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Issue #1662      October 29, 2014

Battles rage over inner city and Harbour developments

Battles are now raging over controversial developments around Sydney Harbour. Private investors, mostly from overseas, have now bought up much of the inner city property, and are joining a corporate campaign for major new developments around Sydney Harbour.

The Lands Department building, 23-33 Bridge Street, designed by James Barnet was built in two stages in 1876-1880 and 1888-1893.

That campaign is currently focused on the Western Harbour Precinct, the city’s old industrial and residential waterfront area west of the Harbour Bridge.

A recently released report by development accounting firm PwC claims that a massive redevelopment of the area “could boost the city’s economy more than $100 million annually, … grow the western precinct into NSW’s second largest economy after the central business district … [and] boost the area’s economic potential by 3 percent to 4 percent, equalling an additional $1 billion in returns over the next ten years”.

Development lobby groups want high-rise towers to dominate in any redevelopment of the area. Chris Johnson, CEO of developer organisation Urban Taskforce told a Fairfax journalist people should stop “wimping out” about high rise towers west of the Bridge.

A representative of one major architectural practice has stated that towers up to 450 metres should be built around stations on a new metro rail system in future redevelopment.

Arguing that going ever higher is the only way to deal with urban sprawl, he said “Sydney has a 235 metre height cap – the underside of Centrepoint Tower. Do we really want a 1970s icon to be the most visible point in the city? Sydney’s population is growing … We need to cap sprawl. It is not sustainable.”

Who pays the piper?

The competition for accommodation around the harbour and in inner Sydney is pushing up real estate prices, while the government is simultaneously abandoning inner-city public housing.

At Millers Point the government is proceeding so rapidly with its plan to sell off its historic houses that many dwellings formerly occupied by aged, long-term public housing residents are now unoccupied.

The government is also cancelling an arrangement under which the Department of Community Services has rented out about 1,200 buildings for a peppercorn rent to non-profit organisations for decades. The government now wants to charge all their occupants market rental.

As a result Darling House in Millers Point will close next March, forcing its aged residents into a desperate struggle to find other accommodation. The NSW Council of Social Services and the Glebe Youth Service will also be ejected. Greens MP Jamie Parker described the government’s move as “a cruel ideological attack that will inevitably see these critical services close”.

The federal government also has a stake in the future development of Sydney Harbour. Its organisation, the Federation Trust, has custodianship over a number of former military sites dotted around the Harbour.

One of the most spectacular is at Middle Head, right opposite the harbour entrance. The area retains much of its natural bushland, but a group of unoccupied former military buildings is now the subject of a commercial proposal to convert them to a commercial aged care centre.

The local council, the National Trust, the Headland Preservation Group, and local residents (including Tony Abbott’s sister) oppose the proposal because it would involve demolition of heritage buildings, contravene the previous plan for a public park on the headland, and set a precedent for commercial exploitation of all the former harbour defence sites.

The proposal requires approval by the Trust and federal environment minister Greg Hunt. However, the Trust’s chief executive Geoff Bailey has already advised the Council to drop its opposition, because, he says, the proposed institution’s residents would appreciate the “soothing quality of the natural setting”.

A Trust board member also appears to have a conflict of interest, being the chairperson of Retirement Living Today, a digital company that advises businesses which target elderly citizens.

Nevertheless, the federal Minister and the Trust are virtually certain to give the proposal the nod.

History’s not junk, it’s a commodity

The Abbott government is also considering residential development of one of Sydney’s beachside national parks at Malabar Beach headland, as well as the nearby Anzac Rifle Range, although it has promised the NSW Rifle Association it won’t have to leave the range until the government provides another site.
History is repeating itself. In 2012 after vigorous objections by the Association the Labor government abandoned plans to incorporate the range into the national park.

Earlier, in the 1970s a geological survey by the state and federal governments found that deposits of the excruciatingly expensive prime “yellow block” sandstone needed for maintenance of historic government buildings existed below the rifle range.

However, a scheme to quarry the stone was dumped after very active lobbying by the users of the rifle range, and by NSW sandstone quarrying firms, who argued that it would drastically affect levels of employment in their areas.

Speaking of sandstone, last week the state government called for expressions of interest in the long term lease of two of the city’s most impressive late 19th-century sandstone structures, the Lands Department and Education Department buildings, and in their conversion to boutique hotels.

The project would strip the city of two landmarks that have historic associations with both these critical government functions. It would also involve a massive cost in relocating the two departments to new rented premises.

However, the government is now treating its assets as commodities which should be sold off if that would benefit the private sector. State Finance Minister, Dominic Perrotet, declared: “It makes no sense to waste those sandstone buildings housing bureaucrats in prime CBD real estate. This decision means they will be open to the public and open to tourism across the world”.

Carrying the minister’s argument to its logical conclusion, the two departments would presumably be relocated to an area where rents are cheapest, outside the CBD. That says everything about the approach of the Coalition, which has little respect for public education, the public service in general, or the public itself, for that matter.

Unless the coalition is removed from office, the monstrosity of Barangaroo is likely to be repeated around the harbour and throughout the inner city, and that would be a disaster for the entire nation.

Next article – Survivors returning to Kinchela

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