Steve Driscoll, left and David Pitchford, UrbanGrowth NSW

At last Tuesday’s NSW Urban Taskforce breakfast the development industry got a close up look at what the NSW state government’s land development agency has in mind when it talks about delivering the public good.

For a start, it does not mean going along with the development industry’s proposals for redevelopment of the highly contaminated White Bay power station, a centrepiece of the massive Bays Precinct urban regeneration program underway.

Cabinet wanted a strong technology outcome for the site. The industry submitted ideas too focused on residential. Cabinet said no, and 13 developers went away disappointed, millions of dollars out of pocket.

There was bitter disappointment.

But at the breakfast, chief executive of UrbanGrowth NSW said the government was determined.

“We will fearlessly pursue the public benefit,” he said.

Pitchford was typically upbeat in his portrayal of the opportunities of the group’s massive portfolio, stretching from the Bays Precinct, with its 5.5 kilometres of coastline and 94 hectares of land and containing the power station, to the Central to Eveleigh precinct and the centre of Newcastle. And he was spirited in his defence of the decision over White Bay.

This was a portfolio everyone would be proud to have, he said.

It was an opportunity to drive the competitiveness of Sydney.

Key to the remit of the organisation was to “address market failure”, Pitchford said, “areas where the market has failed to engage, understand why, and do something about that.”

The agency was therefore looking to “deliver wholesale super lots, so it can engage with the market and proceed with development and trading out of the market share that used to be taken by Landcom”.

The reference is to the niggling sentiment from developers that UrbanGrowth, under its former iteration of Landcom, competed unfairly with the private sector.

“The government’s philosophy is for us not be a competitor and our role is to be an enabler for others,” Pitchford said.

The Greater Sydney Commission was created as a further enabler. The two work closely together and second staff to each other.

“We’re building a collaboration matrix to overcome siloed activities by agencies. We’re establishing an operations matrix with the public service in NSW.”

The idea was to overcome difficulties such as developing the power station, built 100 years ago and disused for 40 year because of serious contamination.

“We want to de-risk it…”

The idea was to come to an arrangement with the private sector to enable it to come into play, “enabling development”.

The audience was silent.

There was more. UrbanGrowth wanted to aim high.

“We are fundamentally committed to a war on mediocrity,” Pitchford said. It wanted to “drive the competitive nature of Sydney”.

The agency was recycling capital so it could generate 10,000 home sites, the target set for it.

White Bay had “absolutely massive potential but [was] massively difficult to do”. It would, however, set the tone for how good the whole of the Bays Precinct would be.

Making it a tech talent destination was a must.

On the requests for proposals, he said, “A lot of you are wondering what went wrong. Nothing went wrong. It was assessed but the industry did not respond to the RFP.”

At question time, Urban Taskforce chief executive Chris Johnson felt at liberty to express frustration.

Perhaps UrbanGrowth had been a “bit too restrictive”, he ventured.

“Let me tell you the direction was to go for the establishment of tech hub. We got 13 submissions and not one of them was conforming. Not one of them met our specs for a tech outcome,” Pitchford responded.

State cabinet decided to instruct the agency to look for a different process, perhaps secure an anchor tenant first. [Google is strongly mooted]. And that’s the process now under way, he said.

Shadow planning minister Michael Daley was in the audience and stood up to tell Pitchford there had been quite a number of visitors to his office complaining about the wholesale rejection. It was important to understand what went wrong so it didn’t happen again, he said.

Pitchford replied all respondents had been invited to a briefing. None had accepted.

“Would the costs of submissions be refunded?” came another question. Ah… that was not in his power, Pitchford replied.

This high profile public scrutiny and industry questioning and disquiet is possibly not exactly the role Pitchford and his team would choose for themselves.

But since an international summit of leading global urban development gurus in 2014 to flag possibilities for UrbanGrowth’s massive Bays Precinct urban regeneration portfolio, the agency has had no choice. Its work is front and central to the interests of a growing number of community interests. The land being redeveloped is intensely urban.

Under Landcom activities were out west or north west or south west, in greenfield sites far from media scrutiny, in areas where there were no neighbours to disturb, who would likely raise objections.

Now the agency must adjust to being thrust into the public spotlight. And that’s not such an easy thing to do.

But still, UrbanGrowth might have thought the development industry was the least of its problems. (To be fair to the industry it probably thought the cast iron parameters of the request for proposals at White Bay were fairly porous, judging by the state government’s track record on development deals such Barrangaroo, allowing multiple changes and public land to be swallowed up for James Packer’s mini Macau, with barely a raised eyebrow.)

After all UrbanGrowth’s mandate was to be a facilitator for the industry, as Pitchford reiterated and promised at its inception by chairman John Brogden.

Did Landcom compete or raise the bar?

Whether Landcom actually competed with the industry is an open question. Under Landcom the agency delivered outcomes the industry had no intention of going near. Especially in terms of sustainability. And which have stood the test of time.

That’s one of the themes that Steve Driscoll, acting head of CBD projects portfolio for UrbanGrowth, took to the stage after Pitchford’s address.

Is density the right question?

On plans released so far on the Central to Eveleigh precinct, which unleashed stinging criticism from the City of Sydney for its density, Driscoll said that focusing on density was looking at the problem from the wrong angle.

“As an urban planner I find it a shame that the discussion about urbanism has been dumbed down to density… density is just a number.”

When you talk about density, he said, “you need to make sure you’re comparing apples with apples.”

If you made an outcomes focused plan, based on amenity such as that you “must be able to see blue sky at the end of every street”, or that trees are carefully chosen, that open space is connected and that there are reasonable traffic volumes with the right kind of speed, “that, in my opinion, has more of an impact than density,” he said.

Among the criticism was that density proposed at Waterloo was “unprecedented”.

That should not be a problem, he said.

“We should not resile from something because it is unprecedented.”

Victoria Park undertaken by Landcom was unprecedented with its sophisticated water treatment and swales, the Prince Henry site at Little Bay was unprecedented in terms of large scale adaptive reuse of a heritage site and, likewise, Rouse Hill with its open air shopping centre and all the “bells and whistles” on the edge of Sydney. “It’s something that has become great,” he said.

“The fact that something is unprecedented, I don’t think we should be scared of that.”

But what these projects had in common, he said, was “a wide range of partnerships with government, industry and communities”.

And that of course is the holy grail that the development industry at least is starting to understand could have a more nuanced meaning than it bargained for.

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  1. Good to see that Landcom challenged the status quo and as UrbanGrowth is continuing to do so. Under the sustainability banner, it would be good to see social sustainability by enacting the Landcom Universal Housing Design Guidelines (2008) in all residential developments (the Guidelines were captured later in the Livable Housing Design Guidelines (2012)).