Martin Place, Sydney, during the Vivid festival

On Sydney buzzing, what’s Chris Johnson up to now, and a state government on dizzy mode

Sydney is buzzing. There’s work around, MacBank held a slap bang but secret function on Wednesday night to launch its new HQ at 50 Martin Place; several other buildings in Martin Place are getting a make over, there’s a push from Urban Taskforce (and planning minister Gladys Berejiklian) for a “towers and transport” agenda  and the state government is making people dizzy with it’s good-guy bad-guy jig.

At 50 Martin Place, see our article here, the new MacBank HQ are intriguing – a spectacular new mod con building that’s been birthed inside the cocoon of a heritage grand dame. But in the MacBank/Fort Knox mode of “nothing to see here, move right along” attitude, details have been hard to come by and we’ve had to drill and probe a whole assortment of people to gain a glimpse into the new mothership for the world’s most interesting investment bank.

At No 5 Martin Place there’s another rebirth that involves a new 10-storey building cantilevered over the existing 10- storey building. Elsewhere in the precinct is the Charter Hall project at the top of MP in George Street that rated its socks off in terms of hits when we posted it in July, the refit of the MLC building, which is having a spruce up after losing a few of its facade tiles and some major tenants, and at No 20 Pembroke Real Estate is creating a new building inside the steel frame of an existing building.

The precinct has been ripe for a makeover for years. It has gorgeous heritage building, a bit run down, sprinkled with upmarket boutiques, loads of open space and sunshine but you wonder where are all the teeming life, cafes and umbrellas that might grace a similar city central piazza.

The Urban Taskforce Watch

The über energetic Chris Johnson at the NSW Urban Taskforce is pushing through with the next iteration of his vision to transform the development scene in Sydney.

We’ve covered his push to redevelop Parramatta Road and the council amalgamations debate and given there is now action in both these areas, you have to say this man knows how to influence the agenda.

So what’s he up to now?

This week the Urban Task Force invited visiting New York planner Vishaan Chakrabarti to address its Towers and Transport event to push the argument for density – with much higher towers in the Sydney CBD, towers of varying sizes along transport corridors – and more rail connections.

Chakrabarti ’s done some “very good work” with former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg and headed the department of planning in Manhattan “doing amazing projects in New York and Melbourne”, Johnson told The Fifth Estate on Thursday. In Melbourne? Oh, yes, that’s the uber tall tower that the Vic state government has just announced can bend the “sacrosanct rules” that nothing should overshadow the river.  It must be a very good project indeed.

Chakrabarti is author of several books and his call in the US is that America needs more density and more metro systems; that it’s heading down the wrong road in densifying the suburbs because the suburbs are still car based and will lead to ever greater congestion.

At the Towers and Transport event for the Urban Taskforce Chakrabarti brought a “universal message”, Johnson says.

His argument, as relayed by Johnson, is that there is now a move away from the pre-GFC consumption binge when “people really stretched themselves to have more and more debt, more consumables, more cars, more boats and bigger houses” and that this can be seen in the shift to apartments instead of big houses, such as McMansions.

Johnson says approvals for apartments are now about 70 per cent of all housing approvals, compared with 40-50 per cent for apartments versus houses in the past.

Another author that captures the trend, he says, is Geoff Mulgan who wrote The Locust and the Bee.

“He has a very similar proposition: people are moving from a locust version of capitalism where it’s bugger everyone else, eat and consume, to a bee-like approach to capitalism, which is more about sharing,” Johnson says.

“And that translates to a shift in the way people want to live so they want access to a car but they don’t want to own it; they want access to open space and parkland [but may not want to own their own expansive property].”

Johnson thinks the slew of new McMansions is slowing and he suspects they will be devalued over time.

“People want them to show off basically, but I think they will be devalued over time as people won’t be as keen to own big houses, especially if it’s removed from where you want to work.”

So this backs the argument for more apartment towers, “along the railways line you could end up with a whole stack of towers where you can live and work and get on the train.”

Trains

Engineer John Bradfield in 1915 proposed trains every minute or two minutes but was defeated by the low densities. His vision may soon be realised if the plans by transport minister Gladys Berejiklian come to fruition, Johnson says.

The north-west train line is a start to converting part of the train line to the private sector, Johnson says. And this is key to breaking the back of the union dominated heavy rail system that Johnson and others say have held back reform. (As if the the argument about government silos, failure to “connect the dots” and plan infrastructure for the future suddenly got boring.)

“If it can be privatised, moved away from the union and controlled by the private sector …call it rapid transit – but it’s the same thing” and we’ll finally get progress, Johnson argues.

Envisaged is the Epping to Chatswood line, then one from the north through the city over a new harbour crossing to Bankstown in the south-west.

“You can maximise the growth along those lines and get densities and then have a real metro system.”

But so far, Johnson says no-one is talking about the capturing some of the value uplift from the train lines that would help pay for the trains. And in Sydney, as elsewhere in Australia, it’s funding that seems forever to fall short of the vision.

Of course, there is opposition from residents such as in the Hills district who don’t want to see high-rise towers, even on the train line just built with public funds, Johnson says.

Big city needs the big towers?

But it’s big towers in the City of Sydney that must persist. Melbourne’s got one approved of 90 storeys and Brisbane has one of 100, so poor old Sydney will be left as a second tier global city, Johnson fears.

What about Sydney’s tiny narrow streets where tall towers might make life at street level a dark, sunless, windblown place that no one wants to be in? They’re a far cry from the wide boulevards of Melbourne and New York that were planned for bigger things; Sydney famously developed along the goat tracks of the early settlers and the street patterns followed.

Ah, it won’t be so bad, says Johnson. Sydney has to compete or it will be left behind. Concentration and agglomeration is what the modern city is about, he says.

“Sydney’s got to make a call if we want to remain the financial hub.”

The Get Clover campaign

We tell Johnson we’re not happy to see a strongly pro-sustainability mayor such as Clover Moore be railroaded out of office by the ongoing campaign to “Get Clover”.

The latest is a move to give businesses two votes which would favour an anti-Clover vote, it’s thought.

Johnson won’t say much on his preferences on the issue but says business should vote and that this is part of the “bee approach to a mixed urban centre”. Besides, he thinks that the push on the double vote for business has ebbed away.

And the reason for the continual fierce opposition to Moore?

He suspects it’s Moore’s greater focus on the villages rather than the CBD: a “global versus local” battle.

Another battle he says is ebbing away is the opposition to local council amalgamations

The state government’s announcement this week of a new push for amalgamations hasn’t been as fiercely opposed as in the past, he says, and the local government lobby says it agrees with 75 per cent of the Samson Review on the issue.

Baird and the Nats

Now there’s not a lot that can agitate Jeff Angel who’s been running the well regarded Total Environment Centre for many years. But on Thursday this quietly spoken defender of the environment, and sometime collaborator of some standing with the property industry on issues such as energy efficiency in high rise offices, spat the dummy.

The Baird government was on the verge of “environmental insanity” ran the headline of a media release he put out.

Under the influence of those loony marauders long on gun barrels and short on synapses, the state government is close to pushing through with a bill to clear fell huge swathes of the state and let our top soil and future food supply blow away in the wind, all to please the “Ning Nong Nats” as former prime minister Paul Keating this week called the Nationals.

What’s at stake is a move by the Shooters and Fishers to amend the Native Vegetation Act that has been “instrumental in saving thousands of hectares and tonnes of topsoil from erosion,” Angel said

“It would be an insane move by the Baird government to support it.”

“Nevertheless in my discussions in parliament [this week] there was evidence the Shooters were confident they could push it through.”

Never mind that this jumps the gun on the Biodiversity Panel review due at the end of the year. Who cares what the experts and learned people say.

So what’s going on?

It’s coal seam gas, Angel says. The Nats are deeply disturbed with the way farmers are lining up with greenies to stop coal seam gas.

They see it as an unholy alliance that will only open the gates of who knows what kind of collaboration with the enemy to save the planet. You can see the cognitive dissonance kick in: this doesn’t make sense; it breaks all the rules; must be stopped; where are the Daleks?

How can Baird justify what’s going on, we ask? This premier who leapt to the leader’s podium squeaky keen and keen as mustard? Who appoints as secretary of the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet this week Blair Comley, the very highly regarded former head of the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, who was sacked almost immediately when the New Feds came storming into Canberra. Who’s appointed an Environment Minister, Rob Stokes, with a loud proud story on renewable energy?

Baird wouldn’t be aware of it, Angel says, nor would many other people who are now at various stages of being horrified. The bill is in the second reading and the loony people think they can get it through in a jiffy.

Up go the headlines.

And from all indications, there’s plenty more where they came from.