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Issue #1672      February 11, 2015

The capital city for big developers

The insatiable greed of big developers is nowhere more blatantly evident now than in Sydney, and the Baird government backs them all the way. In conjunction with its support for private vehicles as the primary means of transport, and its plan for piecemeal replacement and privatisation of Sydney’s rail network, the government plans to dictate land use zoning and override objections from local councils.

Protest against WestConnex motorway in Sydney earlier this year. (Photo: John Appleya)

Last year the government announced that hundreds of homes in Haberfield, Petersham and St Peters, three historic inner Sydney suburbs, were to be compulsorily acquired and demolished to facilitate construction of the portals (entry and exit points) for the massive, highly controversial WestConnex motorway.

The construction would require the complete demolition of beautiful streets of 19th and early 20th-century houses. It would also necessitate the partial or entire destruction of two 19th-century parks at Ashfield and Petersham (where Don Bradman made his first century in first class cricket), and an inroad into Sydney Park, created over the last 40 years at huge public expense.

The proposal was accompanied by a state government announcement that in other streets adjacent to the Petersham portal it would change the current zoning to allow for demolition of the old dwellings and construction of 10 to 25 storey apartment blocks. Similar proposals were made for other areas.

The government has also announced that under the advice of its redevelopment agency Urban Growth (predominantly staffed by former employees of development corporations) it would permit construction of an extra 60,000 apartments on Parramatta Road in the inner city, replacing the old hotels, shops and dwellings that currently line this section of the historic highway.

The proposed takeover of local government decision-making would mean that all heritage protection would vanish and home owners could find themselves living in an area zoned for heavy industry, or surrounded and overshadowed by apartment monoliths.

The tip of the iceberg

Following the electoral defeat of the Victorian Liberal government which had supported construction of a new motorway, the Baird government suddenly decided to alter the route and construction of the Westconnex Motorway so it would no longer pass through Petersham.

That relieved the immediate pressure on north Petersham as far as the motorway portal was concerned, but the government could change its mind again, and rezoning inner city suburbs to permit construction of high rise apartments is still government policy.

Meanwhile, Haberfield and St Peters residents still face the loss of their homes, and Ashfield Park and Sydney Park would still suffer massive encroachment.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg because the government’s interlocked relationship with the developers threatens the entire city.

The government is evicting historic family groups from Millers Point in order to hasten the sale of their homes to the highest bidders, with no exemptions for the elderly.

It plans to sell off the historic Eveleigh railway workshops, which contain the last still-functioning major blacksmithing workshop in Australia.

Road construction and residential redevelopment is threatening thousands of beautiful heritage properties in Sydney’s North Shore suburbs and many other areas, and the government is planning vast redevelopment of the picturesque old maritime industrial areas west of the Harbour Bridge.

A nightmare vision

The government is arguing that half a million people will want to move to Sydney in the next 20 years, that inner city residents must make way for them and that resistance is both selfish and futile.

But there will always be a demand for accommodation in Sydney, and developer greed knows no time limits. Carrying the government’s argument to its logical conclusion, Sydney suburbs, particularly the inner city which has ready access to services, transport, work, recreation and of course the beautiful harbour and beaches, should be redeveloped not just for 20 years but beyond.

In this scenario the existing buildings would be pulled down and replaced with ever-taller structures, until, presumably, the limits of human engineering were reached, most of the inner city was covered with massive Dubai-style skyscrapers, and the city’s wonderful character was destroyed.

It’s an absurd, nightmare vision that should have no place in Australian town planning.

Other cities do the opposite. London, for example, places severe limits on redevelopment, takes vigorous and determined action to preserve its historic buildings, and severely restricts the number of private vehicles that can enter or even approach the inner city.

Its transport needs are largely met by trains and buses rather than private vehicles, and its growth is largely accommodated by redevelopment in former industrial sites and outlying low-density suburbs, and by the construction of new suburbs and towns.

Challenges and backdowns

Last week the federal government distanced itself from an outrageous report it had commissioned concerning sale and development of Sydney’s last undeveloped headland, between Malabar and Maroubra beaches.

The report said that selling the site would generate “a significant return for the government” and private investments of “up to $1 billion” during the construction phase.

It noted disdainfully that converting the land into a National Park would do “little to improve the economic capital of the site” and provide “little opportunity for the private sector to contribute”.

But Federal Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, frightened by plummeting opinion polls, global criticism of its environment policies, and the results of the Victorian elections, dumped the proposal. He gushed “I am passionate about ensuring this magnificent headland is retained in public hands forever”.

The Baird government’s intentions are also being challenged by local councils and dozens of community organisations.

In Newcastle the government’s hell-for-leather plan to discard the city’s rail line and open up the shoreline for development has been challenged in court by local residents.

Sydney City Council has announced it will oppose proposals for major extensions or alterations to the historic Miller Point houses by their new owners.

And Sydneysiders have watched with great interest the opposition of Melbourne residents to construction of another mammoth motorway, in a campaign which made a major contribution to defeat of the Liberal government.

The clear lesson from that struggle is that if you want to beat the greedy developers you have to dump the governments that serve their interests.

Next article – “Stop trying to control our people”

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