipment must be preserved.

Given its historic and technical significance, and given that human industrial history is at a crucial turning point, an appropriate use for the Station would be as a museum to interpret the history of energy generation, including the development of renewable energy in response to climate change.

The 1997 ban on construction of apartments and hotels in the Bay precinct should remain. There is some opportunity for residential development, but this must include public housing. Dwellings should only be built at the predominantly small scale of those in Rozelle, Lilyfield and Glebe and should not intrude on the foreshores.

But such an approach would certainly not meet with the approval of the Baird government, which believes its primary role is to remove “the barriers to private investment in development projects in NSW”, and which sees “water views” of Sydney’s lovely harbour as a commodity for the rich, not a public right.

At Barangaroo the promised idyllic walkways, extensive landscaping, recreation fields and cultural facilities have been quietly dropped or are being visually overwhelmed by the massed ranks of skyscrapers that are beginning to cover the majority of the site.

And now the government must be prevented from repeating the monstrous over-development of Barangaroo within the Bays precinct, this time on a site that’s four times as big.

Next article – Israel: International anger mounts

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