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Issue #1692      July 8, 2015

Greed running riot at Barangaroo

The massive development of Barangaroo, the huge former stevedoring area on the east side of Darling Harbour just west of the city’s CBD, is a potent symbol of the insatiable greed of big capital.

When Patrick Stevedores ceased operations at Darling Harbour in the 1990s, the state government held an international contest for the best urban renewal design for the vacant publicly-owned site.

However, the winning entry’s sensitive, beautiful low-rise design was unceremoniously dumped by the government, which in 2007 gave consent to a plan involving a much more intensive use of the site.

The plan comprised Headland Park at the northern end, Barangaroo Central, the relatively low-rise “cultural and civic centre” at the centre, and the high-rise commercial area of Barangaroo South.

The plan would also have allowed gambling magnate James Packer to build a huge hotel at the end of a long pier jutting into Darling Harbour, but public uproar forced the government to back down, and Packer was offered a site at the northern end of Barangaroo South.

In 2013 Packer won a licence to build a casino. He then argued that because of the decision to relocate his building he should be allowed to incorporate a casino within the hotel building and increase its height from 168 metres to an astronomical 275 metres. The government meekly agreed.

By May this year the eighth alteration to the 2007 plan (known as Modification 8) was under consideration by the state coalition government. The alterations involved not only increases in the gross floor area of the Barangaroo South buildings, but also changes in the size and location of Packer’s hotel casino.

Packer was unhappy with the site allotted to him by the government, and now wants to relocate his building by taking over a public park on the shoreline. Doing so would necessitate relocating the park away from the water’s edge, and probably cutting off the public walkway that was intended to run along Barangaroo’s entire shoreline.

No holds barred

Lend Lease, the Barangaroo South developer, recently won a two-year court battle with the government to increase its profits from the project. The company says the government should accept Modification 8’s proposals for gross floor area increases of 54 percent for residential use, 79 percent for hospitality and 18 percent for retail, with a total rise of 7.4 percent over the whole Barangaroo site.

However, Sydney Council has declared that under the 2007 consent plan rules no building may be erected on the public park which Packer wants to take over, and that Modification 8 would provide massive benefits for the developers but no benefit whatsoever for the public.

It also noted that three state planning policies would have to be changed in order to approve Modification 8, which falsely classified roads, laneways and the remnant pier as public space, thereby failing to abide by the concept plan’s stipulation that the public area should comprise 50 percent of Barangaroo’s total area.

At each stage Lend Lease has argued that the extra accommodation sought represented only a small increase on the previous design amendment. However, the council has argued that because of the cumulative effect of many amendments, the Modification 8 design would be so different from the 2007 plan that it should be treated as a new development.

Others maintain that because the government has already entered into a private agreement with Packer it has a perceived conflict of interest, so Modification 8 should be subjected to a full public inquiry, preferably by an independent Planning Assessment Commission.

But the Minister would not have to abide by the Commission’s findings. And in any case, another planning modification has now been lodged.

Limitless greed

Modification 9 proposes an increase in the gross floor area of buildings in Barangaroo Central by 64,275 square metres and in the Headland Park by 143,000 square metres, as well as amendments to the building block envelopes in Barangaroo South.

The government has announced that the proposed new privately-operated Metro railway will include a station at Barangaroo Central, the design for which is to be radically overhauled, with new tenders called for the development.

Fairfax journalist Mercedes Ruehl commented: “The investment in the new rail infrastructure will mean a change to the existing proposed building envelopes and floor space, even after the master plan doubling the floor area to 12,000 square metres was criticised. Sources close to the negotiations said the changes could be as much as double that number.”

Premier Mike Baird isn’t worried. He gushed: “The dramatic urban renewal occurring on the western edge of Sydney’s CBD is Sydney’s own Canary Wharf ... [It’s] crucial for the state’s economic development”

The proposed amendments seem endless and the project’s growth limitless. The Barangaroo South office buildings are already rising, jostling for elbow room, and the developers are clamouring for even more space. No affordable housing has been provided under the current proposals.

If built, Packer’s 69-storey monstrosity would block out views of the sky from the Sydney Observatory. Together with the other Barangaroo South towers, it would overshadow Balmain and other suburbs during winter mornings, and block out views of the western harbour for existing city residents and visitors.

And now the developers also want the low rise buildings of Barangaroo Central to head for the skies, while Headland Park, much of which actually includes underground structures, is to have a major increase in its gross floor area.

Under Modification 8 the gross floor area over the entire site would be almost twice what it was under the 2006 concept plan, and Modification 9 demands even more.

Opponents of the Barangaroo project have no right to appeal to the Land and Environment Court. The casino proposal may be challenged in court by Packer’s rival, Echo Entertainment. But if they fail, and if the government and developers are not kicked out of office and off the site, Barangaroo will become just another windswept, monstrously overdeveloped concrete jungle, with its parks and natural areas a pathetic remnant of what might have been.

Barangaroo is what happens when greed runs riot under capitalism.

Next article – Re-shaping the world: China’s strategy in Eurasia

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