The Bays Precinct – a view from Jacksons Landing

The Bays Precinct International Summit has left some deep impressions on participants and observers alike. We speak to a number of observers, including transport planner and economist James McIntosh, NSW Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson and University of Sydney urban planner Rod Simpson.

Sometimes you need a few days after a big showy event for the afterglow to settle so you can get a sense of what were nuggets and what was hyperbole.

At the Bays Precinct International Summit in Sydney last week the event itself generated pretty much unmitigated optimism, good will and excitement about the possibilities. Several days after it closed the feelings had little changed. For most.

For most of those we spoke to it was a “this changes everything” kind of opportunity.

James McIntosh – The Bays: community might not be so far off

According to transport planner and economist James McIntosh the summit was “immense”.

“I’ve never been to anything like it,” he told The Fifth Estate early this week.

“It’s a total game changer for Australia because it’s the first time an Australian government is taking urban redevelopment very, very seriously from the whole way of thinking about the problem – planning, funding, infrastructure, and really holistically looking at it.”

McIntosh has consulted to government agencies on train transport including the MAX light rail in Perth, the Newcastle light rail and the Capital Metro in Canberra. He has recently completed a PhD on value capture or value uplift funding, which is a way to fund  infrastructure by tapping the additional value of the land that the infrastructure delivers.

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“The main thing,” McIntosh says, “is that this was promoted as a candid, frank and fearless discussion whereby everyone got up there and voiced their opinion”.

“The big opportunities are looking truly first for the value it is going to create, not the consumption of land but as an investment in the growth of Sydney.”

But it’s a huge challenge and requires a huge shift in mind-set.

Currently the land is wrapped around 80 hectares of foreshore land two kilometres from the CBD, and made up of an assortment of marine and industrial activity, some of it unused.

In the past, he says, urban renewable projects have been viewed as discrete projects, particularly in how urban redevelopment can maximise the use of public land that’s poorly performing or contaminated.

In general urban redevelopment has not been viewed in this “consolidated” way.

Perth’s Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority is a good model for a better way to work up large scale project, McIntosh says.

In McIntosh’s view the Bays could be a revolution on the way.

But what a challenge

It starts with the re-invention of Landcom in 2012 not long after the Coalition government came to power to become UrbanGrowth NSW, manager of the project.

The old Landcom development model had primarily been about the urban fringe and the needs of residential developers with a dollop of inner urban project such as Green Square but nothing on the scale that is currently before it.

But it’s not just the Bays, as McIntosh points out. UrbanGrowth also has the massive Central to Eveleigh development that seeks to build over, or at least alongside, the railway line, dwarfing similar challenges at Melbourne’s Federation Square.

And there’s also the recently announced start of the program to densify the Parramatta Road corridor with around 60,000 new homes. All at the same time.

These are “hugely complex projects and this is about turning them around from Day 1,” McIntosh says.

“Some of the projects are just mind boggling.”

A massive financial challenge and if the government is lucky it will come out at net zero cost

McIntosh said the “whole thing was about drawing people from all over the world for insight into best practice and the opportunities” and, most critically, “how on earth are we going to fund this project?”.

Participants at the finance component of the summit included Diane Barrett, chief project officer from City and County of Denver; Michael Max Buehler, head of real estate at World Economic Forum; Kelly Bayer Rosmarin, group executive for Institutional Banking and Markets at the Commonwealth Bank of Australia; Mark Steinert, chief executive of Stockland; Tarun Gupta of Lend Lease, and David Murray, the former chairman of the Future Fund and former chief executive of the Commonwealth Bank.

“There are some huge constraints,” McIntosh says.

“The cost to de-risk the land is enormous; tens of billions of dollars.”

If it’s done properly the state government might over a long period of time come out of this at a net zero cost, financially, he says.

What? Not the windfall profit spruiked by critics?

No, he says.

The big win, however, will be in a massive contribution to the economy.

“This is an investment in a poor performing part of Sydney to maximise the city’s potential for growth. It’s near existing transport infrastructure and near existing services.”

Relocating people from the fringes alone could be a huge productivity boost.

Think about driving one-and-half hours each way, which so many people do.

“That’s one-and-a-half hours of non productive time, compared to a walk to the station and be there in 15 minutes. That’s two-and-a-half hours of more productive work every day.”

“And don’t forget Sydney is talking about another two million moving there.”

Chris Johnson

Another fan of the summit, chief executive of the NSW Urban Taskforce Chris Johnson, says one of the highlights for him was the The Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway Corporation, which shed light on how the infrastructure challenge gets resolved in other countries.

In Hong Kong the corporation not only develops the railway but uses development of the land around the railway to subsidise the cost of the rail.

“It ends up the fares only need to bring in 23 per cent of total cost,” Johnson says. “Most public transport system are subsidised but in Hong Kong it’s the reverse.”

The Hong Kong rail corporation has a share in the consortium developing the North-West Rail Link in Sydney and according to a quip from another observer might have been able to deliver it for nothing if it had control of the land as well.

For Johnson it was that integration of transport and development that was most exciting and a “powerful” concept. But it was clear that to do this properly you needed to create enough density to support the transport.

“You can’t get good public transport but not much development.”

Job numbers were clearly part of the picture, he said.

Agglomeration

But what about the call to consider densifying other nodes? At some point, though, doesn’t it make sense to other nodes of activity, or even regional areas?

McIntosh says that from policy makers’ point of view agglomeration is a more productive and useful program than “spreading yourself out all over al the place”.

And besides, there are projects to help people in the outer suburbs, he says – rail projects in the North-West and South-West, the Parramatta Light Rail, the Sydney Light Rail and major bus upgrades.

And of course there are the road projects, WestConnex and NorthConnex.

“I don’t believe anyone is being left behind. But one thing is clear; you can’t build your way out of urban sprawl. You can’t go building more and more freeways.”

You only have to look at where the Chinese are buying in Australia – all within 800 metres of a train station. Call it eco-productive, says McIntosh.

“The Chinese know eco-cost of poor performing infrastructure.”

James McIntosh – The Bays: community might not be so far off

Community might be not so distant in thinking

So what can McIntosh tell us about how the community might respond?

That’s interesting, he says.

“There is concern from the residents groups. I saw some of their plans. They had greater access to the waterfront, greater public transport integration and increased residential development.

“I think the policies are pretty aligned. I think they wanted to be heard.

“I don’t think policy-wise they are that off the mark.”

The political challenges

Already the political complexities have emerged in spade. Early in the week the state government’s own Treasurer inexplicably said the Bays would carry around 16,000 homes. Critics leapt on this apparent pre-empting of the Summit, which had been designed and sold as an open discussion starting with a blank slate.

The number was quickly scotched but resident action groups and Greens politicians can hardly be blamed for leaping on deeply held fears – and history – to reasonably surmise that in the background the bureaucrats had not been blandly sitting on their hands waiting for international experts from wherever they may be, but making plans. That’s what bureaucrats do.

In any case McIntosh says the Treasurer was understating what could be built there.

“In my view the potential could be much greater,” he says.

Elements to keep in mind include that Anzac Bridge, already at capacity, sits over part of the site. The site has also already been earmarked for disgorgement from the WestConnex motorway currently under way. And the latest is that there is a harbour crossing proposed from Balmain to Lane Cove, also very much in the Bays “hood”.

These were issues discretely not flagged much at all during the summit as critic Elizabeth Farrelly said on Thursday. So much for the “clean slate”.

Rod Simpson at the Bays summit

University of Sydney urban planner Rod Simpson also noticed some worrying signs at the event itself.

While saying the initiative to change the way things are done in NSW is a good move and that it’s clear UrbanGrowth chief executive David Pitchford has the intention to make it work, Simpson is not sure the bureaucrats wont get in the way.

He describes as “bizarre behaviour” some of the conversation that emerged during an innovation session that centred on Roosevelt Island in the US and what a good initiative it had been to relocate a Cornell University research unit to the island after a gift of $350 million by Duty Free Shops founder Charles Feeney through his Atlantic Philanthropies (which was represented at the summit) and a $133 million gift by Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife Joan.

This brought some strong concurrence from state government leaders, Simpson said.

“It became apparent there was pretty serious proposal to do a fairly significant research establishment on Glebe Island [with an audience member from Atlantic Philanthropies saying how good such an institution could be]. It became clear there was some fairly advanced discussion on this.”

Simpson says he stood up and suggested that as this was a clean slate opportunity for the Bays perhaps some other location such as Westmead might also be considered for such a research institution. However this attracted some serious retort that you could assume the state government had that under control in its metropolitan strategy and planning.

Simpson says he was perplexed by the talk and wondered how the ambitions for the Bays would work with government agencies used to doing things independently and instead “trying to get the agreements they talked about”.

Nine principles for interagency agreement and co-ordinations were flagged at the event.

Simpson wonders, however, how the mooted connection of the new WestConnex to emerge at the Anzac Bridge and a new harbour crossing in that area would meld with the principles and the ambitions to treat the Bays as a clean slate.

Simpson says UrbanGrowth’s intends to keep dialogue open and transparent.

“The story is to encourage them and to keep them going and not allow them to become fragmented”.

An important issue was to work out how vital current port use is, particularly at Glebe Island. Research carried out indicates it’s not so vital and could well be moved, Johnson says.

“My feeling is it’s best to clear heavy-duty port activities over time and then something quite exciting could occur.”

On calls to maintain open space as vital infrastructure for dense cities, especially by landscape architects and others, Johnson says it’s clear that access to the foreshore is needed.

“I don’t think anyone would be arguing about that at all. And you obviously need some public spaces and places, and no doubt a bit of parkland as well. All this can be accommodated.”

On the retention of some of the gritty industrial waterfront nature, though, Johnson is less supportive.

“I don’t agree. I think the city needs to move on. It needs to regenerate itself.”

After all, Sydney will need to double its number of homes in the next 50 years.

And that’s the biggest challenge of all.